Council Sets Key Vote on Downtown Plan

By Richard Brenneman
Friday March 21, 2008

With an economy in partial meltdown and three in five Americans predicting a severe depression of several years’ duration, what can any economic expert predict about the likelihood of new construction in downtown Berkeley? 

Yet the Berkeley City Council will vote Tuesday night on whether to spend $40,000 on just that, overriding the express wishes of the majority of members of citizens who drew up the proposed new downtown plan. 

The resulting vote could forecast the fate of the most hotly contested provisions of the new plan that result from two years of hard work by a panel of Berkeley citizens. 

The latest round in the blood sport that is Berkeley development politics unfolds at the same time city officials are pushing for West Berkeley zoning changes designed to lure corporate genetic engineers trying to cash in on the half-billion-dollar BP-funded synthetic fuel bonanza Mayor Tom Bates hopes will flow from UC Berkeley’s academic labs. 

The downtown plan itself is a joint city-university effort to find the most palatable way to accommodate 800,000 square feet of new off-campus university construction in the city center, and the university will have a final say over the plan. 

The Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC) was created after the university settled a city lawsuit challenging the way the university treated the impacts of its massive expansion plans on the surrounding community. 

DAPAC was charged with drafting a plan to handle UC Berkeley developments in the downtown, while drawing up policies to update the last downtown plan, done more than a decade earlier and covering a smaller territory. 

While a minority of DAPAC members wanted to approved a staff-backed plan to build 16-story “point towers” in the city center, the majority specifically rejected the notion as well as a minority proposal backed by chair Will Travis to do an economic analysis to see if the plan could cover costs of proposed improvements without throwing in the rejected high-rises. 

For the majority, opposition to point towers was the overriding concern. 

Planning Commission Chair James Samuels, a member of the DAPAC minority, joined a Planning Commission majority in recommending that the City Council go ahead with the study, and endorsing the request by city Planning and Development Director Dan Marks for $40,000 to complete the study which faces the council Tuesday night. 

For Juliet Lamont, who served as a pivotal player in the DAPAC majority, attempting a study of economic feasibility in the face of the nation’s current economic turmoil is a waste of money. 

“Conditions were different five years ago, just as they were different three years ago, and as they are different today,” she said. “They’re simply impossible to predict.” 

But some of the plan’s proposed benefits, such as mandatory green, energy-saving designs, will almost certainly become requirements in the near future, as the nation grapples with high energy us and the need to reduce greenhouse gasses, Lamont said. 

And there’s no doubt the nation faces turbulent times ahead, with 59 percent of Americans believing the nation is entering a multi-year depression. 

Even Alan Greenspan, the former chair of the Federal Reserve and a champion of the Ayn Rand school of libertarian economics, says the nation is facing the worst economic crisis since the end of World War II. 

A host of economic indicators pointed to a prolonged economic crisis. 

With the bursting of the housing bubble and the collapse of sub-prime lenders that fueled, it followed by the collapse of a major investment house—Bear Sterns—prices of precious metals soar and the investment world quivers with uncertainty. 

• The rate of commencement of new housing projects dropped in February to the lowest rate since 1991. 

• The National Association of Homebuilders reported Monday that builder confidence for new single-family homes was at 20 out of 100, “near its historic low of 18 set in December of 1985.” 

• American Institute of Architects Chief Economist Kermit Baker reported on Feb. 22 that designer firms had reported “another decline in billings in January as concerns over a slower economy appear finally to be affecting the nonresidential construction sector.” Commercial/industrial architects “reported the steepest decline over the past several months,” he wrote, noting that “this could be a clear indication that there could be tougher times ahead.” 

• Construction materials costs have also soared in recent years, while the jobs picture has darkened and food costs are entering a cycle of hyperinflation, spurred in part by the demand for ethanol and in part by rapidly inflating costs of fertilizers—derived from natural gas—and pesticides. 

Given the uncertainty and volatility of the economy, “how accurate will any feasibility study be at this time?” asked Jesse Arreguin, a DAPAC member. “This is just a way of sneaking in taller buildings against the wishes of the DAPAC majority.” 

While the DAPAC-drafted plan will go to the City Council, it will be accompanied by a set of proposed revisions drawn up by the Planning Commission and city staff. 

Travis, who like Lamont was appointed to DAPAC by the mayor, said the study could provide a quick answer to one question that concerned the committee minority, the feasibility of building within the plan’s height limits. 

The central tension dominating DAPAC’s two-year effort to create the new plan centered on the character of new construction in downtown Berkeley. The university’s massive building boom was taken as a given, leaving the question of just how much private developers should be allowed to build, and what existing buildings should be spared the wrecking ball. 

Matt Taecker, the planner hired with the help of UC funds to guide the planning process, has insisted he wasn’t pushing the point towers, but he kept returning with the proposal, despite repeated rebuffs by the committee majority—and they came right back when the plan was handed over to the Planning Commission. 

The plan approved by DAPAC would keep most downtown buildings at 85 feet, while allowing four at 100 feet, four more at 120 and two high-rise hotels which could rise 100 feet higher. One of the hotels is already in the planning stages, to be sited at the northeast corner of the Shattuck Avenue/Center Street intersection. 

The second would be an expansion of the existing Shattuck Hotel a block to the south. 

Travis said the real issue is whether or not the limits included in the DAPAC plan would allow any actual construction to occur. 

While the existing five-story limit allows for reasonable construction costs, adding another story or two to reach the 85-foot limit necessitates a change to the more expensive metal frame construction, and only significantly higher structures would be likely to justify the actual construction costs, high-rise proponents have argued. 

“If you only get five-story buildings as a result,” Travis said, “you haven’t gained anything.” 

DAPAC majority members point to the seven-year review mandated in their plan, which calls for the height question to be reexamined in light of actual construction resulting from the plan’s initial years. 

The one question remaining is whether a construction-friendly City Council will back the conclusions of its own appointees to DAPAC or will side with the more developer-friendly Planning Commission.