Public Comment

Commentary: Planning for Downtown Berkeley’s Future

By Rob Wrenn
Friday October 19, 2007

After 45 general meetings and 44 subcommittee meetings over a two-year period, the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC) is wrapping up its work of creating a new plan for downtown to replace the current plan adopted in 1990. 

Some important decisions have been made by DAPAC, but one major issue has yet to be resolved. Should the current development standards, which allow buildings of a maximum of four to seven stories depending on the specific area, be revised to allow some taller buildings? Downtown’s population is growing as more housing is being built. Do we want even more growth than is now occurring? 

A community workshop Saturday morning at the high school will allow Berkeley residents an opportunity to give their opinions about building heights and the many other policies and goals that will make up the new downtown plan. 

DAPAC has endorsed the new hotel and the UC museum proposed for Center Street between Shattuck and Oxford. It has also given its support to the closure of that block of Center Street to motor vehicle traffic to create a pedestrian plaza, which will help fill a strong need for publicly accessible open space downtown. A water feature, possibly derived from Strawberry Creek, which currently flows in underground culverts, could be a part of the new plaza. 

In addition to the Center Street Plaza, staff’s draft alternative proposes the creation of “Park Blocks” on Shattuck between Durant and Dwight. Space for cars would be reduced to allow for creation of an 80-foot wide green space in the median similar to South Park in San Francisco. There is broad support on DAPAC for adding lot’s more greenery and green space to downtown. 


Parking and transit 

DAPAC has also voted for adoption of a transportation or “access” chapter of the plan that contains many policies that will aid local businesses and reduce the downtown’s “carbon footprint.” 

More rational parking pricing policies called for in the draft plan will help to free up on-street parking spaces. Right now, it costs less to park in the more desirable on-street metered spaces right in front of local businesses than it does to park further away in a garage. As a result, on-street spaces are relatively hard to find while hundreds of garage spaces sit empty most of the time. And, a substantial number of on-street spaces are used by meter-feeding employees of downtown businesses. 

To encourage downtown employees to use transit, the DAPAC has also endorsed “Eco Pass” transit passes that would allow downtown employees to use transit for free. 

The Access chapter endorses improvements to transit service including Bus Rapid Transit, while identifying many issues related to design and implementation that must be resolved to optimize its benefits. 


Increased height limits? 

City staff’s Preferred Land Use Alternative, which was discussed at DAPAC’s Oct. 3 meeting, calls for allowing up to five high-rise buildings in a “BART Opportunity Area” surrounding the BART station, with a maximum height of 180 feet (about 16 stories if a residential building), with a height of up to 225 feet allowed for the hotel proposed for Center Street and for a second hotel tower that has been proposed by the owners of the Shattuck Hotel as an addition to their hotel. 

Any building in this BART area could be 120 feet or up to 10 stories, and three more buildings at this height would be allowed in areas beyond the BART Area. 

Staff have proposed that any portion of a building above five stories should be set back and should be slender, not bulky. DAPAC members seem to agree that having a wall of buildings of heights greater than 5 stories lining Shattuck or University would be undesirable. 

Shattuck Avenue from University to Durant could end up being part of a new historic district downtown. At its most recent meeting, DAPAC members also voted 20-0, with one abstention, to support the preservation and design chapter put together by a joint subcommittee of DAPAC and the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC). The chapter welcomes development while also calling for preservation of existing historic buildings. 

While DAPAC members had already endorsed the proposed height for the Center Street hotel, it became clear at the Oct. 3 meeting that a majority of DAPAC members do not support an additional four buildings that would be as tall as the existing Wells Fargo and Great Western buildings downtown. 

What is the right maximum height? While a majority clearly opposes 16 stories or 180 feet, some DAPAC members seem to favor allowing some buildings at 10 stories, three stories taller than the current maximum, in some areas, especially in the BART area. Some of us have proposed eight stories as the maximum, with an exception for the proposed hotel. 

To put things in context, the number of housing units in the downtown has increased by 19 percent just since 2000 and, when projects now in the pipeline (such as Oxford Plaza housing at the construction site at Oxford and Kittredge) are finished, the number of units will have increased by about a third. Downtown’s population is growing. 

The debate is not more density vs. no growth. It’s a question of how much more density and growth is desirable and what form it should take. And it’s not just a question of height. More housing is good, but how much of it will be affordable? Two-bedroom units in new downtown building tend to rent for between $2000 and $2700 a month. And will that housing be “green,” using much less non-renewable energy than is currently the norm? 

Along with other members of DAPAC, I have proposed that the city’s Berkeley Way parking lot be designated as a site for the city’s first “zero-carbon” affordable housing project. Energy could be generated on site with photovoltaics and/or other technology. On the edge of the residential neighborhood north of downtown, with schools and parks and supermarkets not far away, it would be a good location for families, living in larger units in buildings of perhaps three- or four-stories with on-site green space. 


Pros and Cons 

There are benefits to having more housing in areas that are relatively well served by transit, such as downtown, which has BART, numerous bus lines, and the planned BRT service. It’s easier to live without owning a car downtown, especially with car-sharing for people who can get by without a car most of the time but need one now and then. And for households that do have a car, one car should suffice, unlike in suburban areas where two-car households are the norm. Lower rates of car ownership mean lower rates of greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, which accounts for 47 percent of Berkeley’s emissions. 

In the downtown core (University to Bancroft between campus and MLK), a majority of current residents do not own cars. Lower rates of car ownership are common in the centers of cities, and, in Berkeley, this is reinforced by the fact that half or more of downtown residents are students, most of whom do not bring cars with them. A new downtown plan that facilitates “car-free” and “car-lite” lifestyles can set a framework for growth in population without growth in traffic and resulting emissions. 

More people living downtown can add vitality and create a broader customer base for local businesses. One can argue for taller buildings because they allow for more people to live downtown (assuming that the taller buildings are residential and not commercial buildings). 

However, taller buildings can have negative impacts. 

Taller buildings consume more energy per square foot, other things being equal, than buildings of five stories or less. This means more greenhouse gas emissions. Staff have proposed that buildings above five stories have higher energy efficiency standards and generate some of their own energy and achieve a LEED Gold green building rating. Below 5 stories, buildings would also have to exceed current standards, but not by as much. 

Taller buildings could cast shadows on nearby buildings, sidewalks and streets, reducing solar access. The exact location of any permitted taller buildings could make a big difference. Do we want to create a Center Street plaza or Park Blocks and then allow tall buildings nearby to shadow these new open spaces? 

Even if we resolve issues such as energy consumption and shadowing, and even if many new residents come without cars, there remains another set of questions. What will the visual impacts of taller buildings be? What will it do to the downtown skyline? What will it do to the feel and sense of scale of downtown? Do people living on the tenth floor have any real connection to the street? There are aesthetic considerations as well as environmental ones that need to be addressed. 


Rob Wrenn is a member of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Commission.