Climate Action Plan Mandates Transit Corridor-Based Growth

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday October 23, 2008 - 10:08:00 AM

Though called a climate action plan, the document presented to Berkeley planning commissioners Wednesday night looked more like a developer’s dream. 

The draft by city climate action planner Timothy Burroughs won the praise of Livable Berkeley, the city’s leading “smart growth” advocacy group, now headed by executive director Erin Rhoades, spouse of former city planning manager Mark Rhoades, who is now a developer himself. 

Livable Berkeley and allied groups had been less kind to the earlier draft, issuing a joint statement that faulted the document for its failure “to challenge the status quo,” “leaving out any real discussion or education on the importance of increasing urban density on major corridors,” and neglecting to “unequivocally state that increased density near transit provides the most significant greenhouse gas reduction.” 

But Rhoades had no such problems with the new draft, declaring the group’s support because of “changes that emphasize land use and transportation.” 

But the same changes that delighted Rhoades worried Gene Poschman, the commission’s resident policy analyst and an outspoken minority member of a commission dominated by a development-friendly majority. 

“Erin Rhoades is quite happy with this. Livable Berkeley is quite happy with this. The pro-growth people are quite happy with this,” Poschman said. 

“Its motto is build, baby, build,” said the retired academic. 

“In Berkeley, it doesn’t matter what the problem is: The solution is increasing density,” said Patti Dacey, another member of the commission minority. 

And it took audience member Merilee Mitchell to point out one flaw in Burroughs’ plan, the claim that “automobiles account for 47 percent of Berkeley’s total greenhouse gas emissions.” 

But that was true, Mitchell noted, only when diesel-gobbling buses and trucks were added to it. 

Burroughs told commissioners he considered them automobiles as well, drawing a head shake from Poschman, who noted that, in Berkeley at least, a bus is not considered a car. 

Poschman had prepared a detailed critique of the chapter presented to the commission, but Burroughs said that the papers presented represented only a policy document, and commissioners would have plenty of opportunity to shape the resulting plan when they helped craft later implementing regulations that would give the plan teeth. 

Burroughs said density wasn’t the plan’s goal. “The goal is getting people to move around without a car,” he said. 

Susan Wengraf, a commissioner running for the City Council seat held by the retiring Betty Olds, said that for people in the hills, getting out of cars requires now largely non-existent sidewalks and shuttles, given that AC Transit buses don’t serve most of her hoped-for constituency. 

Walking along sidewalk-less streets crowded with parked cars is dangerous, she said, leaving residents little choice but to drive. 

And Commissioner Roia Ferrazares said she was concerned that the plan failed to include any coordination with current and planned conservation programs run by UC Berkeley. 

During the meeting’s public comment session, David Room, who served on the city-appointed Oil Independent Oakland by 2020 Task Force, said their efforts had also been aimed at getting people out of cars. 

Jack Sawyer, a social psychologist and president of the Parker Street Foundation,which buys up property to covert into cooperative housing, asked why the plan didn’t reflect the emissions represented by the goods consumed locally but produced outside the area. 

Burroughs said calculating such embedded emissions was difficult, but added that some estimates were included in the plan. 

Dacey later asked about emissions involved in new buildings, but the calculations cited by Burroughs in response involved only building operation, and not the substantial greenhouse gases (GHGs) generated by production of building materials such as concrete and steel. Dacey has been an advocate of retrofitting existing buildings, which studies show generates far fewer GHGs than new construction. 

Jim Novosel, an architect and a commission swing voter, said he liked the plan’s proposal to concentrate density on transit corridors. He said he would also like to see a requirement for publicly accessible open space requirements for new projects, rather than the little-used but expensive rooftop spaces builders now create. 

Commission Chair James Samuels congratulated Burroughs and others on the city staff for creating a plan he said “is very well done.” 

“The goal of increasing density along transit corridors has been around a long time without ever achieving this level of clarity,” he said. 

But Ferrazares said that while the plan proposes that development follow transit routes, “we only have one fixed transit line, which is BART. It’s a bit like putting the cart before the horse.” 

Commissioner David Stoloff, a stalwart of the majority with Samuels, Harry Pollack, Larry Gurley (absent Wednesday) and Wengraf, said that he foresaw “a huge backlash” resulting from any attempt to change zoning laws to create a buffer zone between greater density transit corridors and adjacent lower-density residential neighborhoods. 

Berkeley’s Climate Action Plan—available online at www.berkeleyclimateaction.org—has thus become the latest focus in the city’s ongoing battle about the role of development in the city’s future in which every issue, from preservation of the past to protection of the future, is recast into the language of builders, planners and their critics. 

While the planners focused on their own particular charge—land use and related policies—the Climate Action Plan is much broader in scope, though many of its elements relate to planner concerns ranging from transportation to construction technologies. Burroughs is also assigned to the city’s Planning and Development Department. 

The plan’s public comment period closes Nov. 7, and the final plan, after comments have been addressed and final editing concluded, will go to the City Council for adoption in January. Wednesday night’s meeting was the last public forum on the plan before the council holds a hearing when the final draft is up for adoption. 

Comments may be made online after registering at www.berkeleyclimateaction.org/signup.php