Planning Commission Tackles Cell Towers, BRT; Eases Through Downtown Plan Chapters

By Richard Brenneman
Wednesday June 25, 2008 - 09:55:00 AM

Planning commissioners who last week struggled through sections of the Downtown Area Plan will take up the Southside Plan, amendments to the city’s wireless ordinance and Bus Rapid Transit on Wednesday night. 

Commissioners are slogging through the city staff’s rewrite of the Downtown Area Plan created by Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC), the citizen panel appointed by the City Council which spent two years drafting the plan despite staff opposition. 

While city planning staff had wanted the group to come up with policies and recommendations, DAPAC came up with formal chapters, and it is those Planning and Development Director Dan Marks and Matt Taecker, the planner hired with the help of UC Berkeley funds to steer the process, have been presenting to the commission. 

Several commissioners, including Chair James Samuels, also served on DAPAC. 

The chapters before the commission last week focus on economic development and historic preservation and urban design. 

Marks said the city has received a $300,000 grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) and the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) to help draft the plan’s implementation measures. 

Dubbed a Station Area Planning Grant, funds are given to projects which are designed to boost public transit ridership and reduce passenger car travel by people who live or work in areas served by mass transit stations. 

Other objectives of the program include increasing low-income housing supply and jobs along transit corridors and encouraging other transit alternatives including walking, biking and carpools. 

According to his memorandum to the council submitted along with the funding application, Marks said $25,000 to $35,000 would go to zoning ordinance modifications, $50,000 to $75,000 for planning public improvements and an equal amount for drafting a financing plan for the improvements, between $50,000 and $100,000 for a parking plan and $50,000 to $75,000 for studies to establish appropriate fees for new developments, zoning code amendments and design guidelines. 

“You guys get to see all of that,” Marks told commissioners. “That’s what will happen between January and May,” when the City Council is required to adopt the plan or face the loss of funds from UC Berkeley under the terms of the legal settlement of the city’s lawsuit challenging the university’s long-range expansion plans which call for 800,000 square feet of new off-campus development in the city center. 

With the pressures for increased density downtown, both academic and commercial, the fate of the city center’s historic buildings became the focus of struggle on DAPAC, where Samuels found himself on the losing side—unlike on the commission, where he’s usually on the winning side. 

The dividing lines were clear within minutes of the opening of the discussion on the preservation/design chapter. 

“It ought to be called Urban Design Including Historic Preservation, because historic preservation is actually a subset of urban design,” said Harry Pollack, another member of the usual commission majority. 

But Jesse Arreguin, a DAPAC member sitting in for Commissioner Patti Dacey, defended the existing name, citing discussion of the joint DAPAC/Landmarks Preservation Commission subcommittee that drafted the chapter. 

Commissioner Gene Poschman, another DAPAC member, defended the existing name because “quite clearly, historic preservation is important in Berkeley,” and the chapter’s emphasis is also shared by other California cities such as Pasadena. 

George Williams, sitting in for an absent David Stoloff, said he preferred separate chapters for design and preservation. “They are different disciplines,” he said, and Susan Wengraf agreed. 

But it was Dan Marks who broke the emerging confrontation. “I would not suggest a change,” he said, though he did like a suggestion from Wengraf that perhaps preservation could be replaced with conservation. 

The ensuing discussion led to few confrontations, and fewer substantial changes—though commissioners weren’t finished when adjournment time rolled around. 


Wednesday’s agenda  

Commissioners face two public hearings tonight (Wednesday). 

The first hearing focuses on proposed amendments to the city’s wireless communications ordinance, which govern the placement of cell phone antennae. 

Antenna placement can be a boon for the owners of tall buildings, who receive lucrative monthly payments from cell phone companies, but neighbors have complained in large part because of fears of possible health effects caused by the emission of broadcast frequency electromagnetic radiation. 

Federal law, however, specifically bars local governments from considering health impacts in their ordinances, so critics have focused on the preponderance of existing antennae in the city’s less affluent neighborhoods. 

The second hearing will focus on the Southside Plan Draft Environmental Impact Report and the plan itself. 

No action is planned on the third discussion, which will focus on the question of which alternative the city should favor for the Bus Rapid Transit Plan from AC Transit. 

The most controversial element of the transit agency’s proposal is a call for restricting car traffic along Telegraph Avenue in either direction and eliminating street parking to accommodate a bus-only lane down the center of the thoroughfare. 

The meeting begins at 7 p.m. in the North Berkeley Senior Center.