Long Slog Through Downtown Plan Provokes Tempers, Occasional Quips

By Richard Brenneman
Monday November 03, 2008 - 01:35:00 PM

Whatever shape the new downtown plan takes before the city council signs off on the document next May, it’s certain to be a lot different from the draft prepared by the citizens they picked to draft it. 

Planning commissioners are now preparing their own revisions of the document crafted by the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC), the 21-member panel composed of two picks each from Berkeley’s nine city councilmembers plus three commissioners. 

Mandated by the settlement of a city lawsuit challenging the impacts of the University of California's plans to add 800,000 square feet of new off-campus facilities in downtown Berkeley, the new plan will define the possible shape of the city's skyline through the end of the second decade of the 21st Century. 

“Possible” is the operative word, given the unknown depth and extent of the economic crisis now devastating region, nation and globe and its inevitable impacts on development in Berkeley—a reality Mayor Tom Bates acknowledged during Monday night’s Planet candidates' debate. 

Planning commissioners are working through the DAPAC’s draft chapters, making both wholesale and line-by-line, word-by-word revisions. 

One thing already clear is that the commission’s draft will be far friendlier to developers than DAPAC’s version, and is likely to prevail at the city council, regardless of the outcome of Tuesday’s election. 

DAPAC chair Will Travis presided over a divided committee, casting his votes with the development-friendly minority. He’s been sitting in on the Planning Commission in place of Susan Wengraf, who is busily campaigning to fill Betty Olds’ seat on the city council. 

On the commission, where he finds himself with a like-minded majority, Travis has occasionally openly disparaged decisions which were made by the majority of the committee he once chaired. During Wednesday night’s session, he called DAPAC’s vote to close Center Street between Shattuck Avenue and Oxford Street to create a public plaza “a strange procedure."  

"We never fully evaluated it," he said. 

Planning commissioners softened the language from “close” to “consider closing.” 

And Travis was clearly at odds with the majority over the number and height of high-rise structures which should be permissible under the new plan, and over the proposal to commission a study of the economic feasibility of high-rise buildings, which was rejected by DAPAC and then approved by the commission. The study ultimately reported that only the tallest high-rises are likely to be economically feasible. 

The two most thorough vetters of the plan revisions are former DAPAC members Roia Ferrazares and Gene Poschman. 

Both have given the revisions close scrutiny, often finding fault with obscure phrasings, somewhat to the dismay of Travis, who snapped at Poschman near the end of Wednesday’s session, “You’ve got one speed, and that is filibuster.” 

But even Planning Director Dan Marks, who has been guiding many of the commission’s sessions on the plans, has admitted on several occasions that Poschman has made some good catches. 

And when both Poschman and Ferrazares praised staff revisions to one section of the plan’s chapter on access, Marks responded first witha simple thanks, then added, “My God, we got compliments.” 

Larry Gurley, an invariable member of the developer-friendly majority, quipped during the same meeting, “It’s another of those times I agree with Gene, so I’ll have to go home.” He didn’t leave, and even found himself agreeing with Poschman a second time.  

The conflicts between the DAPAC’s vision and the commission’s in part reflect the reality of urban politics in the post-Proposition 13 world. The Jarvis-Gann amendment capped property tax increases to a maximum of two percent a year, well below the rate of inflation. 

The biggest pressure may come indirectly, because of the dwindling share of real estate revenues coming from corporate property holdings—the most valuable real estate of all, consisting of factory buildings, high-rises, and agricultural holdings—which are typically held for decades. 

Since Proposition 13 limited tax increases on existing factories, refineries, office high rises, apartment buildings and shopping malls , cities became more reliant for revenues on sales of homes—which typically turn over much faster than commercial buildings—along with new construction to make up for the ever-dwindling revenues from existing properties in the institutional sector. 

As voters became less willing to add new sums to their home property tax bills, governments have become even more dependent on new construction simply to remain afloat. 

In the brave new post-13 reality, even the most progressive of local governments now embraces the corporate sector both to fuel imperiled social programs and to fund threatened basic services.