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Building Heights Edge Up at DAPAC Group

By Richard Brenneman
Friday October 26, 2007

The question of downtown Berkeley’s future skyline remained unresolved Thursday at the end of the second of three scheduled meetings of a citizen planning committee, the land-use subcommitee of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC). 

With chair Rob Wrenn pushing for a unanimous vote, members of the panel are drafting language about the height and population of the future of the city center for presentation to DAPAC on Nov. 7. 

The controversial notion of 16-story point towers—roundly blasted at last week’s DAPAC public workshop—remained very much on the table at the end of Monday’s session. 

While majority sentiment at DAPAC meetings seemed to favor lower buildings, the heights discussed Thursday were edging up from the eight-floor counter-proposal Wrenn had offered only weeks earlier. 

Two subcommittee members—retired UC Berkeley development executive Dorothy Walker and professional transportation planner Victoria Eisen—backed the towers, with more support coming from Kerry O’Banion, the UC Berkeley planner who serves as the university’s ex officio member. O’Banion said he favored higher buildings, which would allow the university to keep all its planned development on property the tax-exempt institution already owns. 

It was the university’s expansion plans through the year 2020 that triggered the city lawsuit that resulted in an out-of-court settlement mandating a new downtown plan and the DAPAC process. 

Architect James Novosel and Wrenn opted for a 12-story maximum, with environmentalist Juliet Lamont favoring eight floors and affordable housing advocate Jesse Arreguin proposing a maximum of 10. 

Commercial buildings should be allowed to rise as high as apartments and condos, said committee members, with the exception of Arreguin, who said full height should be allowed only if the developer agreed to provide greater benefits for the community. 

Walker and Eisen said they favored taller buildings because they offered the only source of potential revenues for the public improvements in streets and open space called for in other chapters of the plan already adopted by DAPAC. 

Developer Ali Kashani and former city Land Use Planning Manager Mark Rhoades arrived together, with Kashani offering the subcommittee a set of spreadsheets arguing that only taller buildings would bring members of his trade to build in the city. 

Developers, he said, “look at a 15 to 20 percent” return on their investments—figures which, by his flow charts, could only be accomplished by structures of 14 stories and above. 

Planning Commission Chair James Samuels told the subcommittee that nothing should be taken off the table, adding that he thought there was substantial support on DAPAC for the proposed chapter by planning staffer Matt Taecker and its call for the point towers. 

Lamont challenged Ka-shani on his figures, saying that when she had worked in a bank, she learned to look with suspicion on figures prepared by advocates. 

And, besides, she asked, why should developers be entitled by a plan to profits greater than the average citizen is accustomed to receiving on investments in treasury bills or stocks? 

At one point when Kashani challenged her, Lamont shot back, “You don’t want to go toe to toe with me.” 

Walker and Eisen said the Kashani figures reinforced their convictions that tall buildings were needed to generate the fees needed for improvements. 

Planning Commissioner Gene Posch-man said that by simply continuing the existing 1990 downtown plan, the area could accommodate the 3,000 additional new housing units included in the version originally offered by Taecker. 

The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), a regional jurisdiction which administers an array of state funds to local jurisdiction, has decreed that the city must be willing to significantly increase the number of dwellings it is willing to build—though actual construction is left up to the realities of the market and government-funded construction programs. 

City officials, including Planning Director Dan Marks, have said downtown’s the only place the city might willingly accommodate a significant number of new dwelling units. 

The land-use subcommittee was a last-minute DAPAC creation, forced on a reluctant staff and Chair Will Travis. 

The move came after members rejected repeated iterations of proposed land-use elements that would liberally sprinkle the city center with the 16-story “point tower” apartment and condo buildings to accommodate the ABAG numbers. 

Subcommittee members have a lot to accomplish at Monday’s session, though they’ve left themselves an out with an option for a fourth meeting the following Thursday. 

Besides building heights, members must decide on where—and how many—taller buildings should be allowed and what shape they should adopt relative to lot size and the streetscape. 


Monday meeting 

Monday will be a long day for DAPAC subcommittee members. In addition to their own meeting that starts at 8 a.m., they also face a meeting for the full committee starting at 7 p.m. 

The Monday night meeting, held in the North Berkeley Senior Center, 1901 Hearst Ave., will feature a report on the public workshop, plus scheduled action on the Economic Development and Housing and Community Health/Services chapters. 

Those who arrive at 6:30 can see a presentation by landscape architect Walter Hood of the latest version of his plans for the proposed Center Street Plaza, which could be built if traffic were to be closed between Shattuck Avenue and Oxford Street.