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Planners Approve Expanded ‘Priority Development Areas’

By Richard Brenneman
Friday June 15, 2007

Planning commissioners voted Wednesday night to designate downtown Berkeley and five thoroughfares as targets for state-funded high-density development: Telegraph, southern Shattuck, University and San Pablo avenues and Adeline Street. 

The 6-2 vote followed an earlier failure to win a commission majority for a proposal in which only the downtown and San Pablo Avenue had been mentioned. 

The additional avenues were included in a three-page recommendation from Mayor Tom Bates, which is scheduled to go to the City Council for a vote next Tuesday. 

Adeline Street has been a development target of the Mayor’s for more than a year, and was first introduced after public opposition stalled the city’s plans to seek state funds for a 300-unit-plus housing project at the Ashby BART parking lot. 

The proposal would designate the five corridors and the city center as Priority Development Areas (PDAs), a term Bates and city staff say is needed to make them eligible for the $2.9 billion in state bonds approved by California voters last November when they passed Measure 1C. 

But many questions remain, including the role of the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and other regional governmental agencies in doling out the funds, as well as just how the funds will be spent. 

According to the Bates memo, funds could be used for housing development, development of parks and open space, creation of infrastructure improvements such as sewers, water and utilities, transportation improvement and traffic mitigation. 

The final decision rests with the City Council, but Marks had told the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC) and planning commissioners that a pro-PDA vote is essential before the city can apply for millions in state bond money to concentrate high-density development in designated areas. 

If state legislators draft the required legislation, $2.9 billion in bond funds for low-income housing and development would become available for projects in designated PDAs along urban transit systems. 

City Councilmembers would have to vote their approval to meet the June 29 deadline set by ABAG for filing applications. 

The moneys would presumably be allocated locally by ABAG, a regional government agency which administers funds and programs for cities in nine Bay Area counties. 

Marks initially presented the proposals to the commission on May 23, when it failed on a 4-3-1 vote after the planning director had made a pitch notable for its lukewarm endorsement of a proposal he said could provoke controversy because it was being rushed through without an extensive public process. 

But a week later, he was standing before DAPAC, offering an enthusiastic account of the designations and their benefits, winning a hearty endorsement from the panel charged with formulating a new plan for the city center, one of two possible PDA designation sites Marks cited—the other being San Pablo Avenue. 

The only no vote at DAPAC came from Gene Poschman, who had also cast one of the dissenting votes at the original Planning Commission presentation. 

The two opposing votes Wednesday night came from Gene Poschman and Roia Ferrazares. Poschman had also cast the lone dissenting vote a week earlier with 16 members of DAPAC voted in favor of designating downtown as a PDA. Two other members abstained. 

Helen Burke, who had voted against the designations earlier, switched sides and joined the new majority. A new vote for designation came from David Tabb, who was filling in for Susan Wengraf, whose seat had been unfilled during the earlier vote. 

Rio Bauce, the Berkeley High School student and frequent Daily Planet contributor who had abstained during the first vote, was absent Wednesday night, his seat unfilled. 

The designations received a hearty endorsement from Will Travis, in his capacities both as chair of DAPAC and as executive director of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), one of four sponsoring regional agencies of the PDA proposal. 

In addition to BCDC and ABAG, the other two sponsoring bodies are the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. 

As Poschman pointed out in discussions prior to the vote, there is still no legislation in place spelling out how the funds will be allocated—nor whether the four agencies will pay a role in the choice of projects and other funding decisions. 

Dan Marks, who had made the earlier pitches to the commissioners and DAPAC, didn’t attend Wednesday meeting, leaving the presentation to Principal Planner Allan Gatzke. 

“The structure has changed” since the original presentation, Gatzke said, adding that the PDA proposal had been brought back to the commission at the request of Chair James Samuels. 

“Three of us weren’t here last time,” said Samuels. 

Poschman had challenged the reconsideration in an email to Marks, who later replied that City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque had said another vote was appropriate because a commission majority hadn’t defeated the proposal. 

In response to Poschman’s contention that nothing in any of the proposed legislation called for the type of applications spelled out in the ABAG proposal, Marks had replied that “the legislation is fluid, to say the least.” 

Poschman said that ABAG’s intent in pushing through the PDA application process was to force the legislature to respond by including the system in whatever legislation is eventually adopted. 

“There is an Alice-in-Wonderland quality to this, but I’m realistic, and I can count votes,” said Poschman. 

David Stoloff moved for approval of the Mayor’s proposal, and Harry Pollack made the second. 

The proposal calls for concentrating developing on corridors with mass transit, a policy favored by all four regional agencies. During previous meetings of DAPAC and the Planning Commission, Marks had said that concentrating development downtown was probably the most feasible move in Berkeley, given the frequent neighborhood opposition to increased density elsewhere in the city. 

But existing plans call for density along the designated thoroughfares, and no changes in existing plans would be needed to comply with the ABAG requirements, Marks had told DAPAC. 

Earlier, during the public comment period, Steve Wollmer, a long-time critic of the so-called Trader Joe’s high density project at University Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, had urged commissioners to reject the proposal. 

“No three words cause people in the flatlands more anxiety that ‘ABAG,’ ‘legislation’ and ‘City of Berkeley,’” he said, urging commissioners to hold off.  

The proposal goes to the City Council Tuesday.  


Other actions 

Commissioners also voted to approve—with modifications—comments prepared by a DAPAC subcommittee on the Environmental Impact Statement for AC Transit’s planned Bus Rapid Transit System. 

DAPAC chair Will Travis, joined by planner Matt Taecker, presented an update on DAPAC’s progress on preparing the basics of a new downtown plan. 

That group must finish its work by the end of the November, when it will pass on the job to the commission and, ultimately, to the city council for final action. 

The meeting’s one planned hearing, on a five-unit condominium project at 1552-1556 Milvia St., was canceled after the would-be developer withdrew the project because he couldn’t meet the cost of the affordable housing fee required in lieu of selling one of the units at a reduced cost.