Planners From Another Planet The Public Eye

By Zelda Bronstein
Friday October 12, 2007

When the Berkeley Planning Department proposed last January to re-zone the West Berkeley properties occupied by Urban Ore and the city’s transfer station—two of northern Alameda County’s recycling hubs—for auto dealerships, it might have seemed that the bureau had exhausted its capacity to dream up bizarre land use schemes. That impression was dispelled last Wednesday evening, as senior planner Matt Taecker presented the Downtown Area Planning Advisory Committee (DAPAC—sounds like daypack) with a vision of a high-rise downtown as surreal as the notion of replacing Berkeley’s major recycling facilities with auto dealers. 

Set forth in a document entitled “Draft of Preferred Land Use Alternative (Staff)”—PLUA for short—the scenario featured five 16-story, 180-foot-high buildings, with an exception therein for two 225-foot-high hotels—no stories specified, but 20 seem likely; an unlimited number of 10-story buildings at 120 feet; and a minimum building height of 50 feet, which is to say, four to five stories. For comparison, the Power Bar Building, currently the tallest structure in downtown, is 180 feet high. 

Grotesque as they were, the numbers weren’t the most outlandish aspect of the staff proposal. That distinction belonged to Taecker’s characterization of 10-story structures as “mid-rise” buildings. Current zoning limits buildings in the downtown core to seven stories—the official height of the Gaia Building. Now we’re being told that buildings three stories taller than the current limit are “mid-rise.” Along the same fanciful lines, Taecker introduced the staff PLUA as a “compromise.” A compromise with what, pray tell? He never said. 

I believe that the senior planner and his colleagues bring genuine, albeit misplaced, dedication to their work. But to understand how such an extreme proposal could have made it onto the DAPAC agenda, you have to realize that the main impetus for Manhattanizing downtown (and, for that matter, Emeryville-izing West Berkeley) is coming from the Berkeley mayor’s office. Well-founded rumor has it that before the last DAPAC meeting, Tom Bates invited selected DAPACers into his office and lobbied them to support the high-rise prospectus. And that’s only the latest and far from the greatest instance of the mayor’s involvement.  

DAPAC owes its very existence to Bates; the body is a by-product of the Bates-brokered, 2005 secret agreement that settled the city’s first lawsuit over UC expansion. The lawsuit was about getting the university to pay its fair share of city services; there was nothing in it about downtown. So it was a shock to discover that the agreement not only sold out Berkeley taxpayers but also included extensive provisions for a new downtown plan. Worse yet, though the planning commission is legally entrusted with the initial preparation of land use plans, responsibility for drafting the new downtown plan was jointly assigned to the planning staffs of the university and the city.  

In the fall of 2005, facing demands for a community process, the mayor and council created a temporary commission, DAPAC, to draft the plan. Again, Bates showed his peremptory hand: Berkeley commissions are supposed to elect their chairs; instead, with nary a peep from the council, DAPAC’s chair was chosen by the mayor.  

Despite these machinations, the commission has not simply rolled over for the mayor and his proxies. At the Oct. 3 meeting, the staff proposal was supported by only three DAPACers. One was Jenny Wenk, who works at the downtown YMCA. The other two were Dorothy Walker and Victoria Eisen, both professional planners. Walker is a former president of the American Planning Association and a retired vice chancellor for property development at UC Berkeley. Eisen oversaw the Association of Bay Area Government’s Smart Growth Strategy before leaving the agency to start her own consulting firm.  

Soon after Taecker ended his presentation, Eisen made a motion, seconded by Wenk, to recommend the staff proposal to the council. Walker delivered a passionate defense of the proposal, asserting that approval was necessary for the sake of “the people who aren’t here,” meaning those who can’t afford housing in this town; she’s apparently under the illusion that affordability and real estate speculation go hand in hand. Thankfully, the majority of DAPAC’s 21 members expressed misgivings, many of them grave, about the high-rise scenario. Realizing that her motion was doomed, Eisen withdrew it.  

Unfortunately, DAPAC member Helen Burke then suggested forming a committee that would try to reach a compromise. Even more unfortunately, the commission gave Burke’s suggestion an informal okay. I say “unfortunately,” because in the interest of sound policymaking, compromise should not be an end in itself when, as in the present case, disagreement is deep and principled. 

Instead, DAPAC should take its bearings from the first major goal of Berkeley’s 2002 General Plan: “Preserve Berkeley’s unique character and quality of life.” Granted, downtown Berkeley needs more than preservation; it requires substantial improvement. But any change should honor—indeed, enhance—those aspects of its character that are worth preserving.  

Chief among such valuable attributes is the area’s moderate scale, a point emphasized by DAPACer Steve Weissman. Stating that he “worships at the altar of Jane Jacobs” and that he is, accordingly, a partisan of density—“I’ve written a book about it”—Weissman nevertheless balked at the high-rise PLUA. “I strongly believe that a cluster of 16-story buildings is not going to happen in Berkeley,” he said, “because of what people are saying and because of what it would do to the feeling of the place.” Amen. 

Planning staff contend that downtown revitalization requires more housing units in the area—2,500, to be exact, a number that, they further assert, can only be met by realizing their 10-to-20-story phantasmagoria. Yet staff also concede that downtown’s current zoning, with its seven-story limit in the district core, would permit 1,800 new dwellings. Is it worth changing “the feeling of the place” into something utterly foreign just to cram 700 more apartments into downtown? Where’s the hard proof that 2,500 new housing units and no less are required to tip downtown into a new era of vibrant street life, retail bustle and broad affordability? It certainly wasn’t evident on Oct. 3.  

Lack of substance aside, the timing of the staff proposal is also questionable. As DAPAC member Gene Poschman observed, land use development standards will be at the heart of the new downtown plan. DAPAC convened in late November 2005; it has now had over forty meeting; it is scheduled to disband at the end of November. On Oct. 3, several commissioners asked why, given the complexity of the issue, they hadn’t gotten the staff’s Preferred Land Use Alternative at least a year and a half ago.  

Let me hazard a cynical explanation: If the staff proposal had been issued early in the game, the commission would have had time to delve into the intricacies of zoning law and the complex relations between urban form and urbanity—an investigation that likely would have revealed the high-rise scenario to be a very tall pile of hype. Better to dump an outrageous proposal onto the agenda at the midnight hour, with the expectation that a rushed “compromise” will result in something a little less outrageous. Indeed, there’s now talk of a 10-story upper limit.  

DAPAC’s next meeting is on Wed., Oct. 17. Berkeley citizens who would like to weigh in on the future of downtown should try to attend the community workshop on Sat., Oct. 20. As of press deadline the time and location of the meeting were not posted on the city’s website. Time and place to be published in next week’s Daily Planet.