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Planners Reject High-Density Downtown Fund Bid

By Richard Brenneman
Friday May 25, 2007

A bid to designate downtown Berkeley as a priority development area (PDA) targeted for state-funded high-density development failed by a single vote Wednesday night. 

Planning and Development Director Dan Marks presented the Planning Commission with a cautious report, triggered by a crash program sponsored by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), aimed at winning unspecified sums of state bond money for unspecified local programs. 

“I am as confused about it as probably most of you are,” said Marks as he began his presentation. “ABAG is seeking to influence how some of the state bond money will be invested, based on policies that have grown up over the last few years.” 

The bond money would come from a package of infrastructure improvement issues approved by California last November, but Marks cautioned that state legislators have yet to determine how or when the funds will be allocated. 

The most critical of the bond measures is Proposition 1C, which allocates $2.9 billion in bonds to fund low-income housing and development along urban transit systems. 

ABAG’s proposals—still being formulated—would follow the so-called smart growth principles the agency espouses, which focus on increasing housing density in close proximity to urban transit hubs. 

“The goal here is a good one, to place financial incentives behind smart growth, but they have not yet managed to convince the Legislature,” Marks said. 

In the interim, ABAG—a state-mandated regional government agency responsible for divvying up many housing and transport-related funding programs—has initiated an application process, which the city would have to complete by June 29. 

“The cities would designate PDAs where we would want growth to occur, and we would have to apply soon because of the bond deadlines,” Marks said, with the first one coming “very, very soon.” 

One key problem is that “a PDA is not something many people in this city would necessarily endorse,” he said, although some areas of the city have already been designated as areas for growth. 

Marks also said he wished that ABAG had come up with a less politically charged name.  

Citing the neighborhood furor over the proposed construction of a 300-plus unit housing complex over the Ashby BART parking lot, Marks cautioned commissioners that “you will have to balance the risk of making a designation with the risk of potential backlash.” 

While the proposed parking lot project was later downsized and then shelved—at least for the moment—Marks said that the existing downtown plan already meets the requirements for a PDA, so the commission would be able to designate it if they chose. 

Otherwise, the city runs the risk of receiving any of the bond funds. 

“One place I do not recommend, though, makes a lot of sense, and that is Ashby BART because of the significant amount of backlash” likely to ensue, he said. 

Marks added another caution: “I don’t think we can do this justice in the next two, three or four weeks,” he said, noting that in Berkeley, public process was always a central concern when taking potentially controversial actions. 

“I have two possible recommendations,” he said. “The first is to do nothing, but if we do apply, that downtown would be the easiest to do, and certainly one we could try for.” 

But Commission Chair James Samuels indicated that applying made sense, given that “there’s no guarantee there will be a second round” of funding. 

“There’s no guarantee there’ll be a first one,” Marks said. “I hear the legislature is really torn on this.” 

The planning director said he also didn’t know what strings the legislature might attach to the funds. 

Harry Pollack then weighed in with his support for the application, saying “there’s not a lot of reason not to encourage the staff to move forward.” 

Once the recommendation was made to the city council, he said, feedback from other parts of the city could lead to other areas being added. 

But Marks said there wouldn’t be time after the proposal went to the council, “and I doubt that other portions of the city will be breaking down our doors to be designated.” 

At that point Marks added an area himself, telling the commission that “Loni Hancock wants to create San Pablo Avenue as a corridor. She sees it as a tremendous opportunity area.” 

Hancock is the Berkeley Democrat who represents the region in the state Assembly and the spouse of Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates. She’s now running for the State Senate. 

Pollack then proposed adding the avenue, which he said “is as good or better than the downtown” for designation. 

Marks said he wasn’t inclined to initiate the avenue at this point. 

Samuels asked if the commission had to designate specific areas before staff could move forward with the applications. Yes, said Marks, adding that he also planned to take the proposal to the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC), which is currently formulating the basis for a new city center plan. 

While Samuels replied that he didn’t think there’d be any significant objections, Gene Poschman responded, “I think you’re terribly wrong.” 

Praising Marks for writing an equivocal report, Poschman added that he was grateful that Pollack and Samuels were “willing to take the responsibility for anything that happens” afterward, given the earlier backlash to Ashby BART. 

“In Berkeley,” he added, “submission of an application is an action of deep meaning.” 

Poschman and Samuels disagreed on whether DAPAC was yet ready to make recommendations on a critical land-use issue, given that the panel still hasn’t begun their formal discussions or drafting of the proposed plan’s land-use element. 

Poschman also noted that none of the members of DAPAC lived or owned property or businesses downtown, adding that six of the planning commission’s nine members lived in two council district in the Berkeley hills. That number includes Poschman himself. 

He also rejected any notion of designating San Pablo Avenue, and dubbed the whole application procedure “a truncated, highly dubious process” spawned by an ABAG “grab for bond money.” 

With Poschman and Samuels both DAPAC members, a third member of the downtown planning panel was filling in for an absent Helen Burke. 

Steven Weissman said he was also skeptical, especially given the uncertainty over what the legislature might or might not do. 

“I wonder if we are jumping ahead of the process,” he said. 

Though hundreds of neighbors had showed up at meetings over the Ashby BART project, resulting in angry confrontations with area Councilmember Max Anderson—with Mayor Bates one of the two leading proponents of the now-stalled project—it was Larry Gurley, Anderson’s appointee on the commission, who moved to designate downtown a priority development area. 

The vote failed to with the five votes needed for passage, failing with four votes in favor, three opposed and high school student and commissioner Rio Bauce abstaining. 

While George Williams, filling in for an absent David Stoloff, voted with Pollack, Samuels and Gurley in favor the designation, the absence of Susan Wengraf, who normally votes with Samuels, Stoloff and the other proponents, may have played the decisive role. 

Though the proposal failed, Marks is still planned to attend an ABAG workshop today (Friday) which will help local governments with their designation applications.