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Battle for Big Downtown Buildings Spurs Tension

By Richard Brenneman
Friday July 20, 2007

The battle over the future of downtown Berkeley’s skyline took a new twist Wednesday when a group of Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC) members offered their own proposal, sparking heated outbursts and a counterproposal. 

At issue is the theme which has driven, openly or more subtly, much of the debate throughout DAPAC’s 39 sessions. 

Tasked by the city and UC Berkeley with devising the basics of a new plan for the city center and pushed by city staff to accommodate much of the city’s anticipated—and, perhaps, mandated—growth in the years ahead, the panel is faced with two basic questions: How much and how high? 

The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) wants the city to clear the way for adding up to 3,000 new housing units in Berkeley over the next seven years, though the consensus is that developers would probably build less—probably closer to 1,360 units, of which 559 would be built downtown. 

Still, city officials have said, failing to create a mechanism that would allow for approval of the entire sum might lead to problems with state funding—a point disputed by some DAPAC members, like Planning Commissioner Gene Poschman. 

Berkeley Planning and Development Director Dan Marks has told the panel that concentrating anticipated growth in the city center is the logical course of action, giving frequently strong neighborhood opposition to high density projects in other parts of the city. 

Howls of protest followed a February proposal to allow for construction of 14 new 16-story “point towers” in the city center, floated by Matt Taecker, the city planner hired with UC Berkeley funds to oversee the drafting of the new downtown plan. 

But the high-rise proposal was back, albeit in reduced form, when Taecker offered comparisons of three alternative development scenarios. 

First was development that called for filling in most of the city center with development at the currently zoned 5-story height, the so-called baseline plan, and two higher density variants, one with a new 8-story height limit and the other with the 5-story limit plus six condo-filled point towers. 

Extrapolating from ABAG’s projected requirements and likely units actually completed, Berkeley would accommodate 4,100 of the 9000 allowable new units through 2020, with 188 added downtown under the baseline version and 2,500 under either of the two higher density proposals, Taecker said. 

Taecker also offered up figures showing impressive reductions in greenhouse gases from locating new residents downtown near BART and bus lines, with a net savings of 112,000 barrels of oil and 60,600 tons of carbon. 

Those figures were based on assumptions that people who live near transit in dense neighborhoods will forgo cars in favor of public transportation. 

In addition, he said, the fees paid by condo builders in lieu of offering cut-rate prices on sales to low- and median-income people could provide up to $210 million in funds for affordable housing for those with very low incomes. 


Questions fly  

No sooner had Taecker finished than the questions started flying. 

“I don’t feel you’ve made your case,” said Jesse Arreguin, who said he also didn’t favor a plan that relied primarily on condominiums. 

Planning Commissioner Gene Poschman challenged the figures with a table he had prepared showing the actual density of new units constructed in recent years—which showed much higher concentrations of dwelling units than those shown by Taecker’s figures. 

Patti Dacey said comparisons with neighborhoods like Rockridge in Oakland and North Beach in San Francisco were skewed because neither area had the high density of students that characterizes downtown Berkeley—where as many as 90 percent of inhabitants are UC Berkeley students. 

“You have a self-selected group of students and people who don’t drive cars,” she said. 

Arreguin, one of the city’s most vocal proponents of creating housing for those least able to afford it, said he was also troubled by the emphasis Taecker’s proposals placed on keeping lower-income residents out of the condo buildings. 

“This is a pretty serious policy decision, whether we want all the money to go into the housing trust fund, or if we want a diversity of ages, incomes” and backgrounds to live together in the city center, he said. 

“I’m the one who put together the in-lieu fee,” said Poschman, referring to the city statue that allows developers to pay a percentage of their development costs to fund affordable housing outside of their projects. 

“If you build condos and no affordable housing, then you essentially have a downtown consisting of students and those who can afford” condos costing $800,000, $1 million or more, he said. 

Another vision 

The proposal from four members of DAPAC offered a fourth vision. 

“There isn’t anything in here I haven’t brought up before,” said Rob Wrenn, who serves on the city’s Transportation Commission. 

The draft, prepared jointly with Juliet Lamont, Helen Burke and Wendy Alfsen, calls for a plan where building heights above a three-story baseline are determined by the willingness of developers to fund housing for low-income tenants and implement environmentally friendly measures into their projects. 

When Wrenn made a motion to refer the proposal to planning department staff for an analysis to be brought back to the committee along with the staff’s other three proposals, Terry Doran, the newest committee member, bristled. 

“I don’t want to see this as part of any official report,” he declared, adding his support for the most controversial of the staff’s proposals—one calling for high-rise apartment towers near the BART station as tall as the Wells Fargo building. 

Mim Hawley added her voice, declaring “it makes me a little irritated” that four people got together and wrote something, then came back to the committee.  

“It really annoys me,” she said ... I absolutely don’t agree for this to come back as a fourth alternative.” Turning to Wrenn, she declared, “You haven’t listened to any of us.” 

Committee member Dorothy Walker, former UC Assistant Vice Chancellor for Property Development, declared her opposition, then offered her own motion, which was immediately seconded by Planning Commission Chair James Samuels. 

Her motion called for a minimum three-story height near downtown, plus a five-story base height “throughout the commercial portions of downtown,” “the existing height of four stories in the residential portions of Downtown” and “a few taller, slender towers in selected locations.” 

Wrenn immediately pointed out that the residential neighborhood height limit is actually six stories, not four. 

“If we pass the substitute motion, we are deciding to build point towers and more units than the staff has proposed—and we are making a land-use decision tonight,” said Alfsen. 

“What are we getting out of all these buildings?” asked Arreguin. “We have to focus on the benefits, not just the buildings. That’s why I like the Wrenn proposal, “because it is doing something about greenhouse gases.” 

Steve Weissman said he couldn’t support Walker’s motion, and that he found it odd to hear conversation going from Wrenn’s request for a staff evaluation of the proposal to the outright objections of Doran and Hawley. 

Lamont said she hadn’t been prepared to vote to adopt her own group’s proposal, much less Walker’s. “We were trying to reduce the polarization,” she said. 

It took the intervention of Matt Taecker, the city planner hired with UC Berkeley funding to bring the plan into shape, to defuse the tensions. “I appreciate Rob and Juliet’s proposal” and their detailed bonus proposal, he said. In the end, the committee voted unanimously to refer both the group proposal and Walker’s for city staff analysis and a return to the committee along with the other three. 


Image: Downtown Planner Matt Taecker created this montage depicting two of the proposed 16-story “point towers” on University Avenue to incresase the population of Berkeley’s city center.