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Downtown Panel Wonders How High

By Richard Brenneman
Friday June 01, 2007

The citizen panel helping to chart the future of downtown Berkeley confronted the crucial questions of how high and how many, looking for answers that will shape the future face of the city center. 

Both issues are critically related, and members of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC) are looking for answers that will shape the land-use element in the new plan mandated by the settlement of a town/gown lawsuit and shaped in part by the dictates of regional government. 

DAPAC has just six months left before it must submit a proposed new plan for the city center, and the issues of height and density will be central to their final vision. 

The new plan was one of the requirements of the settlement of the city’s lawsuit challenging UC Berkeley’s plans to add 800,000 square feet of new construction and a thousand or so new parking spaces in the heart of downtown Berkeley. 

While the committee has agreed that creating a green city core is the plan’s heart, the issue of building height and population density are more politically charged, especially when the topics of height and density are conflated. 

Matt Taecker, the city planner hired with university funds to put the plan between covers, offered committee members three alternatives Wednesday, one based on growth within the constraints imposed by the existing plan, one allowing for eight-story buildings throughout an expanded core area, and a third featuring a maximum height of five floors with the exception of seven new high-rises as tall as the Well Fargo building at the corner of Center Street and Shattuck Avenue. 

The high-rise model features half the number of skyscrapers than those in an earlier proposal that met with a chorus of criticism during earlier sessions. 

Under the existing plan, downtown could grow from the current 2,520 existing and approved residential units to 4,020 if all potential building sites are used under the current plan, to 4,720 under either the eight-story model or the five-floors plus seven high-rises version. 

Berkeley Planning and Development Director Dan Marks and Planning Manager Mark Rhoades have told the committee that creating policies to add more density to the city is important because without policies that allow expanded numbers to match the quotas set by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), the city runs the risk of losing out on some state funding programs. 

ABAG quotas for Berkeley are higher than those for more suburban areas because the city sits astride BART and other urban mass transit services, and ABAG’s “smart growth” policies are designed to encourage development on transit corridors. 

Marks has also told the committee that adding density downtown is the least politically controversial solution. No concentrated housing is planned for the North Berkeley BART station, which Marks acknowledged earlier would be a near-impossibility because of neighborhood opposition, and a public furor erupted over a proposal to build a 300-plus-unit apartment complex atop the Ashby BART parking lot. 

That leaves downtown, where a large percentage of residents are renters, most of them college students with little involvement in city politics. 

“I want the committee to have some discussion, and to admit that there are some benefits of high density worth considering,” Taecker told the committee. 

But to house the density, downtown also needs amenities like a grocery store, open space and a day care center, he said.  

And economic realities, Taecker said, make it likely that the continued development of the city center would be as a regional arts and cultural destination, with other uses following. 

A new plan would probably strive to preserve three key existing neighborhoods of homes at the northwest, southwest and southeast corners of the expanded area included in the new plan—boundaries called for by the university. 

Likewise, two other areas might be designated as sites of possible future change, Herrick Hospital, which might eventually move out, Taecker said, and the old Dwight Station area on Dwight Way east of Shattuck Avenue. 

Taecker also proposed a series of open space and park areas totaling 10.6 acres and with a probable development cost of $8.14 million. The largest, the one acre site dubbed South Park, would occupy the center of Shattuck between Durant and Haste Streets. Among the other possibilities are: 0.29 acres created by closing Harold Way behind the Shattuck Hotel between Allston Way and Kittredge Street; the proposed closure of the .46-acre, one-block of Center Street between Oxford Street and Shattuck, with a possible complementary 0.73 acre site across Shattuck at BART Plaza. 

Taecker said an open space framework was “absolutely foundational” for the plan, a point that had been stressed by several committee members, notably Winston Burton and Juliet Lamont. 

Taecker also said if committee members win approval of a sustainabilty analysis for new projects—a point favored by many, including Lamont, Helen Burke and other during ongoing discussions—Berkeley would maintain its reputation for cutting edge policies. 

Taecker’s presentation was merely a first glimpse into the topic that will likely dominate much of the remainder of DAPAC’s discussions.