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Downtown Skyline Compromise Erodes

By Richard Brenneman
Friday November 02, 2007

The easygoing truce that prevailed during much of the debate over downtown land-use policy blew apart Wednesday, fissuring along familiar fault lines. 

The key issue, as always, is height: just how tall a skyline should be allowed for Berkeley’s city center in the new downtown plan. 

With considerable work left to be done, the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee Land Use Subcommittee is lobbing the political grenade up to the full DAPAC for its meeting next Wednesday night. 

While subcommittee members had seemed near a compromise that called for a lower skyline than some wanted, by the end of Wednesday morning’s meeting the search for what subcommittee chair Rob Wrenn called a “super-majority” had collapsed. 

The sticking point came near the end of the session after the panel had defined the boundaries of the core district where taller structures will be allowed. 

DAPAC is charged with drafting the basics of a new plan mandated in the settlement of a city lawsuit against UC Berkeley that challenged—among other things —the university’s off-campus expansion plans into the heart of downtown. 

The citizen planners have until the end of the month to finish their work, which will then pass on to the hands of city planning staff and the Planning Commis-sion, before eventually winding up for final decisions by the City Council and university administrators. 

From the start, the clearest divisions within DAPAC have been around the question of tall buildings. 

City staff has pushed consistently for high-rises in the form of 16-story “point towers” as a way of generating the population growth that advocates say will spark a cultural renaissance in the heart of the city. 

Critics charge that new housing will simply be filled with more UC Berkeley students, and not the families all sides say could bring a new vitality to the commercial district. 

Adding to the incentive for boosting the downtown’s population is a regional government quota for allowing new housing that city officials say must be accommodated to avoid the possible loss of some of the state and federal funds administered through the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG). 

ABAG has set a preliminary figure of 2,431 new units of housing Berkeley must be willing to permit between 2007 through 2014. 

City Planning Director Dan Marks said he prefers to locate as many of the mandated units as possible downtown because of a history of opposition in other neighborhoods to new major housing projects. 

To accommodate all of the apartments and condominiums, Matt Taecker, the planner hired with university and city funds to steer the downtown plan to fruition, has been consistently urging DAPAC to approve 16-story “point towers,” each as tall as the Wells Fargo and Power Bar buildings which now dominate the downtown skyline. 

The Land Use Subcommittee was a last-minute addition to the DAPAC process after committee members voiced their frustration with the repeated resurgence of the point towers in a staff-proposed land use plan section. 

Planning Commissioner Gene Posch-man, a consistent critic of the towers, has argued that all the ABAG units can be accommodated within the existing plan’s height limits. 

By the end of Monday’s subcommittee meeting, members seemed to agree to eliminating the point towers from the plan if the holdouts could be convinced the needed numbers could be housed within lower-profile buildings, with a few buildings allowed to rise to ten stories. 

But the compromise fell apart when it became clear that some members had different understandings of what would be the baseline heights for all other buildings in the expanded downtown core area—the maximum height all buildings would be allowed without special conditions. 

It was Jesse Arreguin who raised the question, insisting he would only back the existing five-story limit, quickly backed by Juliet Lamont. The two have raised the most consistent resistance to the taller skyline, while retired UC Berkeley development executive Dorothy Walker has been the most consistent advocate of more height. 

The subcommittees other three members—Victoria Eisen, Jim Novosel and Wrenn—have been more ready to compromise. 

When Wrenn made a final plea for a compromise as the meeting drew near its close, Lamont responded, “That’s not going to happen.” 

In the end, DAPAC members will have to decide Wednesday whether to: 

• Keep the current baseline maximum building height in the downtown core to the current 65 feet, or five stories, with a limited number of exceptions to 100 feet [eight stories]; 

• Raise the baseline height to 100 feet;  

• Decide how many, if any, buildings should be allowed to rise over 100 feet, and by how much. 

Members did agree to bring forward a suggestion by Walker to set a review period that would allow for a reconsideration of height limits. 

While Walker wanted five years, the majority sentiment seemed to favor eight. 

Setting a review period length and adopting the boundaries proposed as the limit for taller buildings will also be on the agenda. 

The subcommittee did agree on allowing for 100-foot structures on Shattuck Avenue at the southern corners of the Durant Avenue intersection if a developer agreed to include a full-service grocery store in the project.