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Council Approves Controversial $40K Downtown Height-Profit Study

By Judith Scherr
Friday March 28, 2008

The marathon Berkeley City Council meeting on Tuesday night began on a high note, with staff playing a Pete Seeger CD lauding Berkeley’s efforts to reduce its waste stream. Lyrics were written by Zero Waste Commission members and Seeger wrote the tune.  

If it can’t be reduced 

Audience: If it can’t be reduced 

Re-used, repaired 

Audience: reused, repaired 

Rebuilt, refurbished, refinished, resold, recycled … 

Hoo-ray for the City of Berkeley, hooray for the City of Berkeley and its Zero Waste Commission … 

Zero Waste commissioners, however, pointed out to the council after the brief songfest that, despite lofty goals, Berkeley still does not forbid stores to use plastic bags, and it lacks recycling services for apartment dwellers. 

The council began its sessions at 5 p.m., with a workshop on possible ballot measures, but made no decision on what to place before the voters. It approved a condominium conversion ordinance revision, with a promise by staff to address outstanding questions in September. It approved a study on the economics of building heights and placed additional restrictions on smoking in commercial areas. 


New taxes 

At the workshop on potential ballot measures, the city’s swimming pools brought out more than a dozen people who walked or wheeled up to the public forum microphone to ask the council to place funding for a therapeutic warm pool—or combined warm pool and neighborhood pool upgrades—on the November ballot. 

But new swimming pool taxes may compete with proposals for ballot measures supporting police, fire, youth violence reduction, storm-water infrastructure upgrades and branch library improvements. 

The council, however, decided to delay its decision on what to place on the ballot—possibly a combination of various proposals—to wait for the results of a survey that David Binder Research of San Francisco will conduct in April to determine what taxpayers are willing to fund and how much they’re willing to pay. 

Jeff Egeberg from the Public Works Department showed the council slides of flooding in West Berkeley, a result of the city’s crumbling storm-drain system. Extensive repairs would take new taxes, he said.  

Recreation Manager Scott Ferris discussed a possible recreation ballot measure and spoke about the need to refurbish the 40-year-old neighborhood swimming pools as well as building a new therapeutic warm pool. He also brought up the skateboard park question, because the five-year-old skate park, which cost the city some $800,000, has numerous cracks. 

“Did we get screwed by the company?” asked Councilmember Betty Olds, referring to the contractors. 

“I’m not sure who screwed up,” responded Deputy City Manager Lisa Caronna, who was head of the parks department when the skateboard park was built. “We’re looking at the engineering company for possible future litigation.” 

“In the long-term, a full rebuild of the Skate Park is needed and a bond measure may be the best funding option at this time,” said the staff report that accompanied Ferris’ presentation. 

The question of a possible library bond measure was raised by Library Director Donna Corbeil, who pointed to the needs of the four branch libraries and a possible new branch at the Ed Roberts Campus, at the Ashby BART station.  

Councilmembers cautioned that if the city asked for too much, voters could reject everything, as they have in the past. 


Condo conversion 

The discussion of revising the condominium conversion ordinance began around 10:30 p.m. and went on for about an hour, with numerous speakers representing property owners on hand. They said they had felt left out of the loop in earlier discussions. 

In the end, the council voted 7-1-1 for non-controversial changes in the ordinance that would streamline the conversion process. Councilmember Betty Olds abstained and Councilmember Gordon Wozniak voted in opposition.  

Questions of modifying the 12.5 percent conversion fee will be taken up in September.  

One significant change in the ordinance the council approved is that all work completed without permits in a unit must be disclosed. Repairs would be required only for health and safety code violations. 

“It’s a piecemeal approach,” said David Wilson, one of those who spoke in support of property owners. “It omits the key fee issue.” 


Height study 

Councilmembers approved 6-1 the expenditure of $40,000 for a study of the relationship between building height and developer profits. The Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee had rejected a staff-backed plan to build 16-story “point towers” in the city center, along with a proposal for an economic analysis to see if the proposed Downtown Plan could cover costs of proposed improvements without reviving the rejected high-rise zoning as a way of increasing fees from development. 

However, a majority of Planning Commission members voted to ask the City Council to authorize the planning staff to hire a consultant to do the study anyway, and the council agreed to do so. 

Councilmember Dona Spring opposed the measure and Councilmember Kriss Worthington and Betty Olds were absent for the vote.  

“It should be referred to the budget process like every other item” requiring city funding, Spring said, arguing that the study was simply a way to allow developers to build high. 

“They’ll say it’s unprofitable unless they go to 18 stories,” she predicted. 


161 Panoramic Way 

A divided council voted 5-3-1 to deny the appeal of the Panoramic Hill Neighborhood Association, which opposed construction of a home at 161 Panoramic Way. The neighbors said the new home would create dangerous conditions, especially while it was being built. Numerous conditions were placed on developer Bruce Kelley’s project, but that did not satisfy neighbors. 

Councilmembers Kriss Worthington, Gordon Wozniak and Max Anderson voted in opposition; Spring abstained. 


The council also: 

• voted 7-2 to approve making the half-time civic arts coordinator position full time, beginning in July. Councilmembers Linda Maio and Wozniak voted in opposition. 

• unanimously approved an ordinance adding smoking restrictions in all commercial areas, part of the city’s Public Commons Initiative, which also includes prohibitions of lying on the sidewalk. The new ordinance, which will go into effect 30 days after the second reading on April 22, was lauded as an advance for Berkeley, which pioneered no-smoking sections in restaurants. Advocates for the homeless, however, say that the ordinance could be selectively enforced. 

• approved, just minutes before midnight, an item urging the Chinese government to end its violent suppression of peaceful demonstrations in Tibet. Councilmembers Laurie Capitelli and Gordon Wozniak abstained.  

“I don’t think this is appropriate for a city government to get involved in,” Wozniak said. 

The council is now on a four-week spring break. It will meet next on April 22.