Commission High-Rise Vote Calls for Point Tower Study

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday July 31, 2008 - 09:37:00 PM

The ongoing struggle over the shape of Berkeley’s future skyline gained a higher profile during a lengthy session of the city Planning Commission on Wednesday night. 

At issue was the question of how many tall buildings—and what heights—should be included in the environmental impact review for the city’s new Downtown Area Plan (DAP). 

The battle over building heights pits “smart growth” advocates against neighborhood activists, with the lines sharply drawn during the two years that the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC) spent drafting the plan, which is now before the commission for review before it moves to the council—and UC Berkeley—for final approval.  

Smart growth advocates want dense housing built near urban transit hubs, with high-rises close to work, proposed as solutions to greenhouse gases generated by commuters who drive from distant suburbs. 

But neighborhood activists, allied with preservationists and some environmentalists, won a DAPAC vote that rejected a plan repeatedly proposed by staff and backed by committee Chair Will Travis: to concentrate new housing in so-called point towers built in the city center. 

Two members of the DAPAC minority—Travis and retired UC Berkeley development executive Dorothy Walker—urged commissioners to include, respectively, eight or ten of the 180-foot high-rises in the environmental study. 

But environmentalist Juliet Lamont, a member of the DAPAC majority, said benefits from high-rises were marginal at even the most optimistic projections. “If someone said we would start to get benefits at 30 stories, would we do that?” she asked. 

But Travis said, “I believe the staff has allowed (DAPAC’s) political compromise to get in the way of providing the thorough professional analysis that is truly needed.” 

Walker urged the commission to extend the core area open to high rises “along the entire length of Shattuck and University avenues. Your decisions require that you take the long view beyond the horizons of our current population.” 

But Jesse Arreguin, chair of the city’s housing advisory commission and a candidate for the downtown City Council seat, said he was surprised to see the point towers brought back “as part of the discussion of the environmental impact report.”  

He said he was dismayed to see a feasibility report commissioned by the city at the Planning Commission’s request—though specifically voted down earlier by DAPAC—which suggests cutting in-lieu fees paid by developers to fund public housing in exchange for building all-market-rate condo high-rises. 

“Is it important that we cut some deal and let developers have luxury condos or that we really have affordable housing?” Arreguin asked. 

“This is not about empowering developers, but increasing the livability of downtown,” said developer Ali Kashani, who said the downtown “has suffered for 30 years from tweak and twist adjustments.” 

Kashani said the DAPAC plan wouldn’t work, because “the compromises were wrong,” as was the staff proposal to limit the 180-foot buildings to a single pair. 

Deborah Badhia, executive director of the Downtown Berkeley Association, said her organization wants to see both more housing density and greater employment intensity downtown. 

When it came for the commissioners to weigh in, the first vote of the evening called for the EIR not to include a study which featured the downzoning of the expanded downtown area’s single family residential areas, which are in neighborhoods zoned for higher density R-4 apartments. 

The motion by commissioner and attorney Harry Pollack carried on a five-four vote, joined by David Stoloff, City Council candidate Susan Wengraf, Larry Gurley and Chair James Samuels.  

But a second motion, which would have extended the DAPAC plan’s downtown core base height of 85-feet along the south along either side of Shattuck Avenue on the two-and-a-half-block stretch between Dwight Way—the southern limit of the new planning area—and midway on the block between Channing Way and Durant Avenue, failed on a 4-5 vote, with Wengraf joining Roia Ferrazares, James Novosel, Jason Overman (filling in for Patti Dacey) and Gene Poschman. 

Gurley switched sides to join with the others in a vote to keep the southern stretch of Shattuck at its present 65-foot height limit. 

The third vote was on the most controversial subject: point towers and other tall buildings in the city center. 

Both the existing and DAPAC plans contains central core areas where denser development is allowed, though the new plan extends the boundaries of the older core. 

Overman said his biggest concern was that the staff proposal contradicted the work of DAPAC. “Are we showing proper deference to what has really been a thorough public process?” he asked. 

Poschman said he wanted to “get back to the basics of what I call the infesasibility study,” which ruled out the possibility of high-rise apartments and left open only the possibility of million-dollar condos. “The question is, who’s going to live here?” 

He questioned a decision he said would favor housing for the well-to-do, who would be unlikely to give up “their two or three cars” at the expense of inclusionary housing for those of lower incomes and other amenities DAPAC wanted to fund with developer fees. 

In the end, commissioners voted on a compromise proposal from Novosel and Stoloff, who are frequent opponents on many commission votes. 

Under their proposal, the EIR study would include four of the 180-foot point towers in the older, smaller core area, plus four 120-foot buildings—rejected by the feasibility study as economically unviable—in the larger new core. 

Samuels wanted a study that would have included eight of the 180-footers, and the final vote was 6-3 in favor of the compromise, with Ferrazares, Poschman and Overman opposing. 

While none of Wednesday night’s votes are binding on the commission for its proposed revisions to the plan which will got to the council along with DAPAC’s original proposal in late December or early January, any significant changes could result in the need for revisions to the final EIR, which will go to the council for adoption with that body’s final plan revisions by late May