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Preservationists Win Round in Downtown Plan Debate

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday June 26, 2007

The ongoing tensions among factions in the struggle over the Berkeley’s evolving landscape surfaced again last week in a joint meeting of two city panels, but the meeting ended in a lopsided 17-2 vote supporting a proposed chapter spelling out the role to be played by historic preservation in Berkeley’s future downtown for the new plan. It had been drafted by a joint subcommitee composed of members of Berkeley’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) and of the Downtown Area Plan Commission (DAPAC). Members of the full DAPAC then met with the full LPC to discuss the proposal.  

At issue was the role Berkeley’s historic buildings will play in a city center coveted by developers, city staff and Mayor Tom Bates as a site for intensified development of apartments and transfer-tax-generating condos. 

Chaired by the LPC’s Jill Korte, the joint subcommittee has prepared a 14-page draft Historic Preservation and Urban Design chapter for the new Downtown Area Plan which DAPAC has been crafting for the last 19 months. 

While the chapter has been approved unanimously by the joint subcommittee, it faced tougher scrutiny before the full DAPAC, which has a fast-approaching deadline of completing its mandate by the end of November. 

LPC Chair Robert Johnson said he had been impressed by the collaborative process that led to the plan, with members of the public able to make comments throughout their meetings rather than solely in the public comments session at the start of meetings. 

“We now have the foundation to move into land use policy,” said Jim Novosel, an architect and DAPAC member who served on the subcommittee. 

Land use policies remain the most complex and potentially controversial subject still to be addressed by DAPAC. 

“It actually ended up being fun despite the enormous amount of work,” said Patti Dacey, a DAPAC member who had also served on the LPC. “We all collaborated to make a document” that will set the stage for the future of downtown. 

Among the DAPAC members at last week’s meeting, retired UC Berkeley Assistant Vice Chancellor for Property Development Dorothy Walker and architect and Planning Commission Chair James Samuels quickly emerged as the document’s two resolute critics. 

Walker, who had chaired the subcommittee that prepared the policy draft that set out the city’s wish list for items it wants the university to include in the 800,000 square feet of development it plans in downtown Berkeley, opened the criticism of the proposed chapter. 

Though she said she had found “the report generally very useful,” Walker said “all urban design issues, goals and policies should be in a separate chapter” that addresses all design issues downtown. All references to the university should also be relocated to other chapters, she said. 

Korte said the university had been included because of their large land holdings downtown, and because their extensive plans for the city center could benefit from ideas developed in the chapter. 

While the proposal called for acknowledgment of historic districts characterized by clusters of older buildings to preserve the city center’s character as one of the area’s last remaining prototypical early 20th-century downtowns, Walker said the chapter “should add descriptions of possible development districts where new buildings should be encouraged.” 

A former LPC member who often voted against the preservationist majority during his tenure on the LPC prior to moving to the Planning Commission, Samuels said “some of us may have big problems” with the subcommittee’s draft. 

“I really can’t support this as written,” he said, insisting with Walker that urban design be removed from the chapter, and faulting the group for “proposing things involving the university that are quite outside” their mandate. 

Former City Councilmember Mim Hawley also called for separation of urban design from the preservation chapter, a call echoed by others, including Jenny Wenk. 

Wenk, chair of the Downtown Berkeley YMCA board of managers, also challenged inclusion of design in the preservation chapter, and read off a list of questions and proposed changes. 

But Juliet Lamont, like DAPAC Chair Will Travis a Bates appointee, emerged as the chapter’s strongest defender among DAPAC members who didn’t sit on the joint subcommittee. 

Though Travis had announced that the committee wasn’t “scheduled to adopt anything tonight,” and said the information would be collated by city planning staff, then handed over to a new DAPAC drafting subcommittee for preparation of a final draft, Lamont said the existing subcommittee should instead continue in existence to prepare the final draft of the chapter. 

That triggered a prolonged debate and two votes. 

Helen Burke, a planning commissioner and environmentalist, praised the chapter as drafted, and moved that DAPAC vote to support the concepts of the document, and to send written comments to the existing joint subcommittee to shape a final draft. 

After Samuels objected, she withdrew the motion, and more discussion followed. 

Then Lamont moved that DAPAC vote to support, but not formally adopt, the principal strategies and goals included in the chapter, with the joint subcommittee to continue in existence to draft a final version. 

After Lisa Stephens seconded that motion, Walker announced that she had several objections. “Urban design needs to come from people not from that perspective,” she said, urging that the final draft be assigned to a new committee, though members of the current group could participate. 

When Lamont said she had used the word “support” rather than “adopt,” Walker said, “I would have a problem supporting some of these policies.” 

“Later on we will be taking up the drafting subcommittee,” Travis said, adding that city staff wanted to choose the new members for the new drafting committee for the “Historic Preservation and New Construction” section of the final downtown plan. 

Walker then offered a substitute motion to that effect: to accept the “overall principles” of the chapter but to transfer it to a new subcommittee with additional members for a final draft. This got a fast second from Hawley. 

Matt Taecker, the city planner hired to work on the new downtown plan, proposed a joint meeting of the existing joint subcommittee and the proposed new drafting committee, “effectively a group of 10, say.”  

Walker then offered another motion: to support the already-drafted chapter in principle, while taking up the matter of what to do with it separately. 

Her second motion failed on an 8-10-1 vote, with Travis in support. 

Finally Lamont’s motion passed by a 17-2 vote, with Walker and Samuels casting the only dissenting votes. Travis was among those who switched sides. 

Travis also praised the subcommittee for its openness..