Downtown Plan Hits Rough Waters in Planning Commission Discussions

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday May 22, 2008 - 04:27:00 PM

The curtain went up on the Downtown Area Plan’s second act Wednesday night, with a sharply divided Planning Commission headed for a rewrite. 

Planning Commissioner Dan Marks stood center stage, with the author of his department’s staff rewrite taking notes and offering the occasional comment. 

Commissioners have until early January to prepare their own recommendations, said Principal Planner Matt Taecker, who was hired to guide the planning process. 

Sitting on the commission Wednesday night were five members of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC), which was appointed by the City Council to draft a plan for an expanded downtown area that will house a projected 800,000 square feet of off-campus construction by UC Berkeley. 

After the initial formalities, the meeting opened with a comment by former DAPAC Chair Will Travis endorsing Taecker’s proposed rewrite. “I support both the substance and the approach of the staff recommendations,” he said. 

While Travis was outvoted by his fellow DAPAC members on key votes in the committee, his critique of the plan seems destined to find friendlier ears on the commission, which is chaired by another member of the DAPAC minority, architect James Samuels. 

Samuels and colleagues Harry Pollack, David Stoloff, Susan Wengraf and Victoria Eisen—filling in for an absent Helen Burke—all expressed support for the staff’s approach, Gene Poschman and Patti Dacey were strongly critical, while Roia Ferrazares was more moderate in her critique. The latter three members plus Eisen all served on DAPAC as well. 

While another DAPAC member—Housing Advisory Commission Chair Jesse Arreguin—challenged the staff’s ability to rewrite the plan under the council’s directive to the committee, Marks said the changes fell within the Planning and Development Department’s mandated functions. 

“These are very substantial changes and they change the intent of what DAPAC had adopted,” Arreguin said. “It’s important to maintain that intent, and to try to maintain the consensus.” 

“The details are very important,” said John English, who said “some of the wordsmithing was very good, but some of it is problematic.”  

English, a retired planner, had worked closely with the joint subcommittee formed of DAPAC and Landmarks Preservation Commission members which hammered out the chapter on historic preservation and urban design. 

“I am really disturbed about some of the perceived conflicts between the two chapters” on preservation, said Wendy Alfsen, a DAPAC member who helped draft the committee’s preservation chapter. 

Marks told commissioners that staff wanted their comments without any formal action so his department could prepare revised drafts that would come back to commissioners in the fall. 

He said the revisions presented by staff to the commission “tried to maintain the integrity of what DAPAC intended.” But the commission is obligated by city statute to take its own recommendations to the City Council, which must adopt a plan by May that meets with the university’s requirements. 

The plan was part of the settlement of a lawsuit filed by the city challenging the university’s Long Range Development Plan 2020. The city contended the university failed to adequately consider impacts of its planned projects on the city, and the settlement spelled out mitigation payments for some of these impacts and mandated that a new plan be created for adoption by May 2009. 

Marks said DAPAC’s creation will be before the City Council along with the Planning Commission’s recommended version and the staff’s rewrite—which he said was needed because the DAPAC plan was inconsistent in places and didn’t include needed measures to implement its policies. 

“I find myself in a classic double-bind,” said Poschman, who said that while he didn’t think the staff’s revisionary efforts were legitimate and he felt inclined to walk out on the process, “I will participate in an effort to make it as good as I can.” 

It was Dacey who dropped the R-word. 

Should the revisions compromise DAPAC’s intent, she said, then citizens will take the DAPAC plan to the voters in a referendum—increasingly a tool of last resort for critics of local government. 

A referendum on another measure is scheduled for the November general election, when Berkeley voters will decide if they want the city to continue using the existing Landmarks Preservation Ordinance and to reject a substitute [or passed by the City Council. Other Berkeley advocates have promised a November ballot measure that would challenge AC Transit’s plans to eliminate some traffic lanes on Telegraph Avenue to make way for a Bus Rapid Transit lane that Avenue merchants and neighbors fear will result in lost business and congested residential streets. 

While commissioners had been slated to work their way through two chapters of the staff's Downtown Plan draft, by the end of the meeting they’d only made their way halfway through one, the economic development section. 

And it was clear at the end of the day that the process would be neither quick nor painless. 

For more on the DAPAC plan, see www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/ContentDisplay.aspx?id=832