Pedestrian pathways, high towers and hotels dominated the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC) meeting Tuesday as landscape architects, urban planners and UC Berkeley officials fielded questions from city commissioners and community members about their vision for a better downtown.
DAPAC’s 40th session kicked off with landscape architect Walter Hood—best known for designing Oakland’s Splash Pad Park and the de Young Museum gardens in San Francisco—introducing potential options for a “public right-of-way” on Center Street to the 14-member committee for the first time.
Hood, a professor of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning at UC Berkeley, was hired by Ecocity Builders and Citizens for a Strawberry Creek Plaza to do conceptual plans for an open space on Center Street.
“I am not calling it a plaza at this point,” he said after the presentation. “It’s a street right-of-way from Oxford to Center Street, a pattern of development from the watershed to the site. We want to see and learn something different, look at how water flows in different ways ... how revelatory the 80 feet of space can be to people and if we can create light and shadow there.”
Hood discussed various options with the committee, including a water feature, but was unable to make a powerpoint presentation due to a technical snafu.
“I want to find something completely new,” Hood told the committee. “We just got a surveyor on board and we are gearing up to start working on a project. Hopefully, we will be able to start a survey in the next 30 days.”
Mark McLeod, president of the Downtown Berkeley Association, emphasized the importance of involving downtown merchants in the proposed project.
Deborah Badhia, executive director of the association, stated in a letter to DAPAC that although a water feature would be a desirable element in an improved Center Street, care should be taken to prevent flooding.
She added that on-street parking should be maintained and that diagonal parking could be an acceptable alternative to the current configuration.
“Any of us who work in the urban environment understand that cities are dynamic,” Hood said. “I would like to go back to the ABCs of urbanism.”
DAPAC member Jim Novosel expres-sed concern about DAPAC’s involvement in the project, since the committee will be dissolved in November.
Calling the Center Street Plaza project an advocacy plan, Matt Taecker said that public decision-making would be given priority.
“I hope to add on a lot of things DAPAC has [suggested] and not those contrary to it,” Hood informed him.
In January, DAPAC voted in favor of a pedestrian plaza on Center Street which would close off traffic and incorporate the best features of the hills, Strawberry Creek, the buildings and the bus and BART plaza on Shattuck Avenue.
The UC Hotel Task Force—which oversees plans for the hotel the university proposes for the northeast corner of the intersection of Center and Shattuck Avenue—has also supported the concept.
UC Considerations and Viewpoints
Emily Marthinsen, assistant vice chancellor for capital projects and physical and environmental planning at UC Berkeley, presented the university’s current thinking on four critical areas in the Downtown Area Plan: public realm, height and density, employment, and housing and parking.
Marthinsen, who said she was representing the chancellor, vice chancellor, provost and vice provost at the meeting, stressed that a successful downtown was critical to the university in its leadership.
“The university is not a single entity,” Marthinsen said. “The university as a whole has interests in the downtown. Both academic and administrative officials as well as the Executive Campus Planning Committee have been engaged in the planning of the downtown.”
Although the DAPAC is responsible for crafting the heart of the downtown plan, including its strategic statements, goals and policies, a complete draft of the plan—with recommended implementation measures and detailed background statements—will be developed after November with guidance from the Planning Commission.
The 2005 legal settlement of a lawsuit filed by the city over the impacts of the university’s Long Range Development Plan (LRDP) 2020 resulted in the creation of DAPAC. UC contributed $250,000 toward the planning process, but reserves the right to cut off $15,000 a month from compensatory funds it is paying the city to mitigate the financial impacts its development would have on the community if a new downtown plan is not completed on schedule.
In a letter to the city’s Planning Director Dan Marks, Marthinsen said that DAPAC’s direction is uncertain in several critical policy areas.
