Lower Expectations for Downtown Skyline

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday October 23, 2007

A dedicated group of six Berkeley citizen planners gathered Monday afternoon to decide how high, how dense and how soon. 

The Land Use Subcommittee of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC) held its first meeting in a fast-paced rush to decide the hottest topic left for the first draft of Berkeley’s new downtown plan. 

Just how tall should Berkeley’s skyline rise, and how many new residents should their plan be designed to handle would prove tougher than the other question: How soon they had to have their answers. 

Huddled around a table in the second floor of the city’s Planning Department on Milvia Street, the group began by picking a chair. Seconds later, at the suggestion of Victoria Eisen, Rob Wrenn took the helm. DAPAC Chair Will Travis had named Eisen as his pick for chair last week, but a majority of subcommittee members insisted on electing from within. 

Then things slowed down as the subcommittee set out to tackle the task set out for them over the course of three—or maybe four—meetings before DAPAC takes up the subcommittee draft at its Nov. 17 meeting. 


Lower skyline 

The one near-certainty to emerge by the end of the session was that the shape of the downtown most members want is a lot lower than the version consistently pressed forward by city staff. 

The issues of height and density even pitted environmentalists against environmentalists. 

While Billi Romain, the city’s green building coordinator, and Timothy Burroughs, developer of Berkeley’s climate action plan, came to the meeting to urge high densities, KyotoUSA founder Tom Kelly and Juliet Lamont, Sierra Club activist and subcommittee member, said they were concerned that too much concentrated growth downtown could endanger Berkeley’s sense of community. 

Matt Taecker, the planner hired with UC Berkeley funds to shepherd the plan through the approval process, has consistently pushed for 16-story high-rise point towers, though he has lowered the number of those towers from the originally proposed 14 down to five, plus a BART Plaza area height limit of 12-stories for residential or office buildings. Taecker would also like to allow three other 120-footers, one each on the northern and southern sides of the plaza neighborhood. 

But most comments from subcommittee members involved lower heights, with Jesse Arreguin initially favoring a maximum of eight stories. 

Wrenn himself had worked with other DAPAC members, including Lamont and non-subcommitee members Helen Burke and Wendy Alfsen, in drafting a proposed three-story base expandable to eight floors in return for meeting a number of bonus height requirement, including affordable housing units or fees to build low-income units elsewhere and use of environmentally friendly building technologies and materials. 

Architect and subcommittee member Jim Novosel proposed a plaza-area limit of 12 stories, with an eight-floor maximum surrounding it, scaling down to a maximum of five floors along residential neighborhoods. 

Eisen said she shared the concerns about the impacts of taller buildings on the city center, especially because the plan so far has given relatively little consideration to design. 

But she said her concerns about height could be best illustrated by downtown’s two tallest architectural creation, one pleasant and the other not, the Wells Fargo Building and the Power Bar Building. 

Both are similar in height to the point towers urged by staff and Walker. 

“Height for height’s sake really isn’t the beginning point,” Eisen said. 

Walker stressed repeatedly that she believed that the only ways DAPAC would be able to fund the open spaces, plazas, new stores, affordable housing and other amenities embraced by other plan chapters already adopted by the full committee would be through more density than her colleagues deemed acceptable. 

Developer Ali Kashani sat through the meeting, taking notes, and city Planning and Development Director Dan Marks also sat through part of the session, while Calvin Fong, an aide to Mayor Tom Bates, sat through it all. 

Three planning commissioners sat in: Chair James Samuels, Gene Poschman and Helen Burke. All three are DAPAC members. Wendy Alfsen from DAPAC was also on hand, as was retired planner and preservationist John English. 

English and Poschman questioned the numbers of new residents and population densities on the alternatives sketched out on a series of maps prepared by Taecker—with figures ranging from a low of 1,300 units for the proposal by Wrenn and company to a maximum of 3000 units in Walker’s version. 

Poschman and English said they were concerned about the impact of the density bonus on the plan, a state law that allows builder to increase their size of their project by including units for lower-income tenants and buyers. 

The committee resolved that issue by a decision that all heights approved would be maximum figures including all available bonuses. 

By the end of the meetings, members had agreed to return for the subcommittee’s next session Thursday from 9:30 a.m. to noon, with an eye toward wrapping up their work at a session starting at 8 a.m. the following Monday, Oct. 29, with a backup final session set for 10 a.m. on Halloween. 

Thursday’s meeting will open with members offering their own proposed development districts and the proposed heights for each.