Economy, Downtown Plan Block High-Rises, Consultants Declare

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday July 08, 2008 - 11:47:00 AM

Tall buildings aren’t economically feasible for downtown Berkeley under the proposed new Downtown Area Plan, at least given the current state of the market, according to a city-funded study. 

The Planning Commission will discuss the analysis at its Wednesday meeting. 

The 41-page report, produced at the urging of some of city government’s most vocal tall-building backers, generally supports their contention that elements of the proposed plan will limit development, though acknowledging that the current state of the economy plays a momentarily dominant role 

The report, prepared at the direction of the Planning Commission by the firms Strategic Economics and Hixson & Associates, says that a five-floor, 55-foot maximum building height is the most feasible model for new apartment construction under the proposed plan, with some possibilities for buildings at seven stories and 75 feet. 

But chances for anything higher under current or even improved market conditions were rated “No,” and “Poor” even if the market should revive somewhat. 

Condos are a slightly different story, according to the authors, with no new construction likely to be feasible under the new plan at any height given current market conditions. Five, seven and 17-story buildings would be possible in five to 10 years and 13-story buildings would be possible after 10 years, the report says. 

The report concludes that limits of building mass through floor-to-area restrictions, green construction requirements and parking requirements and limits all play a role in inhibiting apartment construction. 

One of the biggest stumbling blocks for condos, the report says, is the city’s inclusionary housing ordinance, which requires that developers either set aside units for sale at lower prices to lower-income buyers or pay “in lieu” fees to fund affordable housing at other sites. 

The report also cites the controversial “cultural bonus” as a factor in facilitating new construction, using the nine-story Gaia and Arpeggio buildings as examples. It refers to the Gaia Building as a seven-story construction rather than according to the physical nine floors it occupies (a mezzanine floor and an equivalent loft floor on the uppermost units take up the height but lack the legal definitions of full floors cited in city codes). 

The report doesn't address what might make make it easier to build new housing, although city officials have said that taller buildings downtown are needed to meet quotas set for Berkeley by the Association of Bay Area Governments. 

City Planning and Development Director Dan Marks has said that only in the downtown area could more housing units be built without major political struggles, given the strong opposition in other neighborhoods. 

The council's authorization of the consultants' study was a repudiation of a vote taken at DAPAC, when members narrowly defeated (11-10) a call for the study (see www.berkeleydailyplanet.com/issue/2008-01-25/article/29018 and www.berkeleydailyplanet.com/issue/2008-02-29/article/29344).  

Planning commissioners will also consider whether to offload some work on the downtown plan to a commission subcommittee which would consider the planning staff’s recommended additions and changes to the draft plan that DAPAC spent two years preparing.  

The subcommittee would prepare another draft which would go to the full commission for approval. 

Dividing lines were already apparent when the proposal was discussed two weeks ago, foreshadowing a close vote Wednesday. 

In a related move, commissioners will also decide whether or not to schedule a special July 30 session to consider what building height limits should be considered in the plan’s draft environmental Impact report. Height limits could spark yet another closely split commission vote. 


Other business 

Commissioners will also take another pass at a revision of the city’s wireless antenna ordinance, which governs placement of antennas needed for cell phone service. 

They’ll also hear a presentation on the status of the city’s Climate Action Plan. 

The session begins at 7 p.m. in the North Berkeley Senior Center, 1901 Hearst Ave.