Rival Plans, Downtown Skyline Headed for DAPAC Decision

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday October 02, 2007

Like Superman, Berkeley’s citizen downtown planners will be leaping tall buildings Wednesday night—though they’re already well past the traditional single bound. 

The Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC) is scheduled to adopt one of the plan’s most critical sections, the land use element, at the meeting which begins at 7 p.m. in the North Berkeley Senior Center, 1901 Hearst Ave. 

At issue will be two competing versions, one written by committee members and one by city staff. 

The city’s professional planners, with the urging of UC Berkeley and Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, have been pushing for a significantly taller downtown than DAPAC members have recommended in a proposal they have dubbed the “preferred alternative.” 

If staff has its way, 10-story, 120-foot-tall buildings will become the standard maximum height around the BART station, along with five much taller buildings—three 16-story, 180-foot “point towers” plus two 22-story, 225-foot hotels. 

By contrast, committee members have urged a standard maximum of eight floors, and then only as a result of providing a combination of public benefit features, such as green construction and low-income housing residences or funding. 

The committee has already indicated its blessings for one of the two proposed hotels, the so-called UC hotel project being shepherded by the university for the northeast corner of Shattuck Avenue and Center Street. 

The second possible high-rise hotel would be the proposed addition to the landmarked Shattuck Hotel, though no permits have been sought yet for that project. 


Point towers 

City staff had pushed hard the idea of building 14 16-story “point towers” downtown as a way of concentrating housing that might run into objections in lower-profile neighborhoods. 

City Planning and Development Director Dan Marks told the committee he was pushing to concentrate new housing downtown to meet regional governments’ quotas because other neighborhoods often mobilized against high-density projects. 

After repeated tries for the full 14 towers ran into strong and ongoing resistance, the staff proposal on Wednesday’s agenda features fewer high-rises—but its overall effect would create a significantly different skyline from the one proposed by the committee itself. 

While cutting down on the number of towers, the staff proposal calls for standard height limits of 100 feet in the urban core —generally from the corner of Hearst Avenue and Oxford Street on the north, dipping down south along University Avenue to just south of Milvia Street, and encompassing the higher BART Plaza zone and extending south along Shattuck to the mid-block between Bancroft Way and Durant Avenue. 

West of the two higher-rise zones, a 65-foot maximum would apply with a 35-foot minimum, stretching down to Martin Luther King Jr. Way. 

The 65-foot zone would extend all the way to Dwight Way, with the exception of the residential neighborhoods to the east and west of Shattuck, where a 45-foot maximum and no minimum would apply. 

Along the southern Shattuck Avenue 65-foot zone, one 120-foot building would be allowed if the developer committed to providing a grocery store with at least 30,000 square feet of space. 

A 45-foot limit would apply in the residential neighborhoods in the southeast and southwest areas. 

The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) has issued increased quotas for housing for member governments which place the greatest demands on communities located on transit lines. With BART, the railroad and AC Transit all providing commuter service to the city, Berkeley has a higher quota than many other communities. 

Because ABAG wants to reduce urban sprawl, the impact on Berkeley is much greater than on more distant suburbs, even those on transit lines. 

Willingness to commit to allowing more housing doesn’t mean the units will be built—only that the city will make the permits available if they are sought. 

DAPAC members have consistently signaled their reluctance to approve the highest density urged by Bates and Marks, and committee Chair Will Travis has generally found himself on the losing side of votes on the density issue. 

Wednesday’s crucial vote comes as DAPAC is rapidly winding down.  

In most other areas, staff and citizenry are more in agreement. 


Deadline nears  

DAPAC is fast approaching its deadline, with its City Council mandate expiring Nov. 30. Wednesday’s meeting will be the 42nd of the full committee, not counting the many meetings of subcommittees charged with formulation and drafting individual plan chapters and policies. 

The joint effort to create a new downtown plan resulted from the settlement of a city suit against UC Berkeley over its 2020 Long Range Development Plan, which extends university growth off campus and into the city center. The university can reject the plan even after its adoption by the city’s Planning Commission and City Council.