Page One

Greenhouse Gas, BRT Issues Draw Crowd

By Richard Brenneman
Friday July 27, 2007

Greenhouse gases and Bus Rapid Transit dominated the first half of Wednesday night’s Berkeley Planning Commission meeting which drew a packed house to the North Berkeley Senior Center. 

While public transit plays a central role in the city’s effort to radically curtail Berkeley’s  

global-warming-inducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, AC Transit’s plans for Bus Rapid Transit running down Telegraph Avenue has hit a major speed bump in the opposition from residents of the nearby neighborhoods. 

Wednesday night’s commission meeting began with a two-hour presentation on Measure G measures, resulting from the resounding 81 percent victory scored by the proposal to cut the city’s GHG output by 80 percent in the next 43 years. 

Timothy Burroughs, the city’s climate action coordinator, opened the meeting, which included presentations by Greenbelt Alliance Senior Policy Advocate Stephanie Reyes, Berkeley Green Building Coordinator Billi Romain and Matt Taecker, the planner hired to help draft the city’s new Downtown Area Plan. 

The themes emerging from the presentations were familiar to Commissioners James Samuels, Gene Poschman, Helen Burke and Patti Dacey from their service on the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC), the city council-appointed body that is developing the guidelines for the downtown plan. 

With sustainabilty as the designated theme of the new plan, they were familiar with the calls from Reyes and Taecker for denser “infill” development on transit corridors to reduce reliance on the passenger car, the single greatest source of GHGs. 

Looking at the existing city General Plan “is almost like reading a climate action plan,” said Burroughs, “geared toward erecting a more livable compact community” with an emphasis on transit-oriented development. 

While improved technology promises to make cars less polluting, Reyes said the city couldn’t meet its GHG reduction targets without cutting back car use. One key measure, bringing jobs and housing closer together while creating walkable neighborhoods with nearby services, will cut car use about 30 percent. 

The next major piece, she said, is bringing housing and transit together, with near-transit housing resulting in a ten-fold increase in transit use, she said.  

“The good news for Berkeley is that if you want to be on this downward path, just keep doing more of what you’re already doing,” she said. 

Romain said green building strategies are as much about building locations as they are about the technology of building. New projects of significant size are required to fill out use permit applications that contain green building checklists, and programs from the city and Pacific Gas & Electric offer strategies for increasing the efficiency of building design. 

Taecker presented the same Power Point presentation he’d offered to DAPAC members during their most recent meeting, citing massive carbon savings he said would accrue from creating more high-density development in the city center. 

He contended that “over 15 years with the densest alternative,” residents of the higher, denser downtown would save 112,000 barrels of oil and cut their carbon emissions by 60,600 tons. 

After Taecker, the audience began posing their questions. 


Questions fly 

What about UC? asked Zelda Bronstein, who opposed Mayor Tom Bates in the 2006 mayoral election. 

With 21,000 employees, many of them commuters, the university was also a major source of greenhouse gas, yet, she said, it is exempt from Burroughs’ program—though Bronstein, a former Planning Commission chair, said the current plan’s transportation element does deal with the university. 

She also pointed to the 2,000 new parking spaces the university’s Long Range Development Plan contains. 

“The idea that you’re going to ignore UC is absurd,” she said, but Burroughs said that his project has no purview over what happens on university property. 

High housing prices also mean that many university service workers commute from outside the city, Taecker acknowledged, adding that the more the city accommodates blue collar workers, “the better it will be.” 

Other questions focused on the conflict between the need for neighborhood serving merchants and high commercial rents. One man said commercial rent control was needed. 


BRT worries  

Foes of Bus Rapid Transit—at least a system which would restrict or close traffic on Telegraph Avenue—outnumbered supporters at Wednesday night’s meeting. 

As soon as the workshop ended, BRT rose to the fore, with speaker after speaker from the Telegraph area denouncing the AC Transit project, while a lesser number of BRT advocates spoke in defense of the proposed $400 million system. 

The most commonly heard concern was that plans that would close or restrict Telegraph Avenue would divert frustrated drivers onto nearby streets, particularly Hillegass Avenue, the main north-south roadway between College and Telegraph Avenues. 

Others said they were concerned that proposals to eliminate parking on Telegraph to make way for dedicated bus lanes would harm merchants such as Looking Glass Photo & Camera, at 2848 Telegraph Ave. 

Several Hillegass residents said they feared for the safety of their children if traffic grows any more intense. 

Wednesday’s meeting followed by a day a tempestuous Transportation Commission subcommittee meeting where tempers flared when worried neighbors confronted BRT-boosting commissioners. 

BRT forms a major element in discussions of the downtown plan now taking shape with Taecker’s help, and more heated discussions can be expected. 

The only formal action the commission took was to reaffirm an earlier vote about the choice of bus alternatives to be considered in the Southside Plan environmental impact reports. 

The final decision will be up to the city, and is certain to spark more controversy. 


Condos Okayed 

Commissioners gave their unanimous approval to transforming the 21 offices in the building at 2000 Hearst Ave. into individual commercial condos.