DAPAC approved a limited-height mandate for the downtown Berkeley plan, dividing their Monday night vote between a majority who felt they’d compromised enough and a minority who wouldn’t approve anything without an economist’s imprimatur.
Their vote reaffirms last week’s decision to oppose the call by city staff for approving 16-tower apartment towers as a way to spur revitalization of the city center.
Members voted 11-1-8 for a land-use chapter that will keep most downtown buildings at 85 feet, while allowing four at 100 feet, four more at 120 and two high-rise hotels which could rise 100 feet higher.
(One member, Linda Schacht, had been inaccurately recorded by city staff as voting in favor of the chapter; she had abstained.)
Their decision reaffirms the vote they took last week on heights, which passed 13-7-1, only after a plan calling for an option with two point towers had failed on a 10-11 vote.
Only Billy Keys voted in opposition Monday night, while the earlier opponents, led by Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee Chair Will Travis and joined by Planning Commission Chair James Samuels, abstained.
Commercial buildings, with higher ceilings for offices, generally contain fewer floors than structures of the same height built for housing. Eighty-five feet could accommodate a high-ceilinged ground floor store space beneath five floors of housing, but, typically, only four floors of offices over a floor of stores.
A 100-foot building would house seven floors of apartments over a commercial base, while the 120-foot structure would accommodate nine floors of living units over the retail base.
Architect Jim Novosel said more floors of offices could be accommodated if the lower heights per floor used in the Great Western (or Power Bar) Building were applied.
Buildings used for classrooms need even higher ceilings and fewer floors.
Monday’s vote was the last controversial decision remaining for the committee, which has one final session scheduled before it reaches its City Council-mandated end Nov. 30.
Their decision upholds the chapter draft prepared by a DAPAC subcommittee which had struggled to forge a compromise between the factions.
Abstainers said they couldn’t vote for a plan that promised public benefits that couldn’t be realized if height restrictions and the cost of providing those benefits scared off would-be developers.
The majority who voted for approval, spearheaded by Rob Wrenn, chair of the subcommittee that drafted the chapter, and Juliet Lamont, the environmentalist who has emerged as a political force during the two years DAPAC has been meeting, said they had made enough compromises, giving up a five-story height limit and making other concessions in hopes of reaching a compromise.
After DAPAC’s final vote, the plan will go to city planning staff for final semantic tweaking before it passes on to planning commissioners, who will offer their own recommendations in tandem with the committee’s version. The final decision is up to the Berkeley City Council UC Berkeley retains veto power.
The university’s say in the plan, as well as its partial funding of the planning process, is part of the agreement signed between the city and the university to settle a lawsuit challenging the university’s plans for expanding into the heart of Berkeley’s commercial district.
Heights and historic buildings have triggered the two most heated battles during DAPAC’s two-year effort to hammer out a new plan for the city’s ailing commercial center.
In contrast, DAPAC members, following their lengthy discussion and divided vote on heights, voted to spend only minutes tweaking and adopting—by a unanimous vote—the final draft of the plan’s sustainability chapter.
Generally, the same forces coalesced along the opposing battlelines for both of the controversial issues, with Juliet Lamont’s calm passion and Gene Poschman’s analytical skills on the winning side.
Members of the majority included Jesse Arreguin, Patti Dacey, Lisa Stephens, Wendy Alfsen, Helen Burke and James Novosel, an architect who provided graphic augmentation for Poschman’s numbers-heavy analyses.
The dominant voices in the minority were those of Samuels, Travis and Dorothy Walker, along with Terry Doran and Jenny Wenk.
Samuels was the only member who abstained from voting on the plan’s historic preservation chapter when the final draft came up for a decision Oct. 17, while other critics voted with the majority.
While critics of the winning proposal spoke mainly of heights, they also raised concerns that the proposal’s limitations of lot coverage and building mass could also discourage developers.
One issue concerns the floor-to-area ratios (FAR) embodied in the chapter. Simply put, the FAR is a number that compares total square footage of floor space in a building with the total square footage of the lot on which it is built.
An FAR of 1 could be reached by a one story building that covered all of a lot, or a four-story building that covered a quarter of the lot’s surface. Basically, the higher the building’s FAR, the more massive the structure.
The chapter approved Monday calls for FARs of 4.0 for 65-foot buildings, 4.9 for 85-foot buildings, 5.6 for 100-foot buildings and 6.5 for the four 120-footers. Those figures are limited to portions of buildings from the ground level up; subsurface levels aren’t counted.
Lot coverage means simply the percentage of a lot that is covered by the building’s ground floor.
While many of today’s downtown structures—the Gaia Building, for example—have 100 percent lot coverage, the new plan sets an absolute limit of 90 percent for buildings between 66 and 100 feet tall, and 80 percent for buildings of 101 feet or more.
Buildings at 65 feet could win an exemption from the 90 percent maximum by paying an in-lieu fee to create open space elsewhere in the downtown if their lot were small or the project involved historic buildings.
“What we have done is to create a combination of height restrictions, FARs and lot coverage that constitutes a de-facto downzoning of downtown,” said Walker, a retired UC Berkeley development executive.
Samuels agreed, calling the chapter’s requirements “a step backwards.”
“Ridiculous,” said Wrenn, adding that the new plan greatly expands the downtown beyond the boundaries of the existing 1990 plan, raises base heights to 85 feet and allows construction of 10 buildings even taller, including two hotels taller that the controversial point towers.
When it came down to the show of hands, Wrenn’s side carried the day.
DAPAC’s final meeting will begin at 7 p.m. on Nov. 29, when members will take up any of city staff’s last-minute tweaks to the language of chapters the committee has already approved.
The meeting will be held in the North Berkeley Senior Center, 1901 Hearst Ave. at Martin Luther King Jr. Way.
The chapters themselves will be posted at www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/planning/landuse/ dap/reports.htm.