Ground Floors, Economy Mulled at Downtown Panel Meeting

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday March 13, 2007

The citizen planners shaping the new plan for downtown Berkeley are preparing to face a major decision about the city center’s streetscape. 

A second task awaiting discussion by the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC) is a new policy to encourage more economic development in the area. 

Members heard a report last week on options for street-level frontages on new multi-story buildings to be erected in the new, expanded downtown area encompassed by the plan. 

“The issue also has implications for urban design,” said Matt Taecker, the planner hired to draft the document mandated in the settlement of a city lawsuit challenging university expansion plans. 

While current requirements call for ground floor retail in new mixed-use buildings with housing or offices above, the downtown currently suffers from widespread shop vacancies. 

Deena Belzer, an economic consultant hired by the Downtown Berkeley Association, urged a change in the policy, as well as a plan that recognized some streets as commercial and others as residential or oriented toward the arts. 

Taecker said the entrances to residences are typically landscaped or raised above street level and set back somewhat from the streets, while retailers like big windows and immediate exposure to passersby so they can attract customers. 

“This is not a typical downtown,” said Taecker. “This is really a cultural center,” with civic and cultural uses predominating. 

Residences with street front entrances are concentrated in the northwest, southwest and southeast corners of the planning area. 

Belzer and the DBA have urge concentrating new commercial uses along Kittredge and Center streets and University Avenue, all largely east of Shattuck Avenue, as well as along Shattuck between University and Kittredge. 

Current sites that are either vacant or underdeveloped—and not counting properties owned by the university—could accommodate up to 300,000 square feet of new retail and restaurant uses, Taecker said. 


Economic future 

Members also worked their way through a draft Economic Development and Employment Element prepared by city staff, and Planning and Development Director Dan Marks led the discussion. 

The big question, Marks said, is “how much space do you want and where will it be?” 

One point agreed early on was that no more construction could take place under the city’s current cultural bonus, which has resulted in numerous complaints and at least one lawsuit. 

“The existing cultural bonus was very poorly drafted conceptually and we would not rely on it,” Marks said. A new version “will require sitting down with a lot of people and talking about it.” 

Helen Burke, a planning commissioner as well as a DAPAC member, said she liked the idea of spelling out the ways builders can get more density from their projects. 

“The issue for this group is whether you want to go beyond existing city policy and what types of bonuses you want,” Marks said. 

Architect Jim Novosel said he was concerned by the lack of a statement on the need for ground floor parking in new construction, a critical factor given the high costs of building spaces below ground level. 

Mim Hawley said she wanted something in the policy requiring that streets be maintained, which she said is a significant factor in attracting people to the downtown. 

Asked about the need for grocery stores, Marks said a major problem is that downtown rents are higher than grocers can afford—raising the possibility of creating a lower-rent density bonus incentive to attract them. 

“It’s very important to try to incentivize these things,” said Michael Caplan, the city’s economic development director. Caplan and Mayor Tom Bates have called for policies that give developers more certainty and faster processing in exchange for granting bonus for building in low-cost housing and other city needs. 

Jesse Arreguin, a UC graduate student who serves on several city commissions, said he was concerned about the lack of data in the element’s analysis.  

Linda Schacht, a DAPAC member and journalism instructor at the university, said she had hoped to see a bonus included for creating sustainable buildings, but Marks said that would be included in the plan’s separate section on sustainability—a concept DAPAC has already approved. 

One issue that has provoked ongoing debate is street safety, which some see as a measure targeting the downtown’s homeless. 

Rob Wrenn, a transportation commissioner, said he wasn’t sure the plan should include more jobs downtown, preferring more housing instead.  

While a new building fee was proposed to create more open space, Wrenn said the only new fee on downtown buildings should be a transportation services fee to help fund alternative transit and discourage passenger car use. 

In the end, no action was taken on either set of issues, leaving more work for the committee as its November deadline approaches slowly but inexorably.