When I interviewed with Councilmember Kriss Worth-ington two years ago regarding my interest in serving on the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC), the first thing that I said was that I felt that the existing Downtown Plan was generally fine and that there really was no need for a new plan. When I was later appointed to the DAPAC, I entered the process with a lot of skepticism, hoping that something positive would come out of the process. Two long and exhausting years later, I am still not only skeptical but also concerned about the direction of the DAPAC.
I still believe that overall the existing Downtown Plan is a good document. While some changes are needed, I don’t think that it needs a complete rewrite like the DAPAC has done. Nevertheless there have been some benefits to this approach. DAPAC has included a lot of things that were not in the existing plan about green building, open space, and affordable housing, if they ever get implemented we will have a vibrant city center.
When I first joined the committee, we were all informed that the purpose of the DAPAC was to not only develop an update of the existing Downtown Plan but to also help decide where the university will grow in the downtown. However over the past two years, this planning process has been less and less about the university, and more about allowing for high-rise buildings in the downtown. So it seems that either the focus of the DAPAC has shifted to the issue of whether to completely rewrite our land use policies, or maybe that was the main reason all along?
When we first started our discussion of our land use policies, staff presented a number of suggested alternatives. The most controversial one was allowing for a significant number of 16-story buildings, or “point towers.” Unfortunately, “point towers” are still on the table, but in a different way. To support their argument the staff and some DAPAC members have offered a number of justifications. However over the past year and half these reasons have shifted and the discussion has morphed into a troubling direction.
First staff had argued that we need significantly taller buildings to accommodate the number of new units required under the ABAG quota. However, we are not obligated to build the amount that is required. Additionally, it has been shown that we can accommodate the number of units that ABAG wants under our existing zoning.
Then the argument was that buildings between five stories and 10 stories are not economically feasible. While I have never seen a single financial analysis supporting this argument, all one needs to do is look at the height of a lot of the new buildings in the downtown. A few of them are between five and 10 stories, including the infamous Seagate building.
Then the argument was that we need taller buildings to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Staff presented a series of calculations, which among other things said that if people were not going to live in the downtown they would live in Rockridge. This belief skewed the numbers and made it look like a five-story height limit would not provide the same number of benefits. Additionally, there has been a lot of research to show that tall buildings are not necessarily more energy efficient and in some cases use more energy than low-rise buildings.
Then the justification was that we need taller buildings to promote transit-oriented development to reduce the number of people who drive to work and to support retail. None of these arguments has been supported by any academic study, and in fact they have been refuted many times.
Some DAPAC members wanted taller buildings to allow for future residents to live in Berkeley. To date there has not been any analysis of how many people each scenario might bring to the downtown.
At the DAPAC’s Land Use Subcommittee some members were suggesting that we need taller buildings to get more affordable housing and open space. However recent proposals approved by the City Council and before city commissions such as a study to rebate hotel tax revenue for the new Center Street hotel and a proposal to cap affordable housing in-lieu fees for high end condos seriously undermines this belief.
Unfortunately now the debate has come down to some abstract debate over whether we want tall buildings or not. The DAPAC has not been presented with all of the necessary information to make a decision about heights, such as how the state Density Bonus law would factor into any height limit. We seem to be making a critical decision on the future of our community on the basis of aesthetics.
Is this really what the community needs or wants? If the 50 or so people who spoke at the DAPAC workshop several weeks ago is any indication of the views of Berkeley residents, then there is strong opposition to any buildings over the seven stories allowed under the existing plan.
More importantly we don’t need tall buildings to allow for an increased number of people, we can accommodate our population growth under our existing zoning.
One of the speakers at the October workshop said that we need a “Berkeley solution” to whatever land use decisions that we make.
I think that a “Berkeley solution” would be to keep our existing limit of five stories in the central part of the downtown but allow for some limited tall buildings, but only under the condition that we could get various public benefits such as open space, good design and affordable housing.
Otherwise what is the point of allowing taller buildings? Density for density’s sake is not what should be driving our plan. We need a forward thinking vision that allows for change but also respects our identity and quality of life.
I hope that the DAPAC can move beyond aesthetics and develop a plan that represents not only what the community wants but also what we will need for the future.
But 16-story, 14-story, even 12-story buildings are not the answer.
Jesse Arreguin is a member of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee.