Downtown Panel Prepares For Final Public Workshop

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday October 16, 2007

Two key sections of the proposed new downtown plan come up for votes Wednesday, chapters that could help define the future look of Berkeley’s urban core. 

Four days later, the public will have a chance to weigh in on those proposals and the rest of the work of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee during the committee’s last public workshop. 

While one of the chapters up for consideration Wednesday looks at the handling of streetscapes and open space, the other looks at historic structures and the design of new buildings. 

By combining new design and the future of the older buildings that now dominate the downtown streetscape, the second chapter has proved to be the most controversial. 

Approved unanimously by a subcommittee drawn in equal numbers from DAPAC and the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), the 14-page proposal is certain to spark controversy. 

A proposed revision signed by Matt Taecker, the city planning staffer hired with UC Berkeley funds to help prepare the plan, was rejected by the subcommittee. 

One central conflict concerns the city skyline, with staff—backed by Mayor Tom Bates—consistently pushing for a higher, denser downtown than many DAPAC members seem to want. 

The DAPAC/LPC subcommittee’s chapter stresses the importance of building height controls, while the staff has repeatedly pushed for a plan which originally envisioned 14 high-rises each 16 stories tall, though the number has dwindled in subsequent iterations of the proposed chapter on land use. 

Another source of contention has been the subcommittee’s desire to single out downtown sub-areas with concentrations of historic buildings for special protection. 

Their draft for the chapter also proposes creating a historic district for the central Shattuck Avenue business district which would impose protections and design restrictions on new construction in the district. 

The Downtown Berkeley Association (DBA) has urged rejection of that idea. 

DBA also worries about the potential impacts of a proposed Center Street pedestrian plaza between Shattuck and Oxford Street.  

Mark McLeod, DBA president and one of the founders of Downtown Restaurant, has expressed doubts about the wisdom of closing the street, and urged that in no case should closure occur before the proposed UC-backed hotel/meeting center/condo tower at the Shattuck end of the block and the university’s planned Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive building at its western end are open. 

But the streetscape chapter draft makes the Center Street Plaza a high priority, including street closure to traffic except for emergency services and delivery vehicles that serve merchants along the plaza. 

It calls on the city to develop and adopt a Public Improvements Plan creating an overall policy for implementing additions and alterations design to make the city center more pedestrian friendly. 

The streetscape chapter also endorses another ambitious proposal by staff: transforming the Shattuck Avenue median between Durant Street and Dwight Way into grassy “park blocks” by “converting excessive travel ways and parking areas to a linear park.” 

It proposes requiring developers of new projects to contribute to downtown greenery and open space, though just how remains at issue, and urges adoption of another staff proposal to improve stormwater runoff quality by capturing it in vegetated “swales,” rain gardens, permeable paving and other innovations. 

Other policies call for: 

• Restricting traffic on Hearst Avenue between Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Oxford Street to two lanes as a way to extend the Ohlone Greenway to the UC Berkeley campus; 

• Exploring opportunities to extend the Shattuck Avenue boulevard character north of University by exploring ways to increase street trees by eliminating traffic lanes or planting them in parking lanes. 

• Redesign of University Avenue between Shattuck Avenue and the campus by expanding sidewalks, landscaping, pedestrian features and—if feasible—removing traffic lanes to reduce street-crossing distances for pedestrians. 

The chapters are available online at the DAPAC website at www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/planning/landuse/dap/reports.htm. 

Saturday’s workshop is being held at the Berkeley High School library, located on the second floor of the school near the intersection of Allston Way and Milvia Street, with the entrance on Allston. 

Technical problems have derailed plans for an on-line discussion group, Taecker said. The committee will accept email comments in advance of the event, which can be sent to Yiu Kam, assistant planner for the downtown area, at ykam@ci.berkeley.ca.us.