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Faultline Still Rocks Downtown Preservation Discussion

By Richard Brenneman
Friday August 03, 2007

The fissure dividing Berkeley’s citizen downtown planners trembled anew Tuesday night, but when it was over, the “Big One” still lay ahead. 

The fundamental fault line dividing members of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC) remains the always thorny issue of preservation versus development. 

At stake is nothing less than the future face of the city center. 

Tuesday night’s meeting of a joint subcommittee of DAPAC and the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) focused on the draft ”Historic Preservation & Urban Design” chapter of the new downtown plan. 

Even the title itself is in question, with a revised version prepared by Principal Planner Matt Taecker from the subcommittee’s earlier draft and proposed revisions submitted by five DAPAC members entitled “Historic Preservation & New Construction.” LPC Chair Steven Winkel dubbed the DAPAC five’s submissions “the minority report.” 

The difference between the titles embodies the question of whether or not the subcommittee’s reach should include the downtown streetscape as well as its buildings. 

Sitting in the audience during Tuesday night’s meeting were three of the five DAPAC members who wrote the dissident critique Taecker had embodied in his revised draft: DAPAC Chair Will Travis, Planning Commission Chair James Samuels and retired UC Berkeley planning executive Dorothy Walker—who proposed the new title used by Taecker. 

Mim Hawley and Jenny Wenk, who also contributed to the dissident draft, were not at the meeting. 

The meeting began with public comments, with retired planner and preservationist John English setting off the first temblor, charging the revisions with “weakening the balance against preservation. I urge you to resist this.” 

Deborah Badhia, executive director of the Downtown Berkeley Association, told committee members that while her group supports the call for balanced preservation voiced by the subcommittee, she believed the streetscape should be separated from preservation. 

Merilee Mitchell, who challenged Linda Maio for her City Council seat last November, suggested Berkeley follow the example of Pittsburg, which had designated its downtown a historic district. 

Winkel, the only one of the four LPC commissioners on the subcommittee present, chaired Tuesday’s meeting—the subcommittee’s 12th. All four of DAPAC’s representatives attended—Jesse Arreguin, Patti Dacey, Wendy Alfsen and Jim Novosel. 

Members made it clear that they felt they had careful balanced conflicting interests of strict preservationists and development advocates. 

But Travis said, “When you talk about this balanced document, you were balancing it in this room.” Travis said that “while we need to protect our historic resources, we need to understand that history is part of a continuum that takes place outside this room.”  

While she said she was willing to consider changes in the language of their proposed chapter, Dacey said, “I certainly don’t agree with changing any of the policies.” 

“A lot of suggestions” from the minority report ”go against what we feel should be adopted,” said Arreguin. Alfsen agreed.  

“There is no question in my mind,” said Novosel. “The document we should work with is the one DAPAC voted on 17-2 ... I don’t think you can change the whole wording of much of the chapter to include so much of the views of the two who voted against it.” 

That vote, which came at the larger committee’s June 20 meeting, followed the 8-10-1 failure of a motion by Walker to support the subcommittee’s chapter “in principle” but leaving it up to DAPAC to deal with the specifics. 

Juliet Lamont followed with a motion to support—without formally adopting—the chapter’s strategies and goals, leaving it to the subcommittee to draft the final version. Only Samuels and Walker voted against the motion. 

Samuels told the subcommittee that some who had voted switched sides on the assurance that they would be able to discuss their reservations at future meetings.  

One change the minority report sought was accepted by the subcommittee, at least in part. Members agreed to drop the word “precincts” as applied to parts of the downtown with historic buildings that might call for special design standards for new constructions. “Subareas” became the new term of art. 

The term “subarea” occurs in the 21-page settlement of the lawsuit filed by the city to challenge the university’s plans for expansion into the downtown. That document, signed by city and university officials, specifies that the final plan will develop design guidelines “by area or subarea.” 

Kerry O’Banion, UC Berkeley’s planner for downtown projects, offered both suggestions and a warning. 

The university, which has no formal vote at DAPAC itself, has the right to reject the plan, mandated in the resolution of a city suit against UCB’s Long Range Development Plan 2020, with its call to develop 800,000 square feet of new construction in the city center. 

DAPAC isn’t mentioned in the settlement, which states that the plan will be prepared by a “staff level DAP joint preparation committee that includes UC Berkeley planners.” 

One potentially thorny issue has already been raised by subcommittee members, who said they intend to move on to the plan’s actual implementation language during their remaining meetings—a move discouraged by planning staff. 

But Dacey and Arreguin said they want to develop implementation language that will give force to the subcommittee’s vision. 

“The university has already negotiated some very precise language,” said O’Banion, who is Taecker’s campus counterpart. “It is a hot button for UC if you stray from that specific language, because of constitutional issues.” 

The university ”shall use it as a guideline,” he said, “which is different from saying that it ‘shall abide’ by it.” 

By the time the meeting ended, the big rupture had been filled in with palliatives, with subcommittee members and the minority report authors making conciliatory sounds toward each other. But the key issues hadn’t been resolved. 

DAPAC has a deadline of Nov. 30 to finish their role in the plan, after which it’s up to Taecker and O’Banion to come up with the plan and accompanying zoning ordinances for implementation. Then both the city council and the university must agree on the final document. 

If a final plan isn’t adopted by May 25, 2009, the university will deduct $15,000 a month from the $1.2 million in annual payments to the city mandated in the settlement, to compensate for the institution’s financial impacts on the surrounding community. 

The DAPAC subcommittee has two more meetings currently scheduled, Aug. 13 and Aug. 27.