Downtown Plan Height Controversy Flares Anew

By Richard Brenneman
Friday January 25, 2008

Presenting the draft Downtown Plan to Berkeley’s Planning Commission Wednesday night, DAPAC Chair Will Travis declared that the commission could tinker with the proposal’s fabric only “at your peril.” 

“If you pull at one loose thread, the whole thing will fall apart,” he warned. 

And with that—and with the backing of Mayor Tom Bates—the chair of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee gave a brisk yank on the proposal’s most delicate strand. 

Travis, who chaired the 21-member citizen panel through 50 meetings and two years of deliberations, urged commissioners to commission an economic study to see if the adopted development standards of the plan’s land-use chapter would generate funds to develop the social, transportation and open space amenities urged by the other chapters. 

He told commissioners he had made the recommendation after consulting with the mayor. 

An 11-10 DAPAC majority had specifically rejected commissioning a study, a rebuff targeted at repeated submissions by DAPAC staff planner Matt Taecker to consider a series of 16-story “point towers” to accommodate more housing in the city center. 

In the final land-use element adopted by DAPAC on an 11-1-8 vote, building heights would be restricted to 85 feet in most areas of downtown, with the exception of four structures at 100 feet, four more at 120 and two high-rise hotels which could rise 100 feet higher. 

A committee minority, which included Planning Commission Chair James Samuels, objected to the limits, warning that restrictions on height and building mass could kill development, along with their much-needed fees. 

The battle over building heights and massing—dubbed floor-to-area-ratio (FAR)—generated ongoing debates within the committee, with concessions coming mainly from those who favored smaller buildings. 

“The downtown is a wonderful place to have growth,” Travis told commissioners, arguing that growth, like toothpaste, has to come out somewhere if the squeeze is on. 

The squeeze facing the commission comes from three sources: 

• The Association of Bay Area Governments, which sets housing quotas each jurisdiction must allow to be built, though not requiring their actual construction; 

• UC Berkeley, which must receive and approve a completed plan by May, 2009, or it will start cutting back payments to the city under a court-approved settlement, and 

• The environmental review process, which will be taking place at the same time both the commission and City Council are contemplating implementation language and any changes they want to make to the plan.  

When Commissioner David Stoloff told Travis that the plan’s implementation provisions “probably need some incentives” for developers, the DAPAC chair responded that “nobody’s breaking down our doors” at the moment to build anything. 

While both Travis and City Planning and Development Director Dan Marks hailed the committee’s “remarkable” efforts, both disagreed with the panel’s decisions to adopt height and mass limitations without a study of economic feasibility. 

Marks told commissioners that they need to decide soon if they want a study, because there’s no funding budgeted for an analysis, and he would have to go to the City Council to seek the cash to pay consultants. 

Samuels asked if a commission resolution was needed to spark the study, and Marks agreed, adding that “DAPAC had a lot of goodies they expect ... and there’s a point at which they don’t get any goodies” if there’s no development. 

“When we presented the plan to the City Council, one of the councilmembers said he wanted to make sure the plan contained a poison pill,” Samuels said. “I interpreted that to mean that if building height” prevented development, “that was a poison pill.” 

Marks acknowledged that “some people don’t think we would get objective information,” prompting a vigorous nodding of Patti Dacey’s head. She was one of three planning commissioners who voted in favor of the plan’s height limits, along with Helen Burke and Gene Poschman. 

Moments later, after declaring that “experts can find whatever you want them to find,” Dacey quipped, “What about Paul Krugman?”  

Stoloff said he thought the plans FAR numbers “should be expanded a bit ... we need to have the square footage to generate the fees or we can’t have the amenities the plan calls for.” 

Limiting height forces the unit costs of housing higher, and the plan’s limitations, he said, would leave the downtown affordable only to the very wealthy and cost the city needed affordable housing. 

Poschman said he worried that the rush to complete an environmental impact report (EIR) on the plan even before the details were adopted was “a case of the tail wagging the dog.” 

He said he was also concerned that the planning staff proposal for the commission didn’t call for any public hearings and faulted “the lack of input from stakeholders.” 

“I don’t want to see this thing get end-loaded ... where we rush this thing to the council without having considered all if it,” he said, adding that he also wanted the commission to make its position clear on the point-tower issue. 

Burke and Dacey also urged public hearings, and Jennifer McDougall, the UC Berkeley planner assigned to downtown planning issues, said she would like to see any hearing conducted while students are in the city and not during the summer. 

According to Taecker’s current schedule, Oakland-based EIR consultants Lamphier-Gregory Associates will launch the draft EIR process in the near future, as staff begins work on an alternative that would be considered at the same level as the DAPAC proposal. 

Staff will also be preparing implementation language that can be written into the plan itself as well as a measure that can be added simultaneously or immediately afterwards to the city’s Zoning Ordinance. 

The draft EIR will be ready in September, with the final EIR completed by January 2009 and adopted with the plan itself in May 2009. 

The final plan must also pass muster with UC Berkeley, under terms of the settlement agreement that ended the city’s lawsuit challenging its growth plans.