Commissioners Add Two New High-Rises To Downtown Plan Environmental Study

By Richard Brenneman
Friday September 19, 2008 - 01:32:00 PM

Berkeley Planning Commission members, missing two of their most outspoken dissenters Wednesday night, boosted by 50 percent the number of 120-foot buildings to be included in the environmental study for the new downtown plan. 

While the move doesn’t guarantee that the two additional high-rises would be built, it does ease the approval process by potentially eliminating the need for separate environmental impact reports for the added high rises. 

Two of the buildings would be located on university-owned downtown sites, with the other four on private property. 

Commissioners are working through the plan, prepared over the course of two years by the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee, to have their own proposed revision ready for the City Council, which must approve it by May or risk the loss of some of the university funds promised the city as mitigation for 800,000 square feet of new construction by 2020. 

In addition to the increased number of 120-footers, City Planning and Development Director Dan Marks said the EIR will also include four 180-foot point towers and two 220-foot hotel towers. 

But just because the tall buildings are included in the environmental review, Marks said it is “extremely unlikely” the full number would be built in the plan’s 20-year time frame. 

While DAPAC members had repeatedly resisted staff suggestions that they welcome so-called “point towers” to the downtown skyline, the committee eventually compromised on four 120-foot-tall buildings and two taller hotel towers. A proposal to include two additional point towers failed by a single vote. 

But DAPAC executive director Will Travis, who was sitting in on the Planning Commission as a temporary member along with Teresa Clark, said he hadn’t thought the limit of four applied to the university property, then suggested adding a fifth. 

It was Commissioner James Novosel, an architect who has designed several downtown Berkeley buildings, who proposed adding another, bringing the total to six, with two of them on university property. 

UC Berkeley Planner Jennifer McDougall said the university might be interested in the future in locating one high rise near the intersection of Hearst Avenue and Oxford Street, and said another possible site might be adjacent to University Hall on Oxford. 

“God knows with this economy, but the university could be moving forward with some big project sooner or later and we don’t want it to come as a big surprise” to the community, she said. 

The school is looking for partnerships with commercial developers as well, she said. 

When it came to questions of building massing—how much of the potential volume of the site a structure would occupy—commissioners loosened DAPAC standards for purposes of the EIR, raising by 10 feet, to 85 feet, the height at which taller buildings would have to be stepped back from the lot line to allow solar access to nearby property and for the aesthetics of the streetscape. 

Travis suggested eliminating setbacks and leaving the final building configuration to the design review process, but Marks said that would produce an EIR with “buildings that look like the Great Western building, and I’m pretty sure that in Berkeley, we don’t want that.” 

The Great Western Building—most recently called the Power Bar building—is the cheese-grater-like structure at the southwest corner of Shattuck Avenue and Center Street. 

Commissioner David , himself a former UC Berkeley planner, called a requirement for setbacks at any height below 120 feet extreme, which was music to McDougall’s ears. She said said the school didn’t want any setbacks for its 120-footers, and if the city wanted to prepare an EIR with the setbacks, “it would have to be clear that this was something the university wasn’t going along with.” 

Marks said the plan could be made “a little more flexible”—a phrase repeated several times in the course of the meeting.  

Another source of flexibility, commissioners suggested, could come from reducing the package of mitigations DAPAC wanted from developers as a price for building structures higher than most committee members had wanted. 

The commissioners ultimately approved a study that will include setbacks at 85 feet. 

Tackling chapters 

Commissioners finished their proposed revisions of the chapters on housing and health services, then worked more than halfway through the section on environmental sustainability.  

Commissioner Chair James Samuels, another architect, who represented a minority on DAPAC but the majority on the commission, said he was unhappy with a section of the housing chapter that calls designation of the city-owned parking lot on Berkeley Way west of Shattuck Avenue as an opportunity site for building housing for the homeless that also would serve as a demonstration project for green “zero-carbon” building technology. 

“I’m not really sure I agree with going there,” he said. 

Commissioners eventually agreed to make it an either/or site—either a homeless housing and services project or a green demonstration building. 

The tension over DAPAC proposals to require developer mitigations for taller buildings resurfacedwhen Samuels cited the commission-sponsored feasibility study carried out against DAPAC’s express wish. That study, conducted by private consultants, had concluded that 120-foot buildings weren’t economically feasible, and that only point towers would work—and those only as condos, and then only if the plan reduced the proposed level of mitigations, including fees paid to the housing trust fund in exchange for exclusion from the requirement to set aside units for those unable to meet market rates. 

Commissioner Larry Gurley asked if the plan wasn’t designed to prevent all taller buildings, and Travis said the majority of DAPAC “felt there was something inherently negative about tall buildings,” with mitigations necessary if they were to be approved. 

Samuels said that if commissioners felt the mitigations would have adverse impacts on development of new buildings, “we should say so to the City Council.” 

“I support our chair,” said Stoloff. “Attitudes toward density need to change.” Stoloff, himself now a developer, said increased urban density was needed to combat global warming. 

“I agree,” said commissioner Harry Pollack, an attorney who often represents developers.” 

But Marks urged the commission not to rely too heavily on the feasibility study.  

“It is time-dependent,” he said, reflecting current but not necessarily future conditions. The study was completed before the current housing finance crisis was fully underway. But he told commissioners staff could include “softening language” for the commission’s own plan draft. 

The commission also sailed through the first half of the environment chapter, from which planning staff had removed large sections, many as “too specific” and others as proposals which should be considered on a city-wide basis and not for a specific area plan. 

Planners will be tackling the downtown plan again at their Oct. 1 meeting, while the proposed city Climate Action Plan will be up for discussion Oct. 15.