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Building Heights Trigger Commission Questions

By Richard Brenneman
Wednesday January 21, 2009 - 07:35:00 PM
Downtown planner Matt Taecker tells planning commissioners about the impacts of proposed new high rises on the city center.
By Richard Brenneman
Downtown planner Matt Taecker tells planning commissioners about the impacts of proposed new high rises on the city center.

One of Berkeley’s two new planning commissioners last week proposed a move that would scrap outright the key compromise of the downtown plan shaped by a now-disbanded citizen committee. 

Theresa Clarke is one of two new commissioners who made their appearance at Wednesday night’s meeting, along with a returning member who had briefly left the panel. 

Clarke’s suggestion to scrap the limits on the number of new high-rises allowed in the city center brought an audible gasp from one commissioner, Patti Dacey. 

Meanwhile, critics of the plan created by the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC) came to the meeting armed with a new set of talking points: DAPAC’s plan was wonderful for its time, but it’s been superseded by events. 

DAPAC Chair Will Travis, who had found himself on the losing side on DAPAC’s votes to set limits on the numbers and heights of new high-rises, made a passionate plea calling on commissioners to be dispassionate in their deliberations. 

Travis and other critics like former city Land Use Planning Manager Mark Rhoades, now a developer himself, and representatives of Livable Berkeley (Rhoades’ spouse Erin Banks is executive director), called on commissioners to grease the skids for taller, denser downtown development. 

The reasons? New state laws pushing development on transit corridors, the need for radical measures to combat greenhouse gases and a search for ways to stimulate development in a down-turned economy. 

“Forward-looking leaders have finally recognized that we must confront global climate change in everything we do,” said Travis. Higher buildings and greater density “are critical,” he said. 

But beneath the green rhetoric, the “smart growth” advocates wanted to scrap many of the “green” measures included in the DAPAC plan, including provisions that would grant height only in exchange for erecting buildings with low-carbon footprints and significant funding to provide truly affordable housing. 

Mayor Tom Bates appointed Travis as DAPAC chair—an unusual move in a city which typically has allowed committees and commissions to elect their own chairs. Each City Council member had two appointees, and Bates’ second pick, Juliet Lamont, proved the antithesis of Travis, leading the efforts to shoot down his build-it-taller proposals. 

Lamont urged the commission not to rewrite the plan, but simply send DAPAC’s original on to the City Council with their recommendation for adoption. 


Fee questions 

The building boomers want the commission to lower the fees that would allow developers to erect all-market-rate apartment and condo buildings in exchange for paying the city “in-lieu fees” that would help bankroll all-affordable buildings elsewhere. 

But cutting the in-lieu fees on buildings that commissioner Gene Poschman has said will only house million-dollar condos is certain to attract criticism from the only city councilmember who has been attending commission sessions of late, Jesse Arreguin, who was elected by downtown voters in November. 

“I’m concerned about some of the things that commissioners are suggesting, such as cutting fees for affordable housing by 50 percent and removing all the conditions for increasing development downtown,” said Arreguin, who had served on the city’s housing commission before his election. 

Helen Burke, a former commissioner who represented the panel on DAPAC during its two years of deliberations, faulted the proposed revisions developed by the planning department staff because “they break the green requirements” DAPAC had written into the plan. 

Burke also disparaged an economic analysis of the impact of building height limits on the feasibility of new construction. While that analysis held that no new construction of buildings between five or six stories and 16 stories was likely given economic constraints, Burke said “conditions have now changed drastically.” 

But Dorothy Walker, a retired UC Berkeley administrator, said she was disappointed the staff report didn’t urge more and bigger buildings. “We must allow four or five exceptional buildings of at least 180 feet so that we can get the benefits we are seeking.” 

Otherwise, she said, staff would be conceding most new downtown development to the university, which plans to build 800,000 square feet of new construction in the heart of the city. 

Other audience members said they were concerned that high-rises would destroy views of the hills from surrounding residential neighborhood and harm the character of the city center. 


Charging forward 

Both the DAPAC version and the commission’s alternative will go to the City Council, which can approve one or the other or work up their own version by combining elements of both. To give themselves time to finish their run through the chapters, commissioners voted to add additional meetings to their schedule. 

The plan’s environmental impact report (EIR) is being written now, even though the plan isn’t complete. The reason? The city must approve the plan, and that requires approval of the EIR, in May, lest the university start withholding payments to the city negotiated in the settlement of a lawsuit challenging UC Berkeley’s Long Range Development Plan 2020, which laid out Cal’s extensive off-campus building agenda. 

“Our plan is to at least get you the comments from the EIR before you act on recommendations to the council,” Berkeley Planning and Development Director Dan Marks told commissioners. 

The EIR will consider the impacts of a plan that allows construction of two 220-foot hotels in the downtown inner core area and four additional buildings at 180 feet. The outer core would include six 120-foot buildings, two of which would belong to the university. 

But the planner hired by the city with the help of university funds to steer the planning process, Taecker, recommended only three 180-footers for the plan’s final draft. He also said that the feasibility study had shown 120-foot buildings to be not feasible for apartment/condo use, “but it didn’t look at it for offices.” 

Marks said the possibility of the taller hotel buildings was at best questionable, given the current state of the economy. And even in better times, the Massachusetts-based would-be developer of the university-supported hotel at the northeast corner of the intersection of Shattuck Avenue and Center Street had told the city the hotel would be feasible only if the developer could include condos. 

“But condos and hotels are now pretty well dead, and they may be dead for quite a long time,” Marks said. 

When it came to a final decision on building heights, Taecker, said he wasn’t looking for a final vote, but “a general sense of how various commissioners feel about various building heights.” 

During a second round of public comment, members of two lobbying groups, Livable Berkeley (which also includes Walker among its members) and Berkeley Design Asdvocates dominated, leading the charge to taller and denser. 

Livable Berkeley’s executive director Banks, Alan Tobey and Sachu Constantine represented that group, while Tony Bruzzone spoke for Berkeley Design Advocates. Joel Ramos spoke on behalf of TRANSFORM, the group formerly known as the Transportation and Land Use Coalition. 

Their arguments have been consistent throughout the planning process: Only significantly increased population density will make for an economically and socially viable downtown, while bringing more people into proximity to BART and buses will reduce per capita greenhouse gas emissions. 

It was Clarke, one of two new commissioners attending their first meetings Wednesday, who dropped the bombshell that drew Dacey’s gasp and a eyeball roll from Gene Poschman. 

Victoria Eisen, the second newcomer on the commission, had also served on DAPAC, and while she’d didn’t endorse Clarke’s proposal, she suggested that the commission might find a way to create more density by allowing more of the taller buildings endorsed by the feasibility study, while reducing the overall total of stories created by combining all the buildings permitted under the DAPAC plan. 

But in return, she insisted, the commission should hold to the requirements DAPAC had proposed for increased height. 

Commissioner Harry Pollack said at least twice during the meeting that all the commissioners seemed to agree on goals, leaving only the means to be decided. Dacey grimaced both times. 

“We have to let go a little and let the market work things out,” said Clarke, at which point Dacey threw up her hands. 

Commission Chair James Samuels, a retired architect, said that while 75 feet was the most cost-efficient building height, “We need to get to 180 feet before we can pay for all the things we need.” 

“Most of the development will continue to be five to seven stories,” said David Stoloff, who was returning to the commission after a brief hiatus. “We are over-worrying about a forest of tall buildings.”