Public Comment

Commentary: The DAPAC Finale: A Convoluted But Positive Ending

By Jim Novosel
Tuesday November 27, 2007

The proceeding of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC) has come to an end. And what an ending it is. This Thursday, Nov. 29, the Committee will vote on the plan and most likely, a slight majority will affirm it and a minority will abstain; not vote against it but abstain in the final vote before the group disbands. It is a true irony that the many of those who were appointed by the councilmembers that had voted against creating DAPAC, were those who worked the hardest to create a consensus plan that is reasonable, progressive and one that most of our citizens will likely support. On the other hand, most appointees of councilmembers who voted to create DAPAC have indicated that they will abstain from voting for the plan. DAPAC, set up by the City Council with a slim 5 to 4 vote, has ended mirroring the divisions on the city Council in the reverse. 

DAPAC members have approved all aspects of the plan except those concerning land use policies. The main contention between the two sides is over building heights. In explaining the differences between the two positions, I will first compare the majority’s proposed land use policies from those of the 1990 plan. That plan was an attempt to rein in downtown development and to buffer neighboring residential districts from the impacts of large scale buildings. The plan was in part a reaction to the proposed Courtney Building of 10 stories at the corner of Durant and Fulton and to the Golden Bear along University Avenue.  

The 1990 plan divided the downtown district into a core and several surrounding buffer zones. The plan envisioned a wedding cake zoning profile of taller buildings in the core and lower buildings in the buffer areas as one neared low scaled residential districts. It established core heights of 65 feet and five stories with building volumes (FARs) of four times the square footage of a site. With augmentations or bonuses, development could rise to 87 feet and seven stories with building volumes of six. The buffer zones were limited to 40-foot heights and three stories but could be augmented to 50 feet and four stories. 

DAPAC members by and large viewed the 1990 plan as too restrictive. However, two views developed as to how to loosen the rules on building heights and encourage growth. The majority view proposes core heights of 85 feet and six stories with building volumes of 4.9 the square footage of a site. In addition to allowing buildings of this height, it also stipulates that there can be four buildings of 100 feet/seven stories and four buildings of 120 feet/nine stories. Furthermore, it allows two more buildings, if they are hotels, to exceed heights of 200 feet or up to 19 stories such as the proposed hotel at the Bank of America site.  

The minority view first wants to give developers the right to unlimited 100’ high buildings throughout the core. Second, they wish to defer fixing the maximum height of the four tall buildings until an economic analysis is performed. Their arguments are based on a view that in order for development to provide economic benefits, it must be allowed to build to a profitable height. From DAPAC’s beginning, several have argued for heights above 14 stories or around 160 feet, depicted as point towers. They fear that without allowing these higher heights and the unlimited 100-foot buildings, the city will not be encouraging development that could support the many public improvements envisioned in the plan.  

The majority clearly desires to envision and control the shape and character of the downtown and not leave it up to developers and their number calculations to dictate the look and feel of their cityscape. They are comfortable with five- to six-story buildings and feel that these types fit into our cityscape better and will provide enough population growth. They also have little fear that development will go away as the presence of the University assures continuing growth and change.  

Regardless of height considerations, all have agreed to increase the core’s boundaries appreciably. The current core is approximately 33 acres and is defined by Addison on the north, Kittredge on the south, and stretches midway to Oxford and Milvia. The new core will be nearly 72 acres or more than twice the current size. It stretches somewhat between Hearst on the north, Durant on the south, Oxford on the east and midway to MLK on the west. To accomplish this, the buffers, though intact, have been shrunk. These two remarkable land use changes, the general increase in building heights and the core’s boundaries, represent an astounding up scaling and up zoning of the downtown. By any objective appraisal, this is a huge change embracing the goal of increasing residential populations and commercial life in the downtown. 

Not only will private development obtain huge changes to zoning laws, the university, with its sizable land holdings along the Oxford edge of the downtown, has been sanctioned to build up to the limits that they desired. Under current zoning, their land is zoned for heights ranging from 40 feet to 60 feet. They have come out of this process with a clear mandate as regards heights and stories. A 100-foot height limit will apply to all university properties, although they agreed to reduce heights along Hearst Street. They have also agreed to several good urban planning principles; to bring the campus’ park-like features into their downtown developments, to create better pedestrian connections throughout, to respect historical important buildings (read University Garage), and to create public, accessible uses along street frontages. All in all, the university’s participation has been engaging, constructive and sympathetic to the city’s goals. If one views the DAPAC process as a new model for constructive planning between the university and the city, which was one of its original goals for both parties, the plan created represents an astounding success.  

There are urban design modifiers to this encouragement of development. For the first time, the downtown district will have lot coverage standards. Up till now, the downtown is the only district that allows developments to cover 100 percent of their property with buildings. No setbacks are presently required. Nor is ground floor open space required. The new plan will required that developments with buildings above 100 feet will be able to cover only 80 percent of their lot. Developments up to a 100 feet will be allowed 90 percent coverage. This simple ruling will obtain ground floor open space and landscaping areas within our urban environment. It will help encourage mid-block pedestrian walkways, greenery and open spaces that the plan proposes. 

On the face of it, DAPAC finds itself in an incredible circumstance: To have a group of people, who worked diligently and intently for two years come to the end of their deliberations with 40 percent voting to abstain over one issue—building height. It would be one thing if the plan was some radical, no-growth, no-change document that severely limited private development or the university’s right to use their land. Two years ago, some political wags would have predicated such an outcome. Instead, to most observers’ amazement, and to even many of the participants who have developed the plan, the opposite has occurred.  

As an architect who has closely watched development and planning in Berkeley’s downtown for a quarter of a century, I have little doubt that the new plan is light years ahead of the 1990 plan in embracing growth along with our community values. The plan acknowledges that the downtown is not a “finished” cityscape. In and among its fine buildings, there are under-used and insubstantial properties whose upgrade or redevelopment will allow for the continued improvement of the downtown’s cityscape. It is essential that we use the talents and energies of architects and developers to augment the built environment and champion the belief in a better future for citizens and visitors. With these thoughts, I hope that those members of DAPAC who did not vote at our last meeting to support the majority’s view reflect on how far we have come as a group in embracing growth and change. In that reflection, I hope that you find it possible to embrace a consensus position for the good of the community, and send to the Planning Commission and City Council a plan that a majority of our citizens would approve.  


Jim Novosel is a Berkeley architect and a DAPAC member.