“While the committee strongly advocates sustainability and reduction in greenhouse gas emissions as city policy, many of its members also advocate a relatively low-density future for the downtown, despite its excellent transit access,” she claimed. “Some have proposed a three-story maximum base height for new buildings in downtown Berkeley, with taller buildings permitted if they meet ‘bonus’ criteria. The committee is also considering a very ambitious program of new public open spaces.”
DAPAC member Gene Poschman said that the university should concentrate on the areas of conflict and agreement.
“We shouldn’t be looking for differences, we should be looking for commonalities,” DAPAC chair Will Travis said.
Marthinsen’s letter said that the university preferred a taller downtown than most DAPAC members.
“Although a greater maximum height, particularly in the downtown core, would be desirable, the university considers a 90-feet limit as the minimum acceptable maximum height on blocks adjacent to the campus,” Marthinsen said. “There is space for buildings with extraordinary benefits, but that will depend on the site.”.
She added that although the university was committed to meet its obligation to the public under its Long Range Development Plan which was supposed to extend until 2020, it was limited to “frontage and other improvements directly related to university projects.”
“The university’s fund for landscape improvements is extremely limited,” she said. “The Campus Park landscape stewardship is our principle responsibility.”
Marthinsen said that Downtown Berkeley as a job center would add to economic reliability for the city.
“We have an interest in more office space,” she said. “We encourage synergies that have ties to us. Business groups that have spun off from academic research are looking for space. Having offices downtown is important for a healthy retail sector. As the downtown process has moved forward it’s been very clear to me that we share many goals.”
DAPAC member Jesse Arreguin asked Marthinsen if UC wanted to develop 800,000 net new ground square feet downtown on current university-owned sites.
“Yes, it will be on university-owned sites,” she replied.
Marthinsen stressed that the downtown plan should not rule out parking as a use on any university owned site, and “should not preclude above-grade parking as a primary use on the University Hall Annex site.”
The 2020 LRDP encourages more university parking. The university agreed to build no more than 1,270 net new parking spaces as part of the settlement agreement.
According to the letter, the concentration of a greater number of spaces on the University Hall Annex site “supports the parking needs of the proposed hotel and museum on the adjacent block, and makes shared parking operations viable for the arts district and the retail core.”
Land Use Alternatives
Planning staff has asked DAPAC to choose a preferred land use alternative for the purpose of the environmental review of the downtown plan.
Initially, staff had presented two alternatives in the form of a point-tower alternative and a baseline (development under existing conditions) alternative.
After strong opposition to the point-tower idea, staff had scaled back the number of towers proposed and renamed it the “high rise” alternative.
A third alternative which allowed an eight-story maximum base height in the Downtown was also added.
There are various points of view expressed in the debate.
Some members are willing to accept a modest increase in maximum height but want the new development to provide community benefits.
This is put into perspective by DAPAC members Rob Wrenn, Juliet Lamont, Helen Burke, and Wendy Alfsen who want to maintain the existing heights of five stories in the core area and four stories in other areas but allow for those heights to be exceeded through bonuses for green and affordable projects.
Another group, principally those associated with the university, wants taller buildings, and wants to expand the retail sector, build more parking and high end condominiums.
DAPAC member and former UC Berkeley executive Dorothy Walker endorsed this view by proposing 3,000 new residential units downtown which would be accommodated by up to 20 high rise “point towers”.
While Wrenn emphasized the importance of a transit accessibility study for downtown and of green buildings, Gene Poschman contended that research on transit oriented development and transit behavior did not justify creating a dense high-rise downtown Berkeley.
Arreguin said that while the Walker alternative proposed high-rise buildings and more units than the other options, it would result in minimal affordable housing.
He added that the Wrenn proposal would provide flexibility to create real incentives to build housing for low income residents and ensure that it was built downtown.
DAPAC considered all three sets of alternatives at Tuesday’s meeting. Since the committee had limited time to discuss the alternatives and the additional information provided by Wrenn, Poschman and Arreguin, it agreed to meet again Oct. 3.