Planners Tackle West Berkeley Density, Housing Rules

By Richard Brenneman
Friday November 30, 2007

Planning Commissioners began their trek through one of Berkeley’s most complex and cabalistic arts Wednesday night—deciphering the city’s policies on density bonus and inclusionary housing. 

Spurred by a City Council request made last spring, the city planning staff was ready to propose a zoning ordinance amendment that would have changed the law applicable to West Berkeley’s mixed-use residential (MU-R) zone, easing requirements (in that area only) for developers to provide low-income housing.  

But a majority of the commission wasn’t willing to schedule a hearing on the proposed ordinance without first considering its overall impacts on affordable housing supplies and its relationship to city policies designed to encourage development of less expensive housing. 

The inclusionary ordinance requires that 20 percent of units in projects of five or more apartments or condominums must be allocated for lower-income tenants in the case of apartments, or in condominium buildings for buyers who make less than 120 percent of area median income. 

In lieu of building the units, developers may pay a city fee that is supposed to be used to build affordable units elsewhere in Berkeley.  

The impetus for the council’s request for the West Berkeley zoning change was its rejection of an appeal by Berkeley developer Edward Adams to build a four-unit, three-story housing project at 2817 Eighth St. 

Under the current ordinance, the council and the Zoning Adjustments Board decided they had no option but to reject the project as it had been proposed. 

Current zoning allows for six units on the site, and the city’s inclusionary ordinance requires that the developer must pay a fee to help build affordable housing elsewhere if he fails to build up to a lot’s capacity. 

Adams told the commission that he had reduced the number of units to accommodate the desires of neighbors, but that the project would die if he had to pay inclusionary housing fees and other fees and costs which might add up to a third of a million dollars. 

“We would like to be able to do four units without a fee,” he said. 

Commissioner Harry Pollack and Chair James Samuels were ready to move for a hearing on a staff proposal for an amendment allowing for fewer units in the West Berkeley district on lots currently carrying a requirement for five units or more. 

While density standards now apply in the city’s R-1, R-1A, R-2 and R-2A residential districts, the West Berkeley zone is the only commercially-zoned area in the city where they are mandated. 

There are also no equivalent standards for the R-3 and R-4 zoning districts. 

City Assistant Planner Claudine Asbagh said the rationale for the district was to create a buffer zone between the city’s manufacturing and light industrial district and the residential neighborhoods to the east. 

Commissioner David Stoloff said he was concerned that the impact of a policy change could lead to a loss of affordable housing in the city. He didn’t want the Planning Commission to reach any decision before the city’s Housing Advisory Commission (HAC) weighed in with its own opinion. 

But planning staffer Alex Amoros, a relatively new hire, said that the proposal hadn’t been scheduled for the HAC. 

Commissioner Gene Poschman said that he and Susan Wengraf had pushed for creation of the inclusionary ordinance and the MU-R district in part “so there would be no loopholes for four-unit projects” like the one Adams had proposed. 

But he said he was also concerned because if a developer decided to build the required five or six units to meet the city’s inclusionary needs, the state density bonus law—mandating the city to allow the developer to build additional mass as a bonus for creating affordable housing units—could push the project up to seven units or more. 

Poschman said he was also concerned by a pending proposal to cut the inclusionary fees for units in high-end condo projects from 62 percent to 40 percent, while no similar reductions had been proposed for lower-cost condos.  

“I think Gene is saying he doesn’t want to look at a small piece, but at the whole thing,” said Pollack. “I’m saying that I want to look at this one small piece.” 

“I’m concerned about the impact on affordable housing here in Berkeley,” said Helen Burke, who urged a delay in action. “If it waited this long to get to us, what would be the harm of waiting a couple of months and looking at the whole picture?” 

“I am opposed to a public hearing for the same reasons as Helen,” said Stoloff, who often finds himself on the other side of votes from Burke. 

Land Use Planning Manager Debra Sanderson said a staff shortage had caused the delay in bringing the issue to the commission, and that staff viewed the proposed change as one of a number of “cleanup” ordinances they would be bringing to the commission in coming sessions. 

Stoloff offered an alternative motion, to put off any decision on a hearing till more information was at hand, but his proposal failed on a 3-3-1 vote to get the five votes needed for passage, with Larry Gurley abstaining and Roia Ferrazares, Samuels and Pollack voting no. Commissioners Dacey and Wengraf were absent Wednesday. But the motion to hold the hearing also failed to get the five votes needed for passage. 

Ferrazares said that when the question comes back for discussion, she would like to have a representative from HAC on hand to present that commission’s views. 

“I want to hear why MU-R is different from other zones, and I want to hear how this change might negatively affect the inclusionary ordinance,” she said. 

Wednesday night’s focus reflects increasing attention paid to West Berkeley by city staff and the council. 

Reconsideration of MU-R standards follows in the wake of the creation of zoning amendments which paved the way for car dealerships to set up operation in areas of West Berkeley where they were previously excluded. 

That move was spurred by Mayor Tom Bates, who said the rezoning was needed to keep dealerships—and the sales taxes they generate—from fleeing the city. 

Dealers and city staff said car manufacturers want dealerships concentrated in locations near freeways, while most of Berkeley’s dealers had been traditionally located on Shattuck Avenue. 

Other changes now under consideration would change the definition of what kinds of arts qualify for protected properties in West Berkeley, a move backed by the Civic Arts Commission, responding to a proposal to transform the old Peerless Lighting plant and surrounding land in West Berkeley into a large project that would feature corporate offices and labs as well as a small number of new live/work studios. 

The current definition of arts is limited to traditional manual crafts, while the new definition would extend privileges to artists who create with computer technology. 

Berkeley has been losing live/work artist units in recent years, with new units not keeping up with the attrition as properties are either demolished or transformed into more upscale projects.