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Downtown Panel Meets Thursday for Final Votes

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday November 27, 2007

Two years of grueling and sometimes acrimonious effort comes to an end Thursday night when the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee holds its final meeting. 

Created in the negotiated settlement agreement between the City of Berkeley and UC Berkeley, DAPAC was given a two-year mandate to craft a new downtown plan that allows the university significant off-campus expansion room in the heart of the city.  

Members are currently reviewing the 107-page, eight-chapter draft of the document they’ll hand off to the Planning Commission when Chair Will Travis pronounces his final “We’re adjourned.” 

Most of the chapters were adopted with little controversy, save for the two that embody one of the city’s deepest fissures—preservation versus high-rises. 

On one side are strong advocates of development, who see more and taller buildings as a solution to the city’s economic, housing, transportation and social services needs and ecological aspirations. 

On the other side are those who say that encouraging more modest development in keeping with the city’s historic character—which they say is one of Berkeley’s strongest attractions—will meet many of those same needs, but in a more environmentally friendly manner. 


Broader trends 

The tension carries over into the broader scope of Berkeley politics, in a city where voters in recent years have tended to favor developer arguments and their well-funded political campaigns over the aspirations of the highly vocal advocates of a smaller-scale dream. 

Four years ago, 80 percent of Berkeley voters rejected a radical height limitation initiative that would have lowered maximum heights on new buildings in major commercial districts from the current five-story limit to a maximum of three. Developers funded the opposition, which outspent proponents by more than 10-1. 

After the City Council approved a revised, more-developer-friendly landmarks ordinance last spring, preservationist proponents of the city’s existing ordinance made a few updates in the existing ordinance and submitted it as an initiative, losing by a much narrower margin 57-43 margin against a campaign again well-funded by development interests.  

But the same City Council majority which typically sides with developers in key development battles appointed a downtown planning committee that sided with preservationists in key votes over the downtown skyline. 

Each councilmember appointed two members, with Mayor Tom Bates appointing the chair—an unusual move in a city where committees and commissions typically elect their own chairs. 

It was the mayor’s own appointments which embodied the committee’s subsequent schism, with Chair Travis eloquently arguing the more developer-friendly position, while environmentalist Juliet Lamont spoke for the preservationist consensus. 

While committee members split during discussions over the historic preservation chapter, which incorporated design policies, when it came to a final vote Oct. 17, the preservationist-friendly chapter won by a 20-0-1 vote, with only Planning Commission Chair James Samuels abstaining. 

But the tensions remained, and the gesture of unanimity offered on preservation collapsed in the face of the land use policies that would set the scale and mass of development in the city center for at least the next eight years. 

The division was starkly revealed Nov. 7, when a motion that would have allowed up to two controversial 16-story “point towers” fell on a 10-11 vote. Later in the meeting, members voted 13-7-1 for lower heights.  

They reaffirmed their decision Nov. 12, when members voted 11-1-8 to 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. 

The towers, offered in a set of alternative proposals prepared by the planning staff, triggered strong opposition and an outpouring of public comments, most rejecting the idea of adding a thicket of new buildings to downtown as tall as the Wells Fargo and Great Western (né Power Bar) buildings. 


What next? 

Thursday night’s meeting—which begins at 7 p.m. in the North Berkeley Senior Center at 1901 Hearst Ave.—will feature public comments, votes on any holes and inconsistencies in the chapters and a final chance for members to comment on their two-year journey and the resulting plan. 

The final session will be the committee’s 48th meeting. Many faces have changed since DAPAC first convened on Nov. 21, 2005, and during its two-year course, members have served on a range of subcommittees tasked with drafting individual chapters and policies. 

The longest-serving subcommittee, staffed by four members each from DAPAC and the Landmarks Preservation Commission, met 15 times between August 2005 and last month to draft the Historic Preservation & Urban Design chapter. 

The last committee formed drafted the Land Use chapter, the result of a decision by members who rejected Travis’ designation of Victoria Eisen as chair. Subcommittee members themselves picked Rob Wrenn. 

In the end, the subcommittee left it up to DAPAC itself to provide height limitations after members failed to achieve the super-majority vote Wrenn had sought.  

From here, the plan will move on to city staff for wordsmithing and then to the Planning Commission, which has had four representatives on DAPAC in the persons of Chair Samuels and commissioners Gene Poschman, Helen Burke and Patti Dacey—the latter three on the DAPAC majority but often in the minority on the commission. 

Then the plan moves forward to the City Council, though the university has reserved the right to challenge provisions it doesn’t like. 

The council must adopt the plan and certify its accompanying environmental impact report by May 25, 2009, under terms of agreement ending the city’s lawsuit against the university, unless City Manager Phil Kamlarz and Chancellor Robert Birgeneau agree to a continuance. 

Any dispute would be resolved in court, but pending a final judicial decision, the settlement allows the university to move forward with development plans incorporated in the Long Range Development Plan which sparked the city’s legal action. 

Delay would also allow the university to cut its possible $1.2 million in annual payments to the city by $15,000 for every month of delay. The payments from gown to town are intended to compensate the city for the university’s impacts on city infrastructure and services.