Planning Commission Leaps Tall Buildings

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday July 17, 2008 - 09:37:00 AM

Berkeley planning commissioners continued their march through the Downtown Area Plan last week with a side excursion through a controversial economic study. 

During its two-year term the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC) has struggled to decide how many buildings should be built in Berkeley’s downtown area and how high they should be. 

Buildings of seven stories or higher have long been a focus of controversy in the city, pitting “smart growth” advocates against preservationists and neighborhood activists. 

While the smart growth group advocates higher and denser development as a key to halting urban sprawl, revitalizing downtown commerce and reducing automobile dependence, critics contend density brings traffic congestion, air and noise pollution and destroys the carefully nurtured character of nearby neighborhoods. 

DAPAC members worked out a compromise in their plan, allowing for more high-rise projects than most preservationists wanted but fewer than those desired by the smart growth minority. 

The plan’s Land Use Chapter passed by a divided vote, and a motion by the losing side to call for a study looking into whether it was economically feasible to build the permitted high-rises was defeated. 

But the feasibility study was resurrected by the Planning Commission, chaired by James Samuels, an architect who had been on the losing side of the DAPAC vote when he served on that committee. 

After the commission majority voted for the study, the city hired consultant Dena Belzer of Berkeley’s Strategic Economics group to carry it out, assisted by Steven Hixson, an Oakland development consultant. Hixson & Associates works primarily for private developers, though clients have included the University of California and school and library districts. 

Belzer’s Strategic Economics has produced reports for transit-oriented development (TOD) projects, a bete noir of the neighborhood activists because under California law a TOD designation allows denser development than would otherwise be allowed under local codes. 

Before the pair presented their report, city Planning and Development Director Dan Marks stressed that the document “is information, not policy” and was, in any case, not definitive. 

The two authors of the 41-page draft were quick to agree, especially given the current economic downturn, which has hit housing construction especially hard. 

Perhaps the most sobering news came when Belzer said that no apartment buildings over seven stories were ever likely to be built in Berkeley, and that only the tallest of the range of potential condo buildings were likely, in five to seven years at the earliest, presuming that the current recession is a typical product of the business cycle and not a symptom of a major change. 

According to the study, the 17-story, 180-foot “point towers,” which some had advocated, would only become economically feasible if the city allowed the buildings to be more massive than currently planned. 

A 140-foot condo tower would likely to be built only if the city reduced or eliminated the DAPAC plan’s green building requirements and the city halved the in-lieu fee for developers who chose to pay into a city housing fund rather than include condos at more affordable prices for those who otherwise couldn’t afford them. 

Under any scenario, no condo buildings between 75 feet and 120 feet are likely. 

During DAPAC’s deliberations over the plan, Marks had told the committee that concentrating new housing downtown offered the city a way to meet housing requirements set by regional government without raising the ire of other neighborhoods. 

The Association of Bay Area Governments sets quotas for the number of housing units that local governments are supposed to allow if developers are willing to build them, but doesn’t require actual construction. 

The DAPAC plan offered a compromise that would concentrate growth in the city center, while not giving in to planning staff suggestions that proposed 14 “point towers”—each 16-stories high—in the planning area. 

The plan calls for two hotels of up to 225 feet, four buildings at 100 feet and four others at 120 feet, with only one of the taller buildings allowed for office uses. It includes no buildings of the 140 or 180 feet height cited in the Belzer/Hixson report. 

While commissioners Susan Wengraf and Harry Pollack said they’d like to see more about the feasibility of office construction, Marks effectively nixed the notion, saying that another study would be needed for that, as well as more funding from the City Council. 

Final approval of the plan must come by next May lest the city begin to lose the compensatory funds from UC Berkeley specified in the settlement of a lawsuit over the impacts of the university’s plans to build 800,000 square feet of new construction downtown. 

Gene Poschman, the commission’s stickler on statutory and policy issues, said he was troubled by the premise of “a downtown plan revolving around luxury condos. That would be anathema to me.” 

Commissioners questioned a range of assumptions used in the study, ranging from land costs, feasibility of building at different heights, financing assumptions and the range of buildings used as models to determine feasibility. 

Armed with the questions raised Wednesday night, the study authors will refine the document and bring it back to the commission. The report will also be used in preparing the plan’s environmental impact. 

Commissioners also agreed that they wouldn’t create a subcommittee to review the chapters of the Downtown Area Plan they still have to cover before passing it on to the City Council, along with their own recommendations and revisions by city staff. 

The Blelzer/Hixson report is available at www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/ContentDisplay.aspx?id=832. 

The Land Use and other chapters of the downtown plan at www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/ContentDisplay.aspx?id=10828.