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Year Saw New Plans for Downtown and West Berkeley

By Richard Brenneman
Friday December 28, 2007

Berkeley ended the year with the draft of a new downtown plan and a strong push to change the existing plan for West Berkeley. 

And in a city where the politics of big buildings is a blood sport, one of the biggest players sold his collection and other players failed to field their promised entries. 

Another team, fighting to save some of the creations of past builders, managed to stall legislation that could make it easier to tear them down. 


DAPAC’s finale 

The Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee ended its two-year run Nov. 30, one day after submitting its draft for a plan that’s certain to face a bumpy ride in the year ahead. 

While most chapters were adopted unanimously by the committee, whose members included two representatives named by each of the nine city councilmembers plus three members of the Planning Commission, two key sections generated strong dissent. 

(DAPAC ended up with four members of the Planning Commission after DAPAC member Patti Dacey was named to it too.) 

The plan has now passed into the hands of the commission and City Council. The planning commissioners will make their own suggestions for revisions, and the council—which has the final say for the city—can make whatever changes they choose. 

The two chapters that provoked strong dissent within DAPAC, one on historic buildings and urban design and the other regulating building heights and massing, were both opposed by Planning Commission Chair James Samuels. 

His votes are significant because at the commission Samuels usually votes with the majority on a panel where critical issues are often decided on five-four votes. The other commissioners who also sat on DAPAC—Gene Poschman, Helen Burke and Patti Dacey—often find themselves among the losing four. 

The final decision maker for the new plan will be UC Berkeley itself, because the plan can’t be adopted without the university’s concurrence. 

The DAPAC planning process was the result of a lawsuit filed by the city after the university unveiled its Long Range Development Plan 2020, which called for building 800,000 square feet of new off-campus buildings in downtown Berkeley. 

The city filed suit, contending the university’s plans didn’t provide adequate compensation for the impact on city streets and services of the new structures and the thousand or so new parking spaces the university planned. 

The ensuing settlement established some payments by the university to the city and envisioned a new plan to nearly double the boundaries set by the city’s existing downtown plan, laying out a timetable for its completion. If the final plan isn’t adopted by May 2009 the university may start cutting back on its payments to the city. 

During the two years DAPAC met, city staff repeatedly floated proposals for high-rise “point towers,” 16-story buildings designed to increase downtown population density and fill new housing quotas set by the Association of Bay Area Governments, a regional agency that dispenses state and some federal funds to local governments. 

A majority of DAPAC members consistently opposed the towers, but they kept reappearing until the end, when a compromise land use chapter allowed for up to four ten- and four eight-story buildings, plus two high-rise hotels, while raising the base building height for the downtown from a current five-story maximum to six. 

The plan also includes a strong call to preserve historic buildings, and outlines proposals for increased open space, energy conserving construction and for the possible closure of Center Street to through traffic between Shattuck Avenue and Oxford Street. 


Sale, suit 

Berkeley developer Patrick Kennedy made headlines twice during the year, first for selling the Berkeley’s largest collection of apartment buildings—including the ever-controversial Gaia Building and six other structures—and second, for losing a lawsuit. 

Kennedy, always a lightning rod for controversy in Berkeley’s endless land use battles, pocketed a tidy profit when he and his investors in Panoramic Interests sold the lion’s share of their holdings to Equity Properties. 

The $140 million-plus Berkeley deal added 368 apartments to Equity’s inventory from the Gaia, Fine Arts, Bachenheimer, Touriel and ARTech buildings, the Berkeleyan Apartments and Acton Courtyard. 

Equity is the nation’s largest holder of rental property, and is controlled by real estate mogul Sam Zell, who made headlines of his own earlier this month when he completed his purchase of Tribune media, becoming the publisher of California’s preeminent newspaper, the Los Angeles Times. 

Kennedy remains an active player in the local development game, and has been remodelling the Center Street building that housed the Act I and Act II theaters, which were shuttered last year. 

He also remains a tenant of the Gaia Building as a partner with Glass Onion Catering in the lease of most of the building’s ground floor “cultural space” and all of the mezzanine.  

The tallest structure built in Berkeley in decades, the Gaia Building has served as a lightning rod for critics of city development policies. A legal action, filed before the sale and completed afterwards, challenged the city’s implementation of downtown plan provisions which allowed Kennedy and his partners to build extra apartments in exchange for creating dedicated “cultural space.” 

In exchange for a promise to dedicate the first two floors of the Gaia Building for cultural uses, Kennedy was granted an additional floor of apartments above. He won another floor for providing the mandatory “inclusionary” units for lower income tenants. 

By stretching the upper floor units into two story-apartments by the addition of partial floors (dubbed “lofts”)he was able to raise the building to nine floors—though the official figure is seven, because the lofts and the mezzanine aren’t counted officially as floors in the argot of city codes. 

The original tenant for the cultural space, the Gaia Bookstore, folded before the building was complete, and the space remained empty for nearly three years before Anna de Leon opened Anna’s Jazz Island in part of the ground floor space.  

The remainder of the space was leased by Kennedy and his partner, refurbished and used for private events operated by the catering company and some public events, including a brief, irregular tenancy by The Marsh theatrical troupe. 

Conflicts over scheduling dates cause the theater group to leave—they weren’t able to book the weekend dates vital to their economic success, and de Leon and others claimed that genuinely cultural events were being displaced by more profitable private parties. 

De Leon also became embroiled in an ongoing dispute with the other ground floor tenants over noise and disruptive crowds at the private space controlled by the partnership—including one particularly rowdy event that brought out police—leading to her request to the Zoning Adjustments Board to look into the terms governing cultural use at the building. 

