Public Comment

Commentary:Fast Times at the Planning Commission

By John English
Thursday August 07, 2008 - 12:35:00 PM

On July 30 I witnessed the Planning Commission’s session regarding the Downtown Area Plan. The meeting was distressingly chaotic and it seems that at times some participants got confused.  

But it appears that amid the chaos, key parties managed to pull a really fast one. 

The agenda’s main item was called “Building Height and Envelope Assumptions for DAP Draft EIR.” Certain commissioners piously declared that this was merely about what upper parameters of potential impact the EIR analysis should address, and that the evening’s decisions weren’t at all about whether the plan per se should fill out those parameters. But actually, the results may be a stark preview of how the commission majority will eventually vote on the plan itself. 

Remember that the plan that the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC) recommended in its November 2007 report was a carefully balanced package based on two years of very hard work and debate by that diversely representative committee. DAPAC’s final vote to adopt the report was 17-to-4 (with the only nays being Terry Doran, Jim Samuels, Dorothy Walker, and Erin Rhoades). 

However, the Planning Commission on July 30 evidently decided that what the draft EIR treats as “the project” will not consistently match DAPAC’s recommendations but, instead, will depart from them in two major ways: building heights in the core area and zoning in most of the residential areas. Each of these drastic departures was approved by a 5-4 vote. 

For the core area the DAPAC report had recommended a general height limit of 85 feet (for non-UC properties) but with the following exceptions (only one of which could be an office building): two hotel towers up to 225 feet high, four buildings of up to 100 feet, and four buildings of up to 120 feet. But the EIR parameters voted by the Planning Commission depart from that by changing the four 100-foot structures to four 120-foot ones—and changing the four 120-foot structures to four 180-foot ones (though these would need to be within the present Downtown Plan’s smaller but already sizable “core”). 

This means that downtown Berkeley could get not only two very tall hotel towers but also four new structures somewhat taller than the Gaia Building plus four new structures about as high as the Wells Fargo Building. Hello, Manhattan? 

This much potential change in the skyline could—among other effects such as on views and solar access—induce land speculation and development pressure that would threaten the survival of many of downtown’s historic buildings. 

The discussion even seemed to leave it unclear how many of the new high-rises could be for offices, and whether or not there’d be any specific limit on how wide a tower could be. 

As for residential areas, the DAPAC report had recommended that the large sections which are presently zoned R-4 should be downzoned to R-3. But the Planning Commission on July 30 said the draft EIR should assume the R-4 zoning remains. 

Keeping the presently quite extensive R-4 zoning could, among other impacts, endanger the affected areas’ many historic houses. I admit it may indeed be wise for the draft EIR to include looking at hypothetical maximum-impact upper parameters. But this doesn’t at all mean that such upper limits should be an integral part of what the draft EIR treats as “the project.” 

A draft EIR’s description of “the project” doesn’t preclude decision-makers from suitably altering it later during the review process. In this case, in all fairness, the initial working definition of “the project” should consistently match DAPAC’s recommendations. 

By instead evidently requiring the draft EIR’s “project” to embody the above-described major departures from what DAPAC had recommended, the Planning Commission majority has distinctly given those changes a leg up. This is because “the project” will be focused on by the EIR—and will tend to get perceived as what’s preferred. 

If “the project” is defined as apparently was decided on July 30, then the draft EIR should also pose a clear “alternative” that does consistently match DAPAC’s recommendations. And it should evaluate this alternative in sufficient detail—including both quantitative analyses and visual simulations—to enable truly fair and serious comparison between it and “the project.” 

Unfortunately, there’s no assurance that the draft EIR will pose such an alternative. And I fear that even if it does, the option may be given just the scarcely even cursory assessment that all too often is all that EIRs’ “alternatives” really get. 


John English is a longtime fan of downtown Berkeley and has been closely following the Downtown Area Plan process..