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DAPAC Moves On to Height, Density Issues

By Richard Brenneman
Friday October 19, 2007

The Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee members voted 20–0–1 to approve the previously controversial chapter on historic buildings and urban design. 

Only James Samuels, who also chairs the city Planning Com-mission, abstained. 

A second vote by members of the DAPAC produced a 20–1–0 show of hands in favor of the proposed plan section on open space and streetscapes. 

With those two sections out of the way, the next hot potato on DAPAC’s plate will be the land-use chapter—the section spelling out just how dense and how high downtown Berkeley will become. 

Because it’s certain to reveal the underlying tensions with the committee, “we’ve put it off to the last minute,” Samuels said Thursday afternoon. 

For months the tension on the committee has polarized the panel into two core groups. 

One faction—including environmentalist Juliet Lamont, planning commissioners Helen Burke and Gene Poschman, and neighborhood activists such as Patti Dacey, Wendy Alfsen and Lisa Stephens—has claimed narrow majorities on key votes, places more emphasis on preservation and argues for less density and a lower skyline. 

The second group—which includes Samuels, DAPAC Chair Will Travis, Samuels, retired UC Berkeley development executive Dorothy Walker, Jenny Wenk and UC Berkeley journalism lecturer Linda Schacht—has called for a denser civic center and favored fewer controls on new construction and less emphasis on preserving older buildings. 

On key votes, the advocates of less and lower density have prevailed, but narrowly. 

One irony is that the most dynamic members of the opposing factions—La-mont and Travis—are both appointees of Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, whose own policies align more with the views espoused by Travis. 

Just hours after Wednesday night’s meeting Travis emailed a lengthy position paper on arguing for more density and taller buildings to DAPAC members, drawing the lines for the battle ahead. It can be found in its entirety on the web site. 


Division remains 

Samuels said the strong vote for the historic buildings and design chapter came only after ten committee members had registered their opposition to creating a historic district along Shattuck Avenue between University and Durant avenues. 

Lamont, who moved for approval of the chapter, accepted a proposal to change language stating that the Landmarks Preservation Commission should, rather than will, consider creating the district. 

The chapter had been passed by a unanimous vote of a subcommittee drawn from the ranks of DAPAC members—all from the pre-preservation side—and from the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the only body with the power to designate a district. 

DAPAC’s newest member, Erin Banks, a planner in private practice and the spouse of former city Planning Manager Mark Rhoades, said that while the document did a good job at preserving historic structures, it offered a “very cautious vision” of the future. 

“Downtown Berkeley has never realized its potential,” she said. “I don’t think this is time for a cautious vision.” 

“Our emphasis continues to be on the past,” said Walker, who has consistently argued in favor of a higher, denser downtown. 

Samuels told the committee he thought the document didn’t give enough recognition to the people who own and work in downtown businesses and said the downtown has many buildings of little architectural value. 

An architect, Samuels said the chapter could limit the ability to create more interesting spaces in the city center. 

Jim Novosel, the committee’s other architect, said he recognized the committee’s schism “between people who love the historic buildings and people who are really trying to get something new.” The chapter crafted by the subcommittee strikes a good balance, he said. 

It was Lamont who moved for adoption, including minor language changes and the change in emphasis on the proposed historic district. 


Open space 

The open-space chapter was quickly adopted, with some last-minute changes drafted the night before. 

The one opposition vote came from Bruce Wicinas, a computer programmer who was attending his last meeting of the committee. 

“This chapter just keeps getting greener and greener,” he said. 

A former Palo Alto resident, Wicinas said one of the reason he’d come to Berkeley was because he liked its more urban feel. “Green spaces aren’t a fundamental component of an urban area,” he said. 

Dark at night—“black voids”—they would attract mischief unless activities were programmed to keep them busy, he said. 

Walker said more density and more people would offer the solution, and without more development and the funds it brings, the city wouldn’t be able to create the new green spaces in the first place. 

Then came time for the committee to begin to tackle the lan-use chapter. 

While subcommittees had tackled the other chapters, the only versions of the plan’s critical chapter had come from city staff, until a self-designated group coalesced around Rob Wrenn, a transportation commissioner and former planning commissioner. 

The staff plans have consistently pushed for 16-story “point towers” filled with apartments and condos to attract residents to the downtown, seen as critical for revitalizing the city’s ailing commercial core. 

But high-rises don’t sit well with neighborhood activists on the committee, and partly for that reason, the committee informally decided two weeks ago to create its own land-use subcommittee, and Travis presented his list of proposed members Wednesday night. 

While DAPAC agreed to the six proposed members, it was Lamont who first raised an objection to Travis’s designation of Victoria Eisen as chair. Though Travis was himself picked to be chair by Mayor Bates, Lamont pointed out that city policy calls for groups to name their own chairs. 

The committee agreed, leaving the new subcommittee—Lamont, Eisen, Jesse Arreguin, Novosel, Walker and Wrenn—to schedule its first meeting and get down to business. 

What’s next? 

With a Nov. 30 deadline, DAPAC will pass on its work to city staff and the Planning Commission, which Samuels said will take up the task in January after staff coordinates the chapters and removes redundancies and duplications. 

While the DAPAC version will go the City Council, which has the final say, planning commissioners may be making their own recommendations to the council to accompany the committee’s parallel recommendations, leaving the final decision to the council. 

“The council is looking for us to do that,” Samuels said. “They often defer to us on things they do not want to do themselves.” 

Four members of the commission will be well acquainted with DAPAC’s work, since they’ve all served on the committee: Samuels, Patti Dacey, Helen Burke and Gene Poschman. 

While Samuels is in the minority at DAPAC, he occupies the central position in the five-four Planning Commission majority. 

“The Planning Commission has different eyes and different opinions than DAPAC does,” he said.