Flash: Planning Commissioners Propose Eliminating Downtown Berkeley Height Restrictions

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday February 10, 2009 - 01:40:00 PM

Four members of the Berkeley Planning Commission majority—all with ties to the building industry—have proposed effectively eliminating height restrictions in the city's downtown plan. 

The revisions to the new Downtown Plan will be up for passage during the commission’s Wednesday night meeting. 

Chair James Samuels, an architect, prepared a revised land use chapter along with colleagues: 

• David Stoloff, a retired planner and developer; 

• Attorney Harry Pollack, whose clients have included Patrick Kennedy, the city’s most controversial developer; and 

• Teresa Clarke, an executive with an affordable housing developer. 

City Councilmember Darryl Moore named Clarke to the commission last month after ousting his previous appointee, Roia Ferrazares, reportedly because the independent-minded UC Berkeley employee was too questioning of pro-development proposals. 

Those four are almost invariably joined on votes by Larry Gurley, a Laney College math professor and appointee of Max Anderson and sometimes also by architect James Novosel. 

If approved, the new chapter would gut height restrictions passed by a majority of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC), the citizen panel appointed by the council, which spent two years drafting the plan. 

These commissioners also want to expand the area where tall buildings would be allowed, as well as eliminate DAPAC’s call to restrict development in the southwestern sector of the downtown planning area. 

While proposing some general height limits—85 feet as a general downtown maximum, with a 100-foot limit for UC buildings, expect for two at 120 feet—the revisions would “Permit a sufficient number of buildings over 85’ to meet plan goals for density, residential and worker populations, for hotels, and for higher level financial contributions to the costs of civic improvement.” 

With those 31 words, the DAPAC proposal and the delicate compromises that led to its resolution, would be shattered. The DAPAC plan had allowed for a pair of 220-foot hotels in the downtown “inner core,” but both the height limits and the restricted inner core have vanished in the revisions. 

Commissioners will take up the proposal Wednesday night, when they consider the plan’s chapters on Land Use, Historic Preservation & Urban Design, and Environmental Sustainability. 

Together, the three documents would define the shape of downtown Berkeley for the next two decades. 

The three chapters formed key dividing lines in DAPAC deliberations during the two years the 21-member committee spent drafting the plan that the planning commission is now revising. 

Planning commissioners have been much more inclined than DAPAC to raise the city center skyline, and Samuels has been firmly in the majority on the commission, while he was on the losing side of DAPAC on key votes about high-rises. 

While DAPAC wanted a rigorous system of tradeoffs for a limited number of tall buildings, commissioners have been more encouraging of tall buildings, which Samuels and his allies have said are needed to revitalize the downtown. 

The commission’s agenda is on the web, and the revised chapter is available as the second item under the heading "Communications" at http://www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/ContentDisplay.aspx?id=34602 

The meeting begins at 7 p.m. in the North Berkeley Senior Center, 1901 Hearst Ave. Fireworks may ensue.