Planners Make First Move to Challenge Downtown Plan

By Richard Brenneman
Friday February 29, 2008

The ongoing battles over building heights and economics in downtown Berkeley heated up Wednesday night when the Planning Commission took its formal position on the Downtown Area Plan.  

Contrary to the position adopted by the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC), which created the proposed plan in the course of two years of deliberations, commissioners voted to ask the City Council to fund a study to see if the plan would be economically feasible. 

Each of the three votes against calling for the study came from planning commissioners who had served on DAPAC and voted with the majority there, with only one DAPAC veteran—Commission Chair James Samuels—voting in favor of it. 

Gene Poschman, Jesse Arreguin and Helen Burke lost on a vote that called for an economic study that would include the 16-story point towers rejected by the DAPAC majority. 

Making the motion to approve it was Commissioner David Stoloff, himself a developer, who called for the evaluation to include 10-, 12-, 14- and 16-story buildings in considering what level of development would be needed to make the plan’s extensive collection of proposed amenities financially viable. 

That decision directly contrasts with the stated position of the DAPAC majority that height trumped other considerations in their decision to adopt the plan. 

City Planning and Development Director Dan Marks estimated that the study would cost $25,000, “maybe a little more,” and would probably include a real-estate economist, an expert in building codes and a cost estimator. 

“I think this is a waste of time and a smokescreen to try to undo the plan DAPAC adopted,” said Arreguin. 

Samuels said the so-called “minority report” that recommended the study was presented to the City Council along with the DAPAC plan, and was backed by 10 of the 21 DAPAC members, “which was just about half.” 

While the DAPAC plan will go to the city council, so will recommendations from the Planning Commission and city staff, leaving councilmembers to pick and choose the elements included in the version they finally approve. 

The proposed new downtown plan resulted from the settlement of a city lawsuit challenging impacts of the growth projections embodied in UC Berkeley’s Long Range Development Plan 2020. 

In the settlement, the city agreed to devise a new plan that would accommodate the university’s announced intention to add 800,000 square feet of new off-campus construction to the city center. 

The settlement imposed a deadline of May 2009, for city approval and university acceptance of the plan, which is partly funded by university money. 

One unusual feature of the planning process is the requirement that the plan’s state-mandated environmental impact report (EIR) be completed before a draft plan has been adopted—a necessary step because of the imposed deadline. 

The Planning Commission will begin its chapter-by-chapter plan review starting toward the end of March, the same time when development parameters for the EIR must be finalized, with the draft EIR to be completed by September and the final version approved three months later at the same time the commission hands the plan on to the City Council. 

Those parameters will include 3,100 new units of downtown housing, Marks said, though the actual number built will probably be much lower. 

Marks has asked the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) for $300,000 to help fund the planning process, simultaneously asking the regional government agency to reduce the 2,431 new units it says the city must be prepared to accommodate through 2014. 

Siting the units downtown would be the path of least resistance, given strong neighborhood opposition to many major projects, Marks told DAPAC members. 

The planning director said he was doubtful ABAG would reduce the quota—which is the number of permits the city must be willing to allow, not necessarily what will actually be built. 


Public voices 

Commissioners heard conflicting pleas from members of the disbanded DAPAC during public comment, with Will Travis, the committee’s ex-chair, urging members to seek the feasibility analysis. “You really need to have an economic analysis before you forward it to the city council.” 

Travis didn’t mention what another former DAPAC commissioner, Arreguin, soon pointed out, that the committee specifically rejected doing such an analysis.  

Dorothy Walker, ex-DAPACer and a retired UC Berkeley development official, also urged the analysis. 

The minority contended that DAPAC’s restrictions on floor-area ratio and heights would limit development and thus reduce fees collected for parks, streetscape improvements and other amenities included in the plan. 

Juliet Lamont, the environmental consultant who was a leading figure in the DAPAC majority, echoed a plea first voiced by John English, a retired planner who attended most DAPAC meetings, urging the commission to use the committee’s plan as the preferred alternative in preparing the EIR. 

“I was part of a group of people that really worked to come to a compromise,” Lamont said, adding that many members were now feeling that the process was being abused. 

The most radical proposal from the audience came from Barry Elbansani, a Berkeley resident and a widely known architect and urban designer. 

“I don’t think 2,500 units is enough,” he said. “Let’s try 5,000. Let’s try 10,000.” 

In response to public concerns that the commission or staff would rewrite the DAPAC plan before it reached the council, both Marks and Stoloff offered assurances that the community effort would go as written to the ultimate deciders, along with staff and commission recommendations.