When ZAB members indicated that they were concerned about the city’s oversight of the space and started seeking clarification from city planning staff, Kennedy threatened litigation, leading the City Council to preempt the zoning board. The council eventually passed a resolution that backed the developer’s position. 

That’s when De Leon (who is also an attorney as well as the operator of the jazz club) filed suit on behalf of three Berkeley citizens, including Patti Dacey. 

The decision handed down earlier this month by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch backed Dacey and her co-plaintiffs, while slamming the City Council’s “abuse of discretion” in preempting of its own zoning board. 


Trader Joe’s lawsuit 

Another lawsuit pits neighbors of what has come to be called the “Trader Joe’s” building against two former Kennedy associates, and is headed for a March 3 confrontation in the same Oakland courtroom where the battle of the Gaia Building played out. 

Stephen Wollmer and Neighbors for a Livable Berkeley Way filed suit in August, challenging the city’s approval of the 148-unit apartment building planned for 1885 University Ave. 

Developers Chris Hudson and Evan McDonald, who built many of Kennedy’s later projects, were granted a city concession for 25 additional apartments after they promised to deliver a grocery store. 

Trader Joe’s, a German-owned boutique grocery chain with a cult-like following, is expected to bring the grocery store that even critics of the project agree is needed somewhere in downtown Berkeley. 

But the five-story project, located at the intersection of University Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, has alarmed neighbors, both because its five-story height would tower over the single family homes on Berkeley Way behind the protect and because of the traffic a popular grocery store is certain to attract. 

The City Council approved the project on a 5-3 vote July 16, prompting the lawsuit Wollmer had threatened after the Zoning Adjustments Board approved the project by the same margin in the early minutes of Dec. 15, 2006, at the end of a six-hour session. 

The lawsuit may wind up testing the city’s application of the state-mandated award to the developers of bonus units for a dense building and for its own inclusionary housing ordinance, which requires construction of affordable units or in-lieu contributions to the city’s housing fund. 

The case will be decided by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch, who also ruled on the Gaia Building action. A hearing on the issue has been scheduled for March 3. 


West Berkeley 

This was also the year when developers and city officials eager for new sources of revenue cast their eyes on West Berkeley, setting the stage for change and yet a new round of domestic political conflict. 

New zoning regulations that will ease the way for car dealerships to locate in freeway-close locations cleared the City Council this month. 

Current zoning in the district is largely manufacturing and light industrial moving inland from the freeway with commercial zoning along thoroughfares, and a core of mixed use residential. 

Because rents and sale prices are generally lower for land zoned for industrial and manufacturing use than for commercial and residential areas, West Berkeley is the last remaining haven in the city for artists and artisans, who have been driven out of other areas as land values increased over recent decades. 

The battlelines, long simmering, became apparent during the process which led to the granting of zoning variances for the popular Berkeley Bowl to build a new, larger market and warehouse facility in West Berkeley.  

One group that raised questions about the impacts of changed zoning was West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies, which has consistently fought measures they fear could send real estate prices soaring, driving out both craft workers and small manufacturers, which typically offer better paying jobs than stores. 

But it’s money that’s driving the other side of the equation as well. Opening up West Berkeley to car dealers was driven by the threat that dealers might leave the city, compelled by economics and the dictates of manufacturers who are demanding that dealers locate along freeways. 

Another move afoot in West Berkeley is a plan backed by the area’s most prominent real estate brokers, Don Yost and John Norheim, and their allies in the West Berkeley Business Alliance, to create a Community Benefits District that would assess payments by landowners to fund services in addition to those provided by their city taxes. 

Because decision power in the proposal was based on the size of the property owned, small property owners and businesses voiced concerns that they would be burdened with fees they couldn’t afford by the decisions of bigger landowners who could afford them. 

Another proposal still pending as the year draws to a close is a City Council directive to staff and the Planning Commission to offer proposals for more flexible zoning in the area. 

Funded by the city’s Economic Development Department, Principal Planner Allan Gatzke is drawing up proposals that would ease the use permit process for new projects, allow more “flexible” application of city height, mass, parking and other standards, and allow more uses in zones currently restricted to manufacturing. 

One prediction seems safe for the coming year: Expect more heat in West Berkeley.  


Other issues 

2007 was also noteworthy for what didn’t happen, with major development projects stalled by lack of funding. 

One is the Arpeggio, the nine-story luxury condo project approved for a site across Center Street from the new Berkeley Community College building. 

Economic uncertainty in the housing market couple with rapid inflation in the cost of steel and concrete triggered by rising energy costs and demand from China were blamed as key factors by one developer’s representative who didn’t want to be named. 

Another big issue that started the year with a big bang waits for resolution in the year to come. 

Opponents of the new Landmarks Preservation Ordinance (LPO), adopted by the City Council in December 2006, managed to stall implementation of the law by gathering enough signatures to force a referendum. 

Referendum supporters included many of the same preservationists who had backed an alternative LPO initiative they had placed on the ballot a month earlier as Measure J. 

In a campaign marked by heavy contributions from a development community opposed to the measure, the initiative managed to garner 42.8 percent of votes to the opposition’s 57.2 percent. 

On Jan. 12, referendum backers handed in petitions with enough signatures to force the council’s new developer-backed LPO—a proposal strongly sponsored by Mayor Tom Bates—to a popular vote. 

That will occur in November, at the same time Bates himself comes up for reelection.