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Downtown Advisory Panel Rules Out Point Towers

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday October 30, 2007

Point towers are out for downtown Berkeley and 10-story apartment buildings are in—or eight floors for office and commercial buildings. That’s the solid consensus emerging from Monday morning’s meeting of DAPAC’s Land Use subcommittee—the six-member panel tasked with writing the new downtown plan’s central chapter. 

With chair Rob Wrenn’s gentle nudging, members reached a near-consensus on the 120-foot maximum height limit, though just how many such buildings would be allowed remained an issue to be resolved when the group meets again at 8 a.m. Wednesday. 

Beyond the limited number of 120-footers, the rest of the downtown core would be restricted to the present maximum of 100 feet, or eight floors for residential buildings and six for commercial structures. 

The main dissent came from Dorothy Walker, a retired UC Berkeley development executive, who has consistently pushed the tallest, densest city center profile. Other members who initially argued for taller buildings were able to accept the lower figure. 

The outcome of their deliberations will be presented to the larger Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee for adoption Nov. 7. 

Juliet Lamont and Jesse Arreguin were adamant that they’d not accept more than four 10-story buildings—in addition to the planned 220-foot high Berkeley Charles Hotel at Shattuck Avenue and Center Street. 

The possibility of raising an extension of the Shattuck Hotel to more than the 10-floor limit would be considered, but only if the new owners gave the city concessions in return. 

Wrenn chaired the city’s UC Hotel Task Force, which led to a recommendation that the city approve the hotel, to be named the Berkeley Charles, in exchange for concessions. 

Developer Ali Kashani contended that for buildings over five floors, projects only became economically viable at greater heights—with a 14-story minimum if projects were required to devote 20 percent of the lot to open space. 

Walker said she could only vote for the 10-story limit if she saw reliable numbers proving that developers were able to afford to build at that height, adding that she was waiting for data from experts. 

Otherwise she wanted a provision that calls for nine of the 160-foot point towers. 

But the other five members all said they were willing to accept the 120-foot limit, with a base height of 100 feet. 

Kerry O’Banion, the UC Berkeley planner who sits on the subcommittee in a non-voting role, said the university would be satisfied with those height restrictions. 

Lamont said that some environmental experts had questioned where buildings taller than that were even practical given the power needed to run elevators and pump water to upper floors. 

While Wrenn said he could accept up to eight buildings of 120 feet, including two higher hotels, Lamont was adamant, even when Wrenn asked, “What about seven?” 

Arreguin concurred. 

The subcommittee seemed willing to accept one possible compromise: a provision calling for a review of the plan, including a look at the public’s receptivity to additional tall buildings. 

The review would be triggered either by the construction of a specified number of the taller buildings or the end of a time period. Walker said five buildings or ten years would be fine with her. 

Members also agreed that heights would step down to five stories bordering residential neighborhoods, and remain at the present limits in the neighborhoods themselves.  

Two planning commissioners who sit on DAPAC but not the subcommittee have attended the land use meetings, Gene Poschman and James Samuels, who chairs the commission. 

Poschman argued that the existing downtown plan would accommodate all the growth required to receive funds through the Association of Bay Area Governments. 

The figures he presented challenged numbers from the planning staff, prompting a response from Matt Taecker, the planner hired with city and university funds to oversee the planning process. 

“I object to you casting uncertainty about these numbers,” Taecker said.