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16-Story Towers Trigger Heat at DAPAC Session

By Richard Brenneman
Friday October 05, 2007

Point towers and pointed tensions dominated Wednesday’s DAPAC meeting, and by the time the session ended, a resolution for downtown Berkeley’s future skyline remained elusive. 

Members of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee were slated to approve two sections of the new plan for an expanded downtown area. 

With brisk efficiency—including a sharp rebuke of DAPAC Chair Will Travis for an interruption—committee member Victoria Eisen steered the committee through adoption of the plan’s access chapter.  

The 26-page document aims to discourage single-occupant car use, boost mass transit ridership and encourage pedestrians—if need be, even by increasing congestion for motorists. 

Committee members voted 17-0-2 for adoption, with Gene Poschman and Lisa Stephens abstaining. Travis then turned to what the agenda listed as “an opportunity to define and endorse a ‘preferred’ Land Use Alternative.’” 

Drafted by Matt Taecker, the planner hired with UC Berkeley funds to steer the planning process, the proposal calls for a much taller cityscape that DAPAC’s own drafting committee has proposed. 

“Staff has been working very hard to bring together something that draws together the best from all” of the proposals, he said. 

But Taecker’s plan brought back the “point towers” which the committee had repeatedly rebuffed, albeit in smaller numbers than the 14 he had originally proposed, along with significant height increases for most of the rest of Berkeley’s city center. 

Sparks began to fly, with the first and heaviest pyrotechnics coming from Juliet Lamont, who, like Travis, was appointed to the committee by Mayor Tom Bates. 

Lamont had been one of the architects of an alternative chapter drafted by an informal group of committee members, a document which differs significantly from Taecker’s version. 

Former Planning Commissioner Rob Wrenn, who chaired the UC Hotel Task force that drafted a proposal for the university’s plan for a hotel at the northeast corner of the Shattuck Avenue/Center Street intersection, inspired the proposed chapter’s key theme of granting height bonuses only in exchange for concessions beneficial to the city. 

That version, which Lamont helped draft along with Wendy Alfsen and Planning Commission Helen Burke, allowed a base maximum height of three stories downtown that could increase to eight in return for a variety of reasons—including the mandatory state density bonus, which gives increased size in return for developing affordable housing. 

“We worked very hard” to forge a compromise, Lamont said. “We went to people in DAPAC and beyond, into the community. And we tried to get people to move off their positions. We said over and over that it was a compromise. While I appreciate what the staff put into their plan, it is really hard to see it as a compromise based on what’s been discussed so far.” 

The staff proposal, she said, was destined to re-ignite polarizations that the subcommittee had worked hard to heal so they could forge a document that would appeal to the broader community. 

By throwing in the point towers and a call for significant increases in height, “the biggest hot button issue in Berkeley,” the staff plan was certain to ignite dissent and could “spur people to launch a referendum,” she added. 

Declaring that it was realistic to expect the plan to win approval in the city, La-mont said, “I would like to get away from these 16-story towers.” 

The downtown plan is being prepared to serve the needs of two outside agencies: The University of California, which is expanding is off-campus presence into the heart of the city, and the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), a regional governmental agency which sets quotas for new housing levels. 

The university has final say over the plan because of the terms of the settlement agreement that ended a city lawsuit challenging the university’s expansion plans through 2020. 

ABAG can, in theory, shut off some state funding to the city if policies aren’t adopted to permit expanded numbers of new residences—though the policy doesn’t have to require the units to be built. 

City Planning Director Dan Marks has told DAPAC members he wants to concentrate new housing downtown because of strong resistance to increased density in the city’s other neighborhoods. 

Taecker’s proposal failed to discuss the mandatory state bonus and how it would apply to his proposed building heights—a point quickly made by Jesse Arreguin and Planning Commissioner Gene Poschman, who has been working on the density bonus question for several years. 

Were the 16 stories before or after the bonuses? And what about other potential bonuses? 

Likewise, was the 120-foot height limit around the BART station pre- or post- bonus? And the 100-foot limit in much of the rest of downtown’s commercial areas? 

“It all comes down to tall buildings,” said Arreguin, who called for a closer look at the volunteer subcommittee’s three-plus-five proposal. 

“We need more discussion,” he said, adding that he would have preferred starting it a year and a half ago. 

Arreguin and Lisa Stephens said they were concerned that the staff proposal didn’t give due attention to concerns about affordable housing. 

Dorothy Walker, a retired UC Berkeley administrator and the committee’s most ardent proponent of fast-tracking high residential density in the downtown, said the issue was people, not building heights. 

Though she wanted more people than the staff plan called for, she said she was willing to vote for it as a compromise. She also urged commissioners not to worry about concerns of current residents. Instead, she said, planners should think more about “the people who are not here” and not worry about “kickback” from angry residents. 

Terry Doran, a former school board member, said he thought fears of backlash were exaggerated. As for Wrenn’s proposal, “I personally am offended by a wall of eight-story buildings in the street.” 

What unites Walker with many of her opponents is a passionate belief that Berkeley needs more housing for people of modest means. 

Steve Weissman, describing himself as a strong believer in density, rejected the point-tower proposal. 

Noting that Berkeley wasn’t a featureless terrain, “I strongly believe that a cluster of 16-story buildings is not going to happen in Berkeley because of what people are saying and because of what it would do to the feeling of the place.” 

Weissman offered an argument quickly picked up by others: The committee should work for a compromise that would result in a strong majority, rather than a narrow, polarizing draft. 

“I agree that our goal should be to come up with a plan where we can have a super-majority vote,” said Wrenn. 

Members also questioned whether the plan should call for an increased number of offices, given that many could wind up occupied by the university—effectively removing them from the city’s tax base while providing no increase in housing to meet ABAG’s quotas. 

Wrenn said he also worried about a plan that would turn the downtown into a cash cow for city government, which could then take funds raised in the city center and disperse them to other parts of the city. 

He also said that the staff’s ready acceptance of a proposal to add a second 22-story hotel downtown should be placed on hold until the developer agreed to part with concessions in return for the right to build a skyline-piercing edifice. The push for concessions in return for height was a constant theme during meetings of the UC Hotel Task force he headed. 

At one point, Eisen moved to approve the staff proposal, but soon withdrew the motion in the face of strong opposition. 

It was Helen Burke who offered an option eagerly seized on by Travis. Why not, said Burke, create a committee to draft a compromise chapter? 

When Travis announced his picks—heavily weighted toward Walker’s end of the continuum—he relented, then called for volunteers, leaving members the opportunity to apply by e-mail. 

With that, the meeting ended.