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After Dissent, Panel Adopts UC/City Downtown Plan

By Richard Brenneman
Friday March 02, 2007

With little dissent, the joint town/gown subcommittee charged with finding ways the city can capitalize on UC Berkeley’s massive downtown expansion adopted guidelines Tuesday that members hope will become part of the new downtown plan. 

Only Planning Commissioner Helen Burke dissented on more than one of the 21 items in the 11-page document drafted by Chair Dorothy Walker, a retired UCB Assistant Vice Chancellor for Property Development. 

The Subcommittee on City Interest in University Properties will present the fourth and final draft of its report to the Downtown area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC) when it meets Wednesday at 7 p.m. in the North Berkeley Senior Center, 1901 Hearst Ave.  

Burke’s dissent began immediately after the sole public speaker, environmentalist Sylvia McLaughlin, who urged the group to call for preservation of the crescent, the expanse of lawn at the western entrance to the campus along Oxford Street between University Avenue and Center Street. 

McLaughlin, 90, recently made the New York Times for joining City Councilmember Betty Olds and former Mayor Shirley Dean on a platform in the oak grove west of the Memorial Stadium, where tree-sitters are protesting university plans to fell the trees to make way for a new gym. 

“A pedestrian bridge across Oxford would also enhance the city/university connection,” McLaughlin told the subcommittee. 

Lone dissenter 

Criticism of the membership of the subcommittee surfaced during last week’s DAPAC meeting. 

Chair Will Travis had appointed the group, rejecting requests by two of the emerging DAPAC majority which has challenged him in other votes—Jesse Arreguin and Patti Dacey. Most of those he did appoint have sided with him on losing votes. 

Burke’s dissents began immediately after McLaughlin finished, starting with an objection to the way Walker drafted the report—which Burke said she considered a violation of Berkeley’s emphasis on open process. 

At issue was whether Walker should have followed the same procedures laid out for city commissions, where all communications must be filtered through the city staff to avoid any joint electronic consultations by a majority of the body. 

Burke said she objected because deliberations should be conducted in full public view during open meetings. 

“In my opinion the process by which the final draft report was arrived at is flawed,” she said. “In Berkeley especially it is important to have a transparent process—and particularly when it relates to sensitive issues like land use, density and UC property in the downtown.” 

Burke said Planning and Development Director had told her the policy didn’t apply to subcommittees, and Walker said Marks had told her the same thing. 

While fellow subcommittee member and U.C. Lecturer Linda Schacht called Burke’s criticisms unfair and “a tempest in a teapot,” members agreed to go through the document and vote separately on each of the points, rather than on the document as a whole as originally suggested or in sections, a compromise Walker offered. 

Member and Planning Commissioner James Samuels said the report should serve as the element on the university some DAPAC members have called to be included in the new plan, but Travis and Walker said the findings should simply be folded into the overall plan, and not featured separately.  


Final report 

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the document approved Tuesday is the call to locate much of the city’s new housing growth in the downtown, a plan that calls for building new high rises in the city center. 

The panel did not approve the call for new housing “for at least 3,000 new residents” and substituted the words “a sufficient number of” for the specific figure. The goal is “to create a critical mass of people to support small grocery stores and neighborhood support services.” 

City planning staff had offered a model that would have added 3,000 new residential units in 14 16-story “point towers” located throughout the downtown. That many units would have housed at least 6,000 residents. 

The plan also includes a recommendation for city zoning and possible bonuses to encourage new offices that would house so-called incubator businesses in structures that would also house new retailers on the ground floor. 

Among the other points approved Tuesday, the document says that: 

• Downtown isn’t going to attract a major department store; 

• Shattuck Avenue can’t serve as the retail hub of the city center, and east/west streets should play the key role in generating retail sales; 

• The city should work to attract so-called junior retailers, specialty retailers smaller than department stores such as merchandisers of electronic goods, appliances and men’s clothiers or stores like Pottery Barn to the buildings the university will build at the site of the old Department of health Services building and other key retail locations; 

• The downtown should play on its two major strengths, the arts district and the university, and encourage the university to bring more museums downtown in addition to the already planned Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive; 

• The city should urge the university to bring the Haas School of Business’s Executive Education program downtown instead of its planned relocation to Bowles Hall;  

• Owners of downtown movie theaters should be encouraged to upgrade their facilities; 

• Bringing more university people downtown would help retailers and encourage new businesses, so the university should plan to add housing of all types in the central city; 

• New buildings at the site of University Hall and on the adjoining university-owned property to the west should be designed as gateways between city and university; 

• The university’s “surge” building, designed to house employees dislocated during seismic retrofit of buildings on campus, should be constructed at the site of the old Purcell Paint building on the block bounded by Oxford and Walnut streets, Berkeley Way and University Avenue; 

• The eastern terminus of University Avenue should be narrowed and re-landscaped to form both a terminus and a gateway to the university. 

• Small-scale buildings around the intersection of Shattuck and University avenues should be redeveloped with greater height and density, and the city should build a new parking structure at its Berkeley Way parking lot to accommodate the new business and office developments; 

• The city should develop new locations to house new programs to meet the needs of the homeless, both “to restore the image of Berkeley as a caring city” and to aid retail business owners, who say the sight of homeless folk on the street discourages potential patrons; 

• The Tang Center site at the southeast corner of Fulton Street and Bancroft Way, now listed as the proposed site of the “surge” building, should be used for faculty housing and offices, with another potential use being a multicultural center for students from the campus, Berkeley High School and other young adults.