Even planning commissioners who have fought to defend the downtown plan crafted by a citizen committee are backing away from its parking provisions.
Parking, which Planning Commissioner and former DAPAC member Gene Poschman called a third rail of Berkeley politics, forms a key part of the chapter on access drafted by the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee.
But while DAPAC’s majority sought to discourage car use for the sake of the environment, planning commissioners questioned a policy they worried might discourage people from coming to or living in the city center.
Some of the concerns stemmed from plans to eliminate two traffic lanes on Shattuck Avenue to make room for AC Transit’s proposed Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system that would link Berkeley to San Leandro with a line down Telegraph Avenue into Oakland and looping into downtown Berkeley.
The combination of restricting traffic at the same time the city lays plans to accommodate 3,100 new city center residential units could lead to congested traffic at 13 downtown intersections as traffic shifted away from Shattuck, the central north/south thoroughfare, on to the parallel paths of Oxford/Fulton and Milvia streets.
Four of those congested intersections would be directly attributable to the BRT lane reductions, said Bill Delo, the traffic consultant hired to analyze the plan. “You could reconsider the lane reductions if there are no alternatives,” he added.
His projections call for transit ridership to increase at an annual rate of 2.5 percent averaged through 2030, while car trips would rise 1 percent annually.
Poschman questioned the predicted trip increase, when a “a population increase of 5,000 shows only a few hundred more trips,” especially given another consultant’s report that the only likely source of significant new residential construction downtown would come from high-rise condos where, the commissioner said, “two vehicles per unit would be the rule.”
He also questioned the idea that traffic would shift to Milvia rather than Martin Luther King Jr. Way, “because you don’t drive on Milvia without giving up after one or two blocks.”
City Planning and Development Director Dan Marks said that DAPAC members had made their position clear: that they wanted to discourage car use and promote transit even at the cost of slowing down traffic.
Roia Ferrazares and Jim Novosel are commissioners who also served on DAPAC, and they too indicated that they dissented from the plan’s intent to limit parking and through traffic.
“I’m hearing that there’s a fundamental disconnect here with DAPAC” on these issues, said Marks. No one on the commission disagreed with him.
“The goal of a car-free downtown is admirable,” said commissioner Larry Gurley, “but I don’t see any plans to get there.”
Chair James Samuels said that while he supported the idea of making downtown a destination, “I would still like to see ways of getting through the city.”
While Samuels said he never used Shattuck to get from north to south—or vice versa—Poschman said the avenue was his preferred route. “Probably about 70 percent of north/south traffic is on Shattuck,” he said.
“I’m hearing that while we want to make downtown a destination, we don’t want to make it hard for people to get through,” said Marks.
Novosel said the city should develop a parking plan.
“We want enough parking, but not too much,” said commissioner Harry Pollack. “We want to encourage transit and pedestrians, but we know a certain amount of people will still drive.”
Commissioners did seem to agree that while driving and the need for parking couldn’t be eliminated, drive-alone commuting could be discouraged, though no methods were mentioned.
When it came to discussions about what the plan’s baseline growth figures are for the square footage of construction possible under it, Ferrazares asked why the 800,000 square feet of construction already included in the university plans through 2020 hadn’t been included in the downtown plan’s baseline.
The university’s already-adopted Long Range Development Plan 2020 (LRDP) included that amount of off-campus building in downtown Berkeley, and inspired a lawsuit and settlement which mandated creation of the city’s new downtown plan now before the commission.
Answering Ferrazares, Marks said, “I’m not really sure. From a CEQA point of view it doesn’t make much difference ... It’s all speculative even with the LRDP.” CEQA—the California Environmental Quality Act—calls for evaluation of the impacts of construction projects, including city and institutional plans that outline proposals for accommodating long-term growth projections.
The downtown plan provides for one million square feet of construction, and Marks said that the university might not build all its 800,000 square feet during the plan’s time frame, so that “If a developer came in and said he was planning a 300,000 square foot project and asked if the plan covered it, I would say yes. This is all speculative, even despite the university’s LRDP.”
“Well, I don’t like to say you’re mistaken in public,” said UC Berkeley planner Jennifer McDougall, the school’s liaison to the city for downtown planning.
From the university’s perspective, it seems that their 800,000 square feet was already a given, leaving the city just 200,000 square feet to accommodate most of the housing that ABAG—the regional government agency in charge of setting housing construction—says the city must be willing to allow if it wants funds from several major programs funneled through the Association of Bay Area Governments.