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Downtown Panel Nixes Point Tower Plan

By Richard Brenneman
Friday November 09, 2007

Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee members turned thumbs down on point towers in downtown Berkeley Wednesday, voting 13-7-1 for a six-story maximum building height, while allowing for up to ten exceptions. 

Two of the exceptions would be hotels, which would be allowed the greatest height, yet to be determined. 

The vote ends—for now—the repeatedly rejected and resurrected staff-backed plan calling for up to 14 16-story towers as a way of packing more people into the city center. 

Building heights and the fate of Berkeley’s historic buildings were the two central fault lines that surfaced repeatedly during the two years members of DAPAC have been meeting. 

Formally launched on Nov. 21, 2005, the committee approaches its mandated sunset date of Nov. 30 with only two more meetings left to tweak their draft of the new city center plan. 

The final proposal adopted Wednesday contained compromise provisions drafted by James Novosel, a Berkeley architect. 

The version of the land use chapter adopted Wednesday allows for an 85-foot maximum height for all but a handful of exceptions, effectively allowing one more story than the existing plan. 

In addition to the hotels, four other buildings would be allowed to rise to 100 feet and four 120-foot buildings would also be permitted.  

One of the 120-footers could be an office building, but the others would have to provide housing above the ground floor. 


Closer vote 

While the final vote bestowed approval by almost a two-to-one margin, a much taller skyline failed minutes earlier by a single vote. 

That proposal, advanced by Victoria Eisen, would have raised the general downtown maximum height to 100 feet, or eight floors for housing over commercial. 

That option in addition to the hotels, also allowed for a quartet of 120-footers, or a trio at 140 feet or a duet of the much-discussed 160-foot point towers. 

Dorothy Walker and other proponents of the taller skyline said that only by making projects financially attractive to developers could the city hope to win funds for the parks, open space, public restrooms and other civic benefits proposed in other parts of the plan. 

But their proposal failed on a 10-11 vote. 

One of those who voted for the proposal was developer Ali Kashani, filling in for an absent Linda Schacht, a UC Berkeley journalism instructor. 

Kashani had presented the Land Use Subcommittee with detailed analyses that he said showed that only buildings of five floors or less or those of 14 stories or more would yield the levels of profits needed to attract developers. 

But Novosel had countered that he was able to design projects at the heights he proposed which promised to yield healthy profits for developers. 

Planning Commission chair James Samuels said that 85-foot buildings aren’t profitable, and have been built mainly by non-profits who receive subsidies for creating affordable housing. 


Review period 

The compromise package also includes a requirement for a follow-up review eight years after the final plan is adopted by the City Council to determine if the provisions have allowed for development, and to study the plan’s impacts on the proposed public amenities. 

But proponents of the modified height plan received a less than reassuring response from Planning Director Dan Marks on the question of whether or not the maximum height limits would really stave off taller projects. 

“We can’t tie the hands of the City Council,” Marks said. “The Zoning Ordinance” which spells out the plan’s requirements applies, he said, “but if the City Council chooses to make an exception they can as a matter of state law.” 

“I was cautiously optimistic that a maximum would be a maximum, but I guess I have reason to be cautious,” said Jesse Arreguin. 

“This is an American democracy,” said DAPAC chair Will Travis. “None of us were elected dogcatcher,” he said, and the Planning Commission and the Zoning Adjustments Board are vehicles of the City Council. 

“We are making a mountain out of a molehill,” said Kashani. 

Planning Commission chair James Samuels said that the only practical measure open to DAPAC was to set the maximums as a way to minimize variables. 

“The council will be bound by this if they adopt it,” said Wendy Alfsen. “We want to make clear that this is maximum height, and that they will be bound by it.” 

“Unless they change it,” added Travis. 

“What we’re voting on is an esthetic,” Novosel said. “My vote is not going to be for unlimited 100-foot buildings, adding that it is not going to be for not making a decision. We’re still going to get some very high buildings.”  


Numbers game 

While critics of the smaller-scale option insisted that proposal would significantly reduce the city’s ability to build new housing, Planning Commissioner Gene Poschman has cited his own figures that he says show that even with the existing plan the downtown could accommodate all the housing units the Association for Bay Area Governments (ABAG) says the city needs to allow over the next seven years. 

But ABAG wasn’t mentioned Wednesday night, making the event one of the few meetings where density was raised and the regional governmental agency wasn’t invoked. 

The new plan was mandated by the city’s settlement of its lawsuit challenging UC Berkeley Long Range Development Plan 2020, which calls for extensive development in the city center. 

The university wants to build up to 800,000 square feet of new off-campus construction in the heart of the city, and will be allowed to build 100 buildings on its own properties. 

The university is also the driving force behind one of the two hotels, the Berkeley Charles, which would rise at the northeast corner of Center Street and Shattuck Avenue. 

The second high-rise hostelry would be an expansion of the existing Shattuck Hotel, a city landmark a block away. 

Winston Burton said he was swayed to vote for Novosel’s changes because of the additional height it granted. 

And when it came time for the final vote, Billy Keys, who had supported the higher alternative, dismissed the calls of his compatriots for a detailed economic analysis before any decision was made. 

“The two members on our committee who actually build buildings are on opposite sides,” he said. “We can be talking about the economics of buildings till midnight. It’s time to vote.”