Public Comment

A New Climate for Our Downtown Plan

By Alan Tobey
Wednesday February 11, 2009 - 07:20:00 PM

In 2005 the city and the university agreed to cooperate on the completion of a new city plan for downtown Berkeley—the Downtown Area Plan (DAP). In pursuance of that plan a 21-member citizen task force—the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee or DAPAC—met more than a hundred times. Its draft plan, completed late in 2007, has since been undergoing review by the Planning Commission; that commission’s comments, potentially including its alternative version of the plan, will go to the City Council in April. The Council must approve a final DAP in May or begin to forfeit significant fees from the university. The university (whose own properties within our downtown district are not constrained by city zoning) must also agree to the completed DAP. 

We should all be proud of and grateful for the work of the DAPAC and for the ongoing work of the Planning Commission. Nearly all of the draft Downtown Area Plan’s chapters have been completed without significant controversy, and the new DAP will now guide future decisions relating to topics as diverse as environmental sustainability, economic development and historic preservation. 

Yet—as has been true in Berkeley for decades—agreement is still elusive on proposed downtown building density and future physical development. Disagreement over parts of the Land Use chapter has particularly focused on the most obvious issue of building height—how many taller (eight stories or more) downtown buildings we should plan to accommodate over the next 20 years. But the underlying question is really more about people than it is about buildings: how many new residents, employees and visitors should the downtown build for, and what services such as improved transit and street-level amenities are needed both to attract and to support these presumed several thousand new people? 

DAPAC members agreed to a general policy stating, “Allow higher-intensity development for housing and for limited commercial/office uses in Downtown's Core Area.” All would accept at least a modest number of taller buildings. All would allow two tall (225 feet) new hotel or hotel/condo buildings; the potential economic benefits of hotels seem to outweigh civic acrophobia in these cases. But consensus has failed when it comes down to approving actual numbers. 

The only divisive final vote by the DAPAC—11 to 10—narrowly passed a version of the Land Use chapter that favored significantly less density and fewer tall buildings than what the minority advocated. The minority view held that buildings in the range of nine to 12 stories are economically infeasible to build, so that only a larger number of taller permitted buildings would be able to generate from developer fees the “green urban amenities” that all DAPAC members thought will be essential to make the denser downtown more vibrant and livable. 

This ongoing disagreement is now also dividing the Planning Commission. But it need not remain an impasse—not if we look at the larger picture. The missing inputs are our recent local and state responses to the climate crisis, which had not begun in 2005 and which the DAPAC was not asked to address. 

Three new climate mandates should now help shape the Downtown Area Plan’s Land Use chapter with less controversy: Berkeley’s own Climate Action Plan and two new California legislative enactments, AB 32 and SB 375. The three compatibly provide new guidance for the question of how much new building is desirable downtown. 

The Climate Action Plan, commissioned by Berkeley’s 81 percent vote for Measure G in 2006, will specify how to reach our goal to reduce Berkeley’s greenhouse gas production 80 percent by 2050. It should be approved by the council no later than April. Though it also includes many other programs and priorities, the current Climate Action Plan draft clearly approves of aggressive community-building development to reduce GHGs from automobiles: “Increased density near transit is the single most effective means for reducing transportation-related GHG emissions. ‘Walkability,’ ‘bikeability’ and ridership of . . . public transit are fundamentally tied to density and a mix of land uses near transit hubs and jobs (such as in Downtown Berkeley) and along transit corridors.” 

AB 32, a California bill passed in 2006, establishes the goal that by 2020 the entire state's greenhouse gas emissions be reduced to 1990 levels, a 25 percent reduction that matches Berkeley’s interim goals. AB32 primarily focuses on stationary sources of GHGs such as power plants; it may introduce a “cap and trade” mechanism to reduce these large-scale emissions. But it did not otherwise specify HOW California will meet our now-official overall goals. 

SB 375, signed by the governor last October, now establishes other means. Its focus is not primarily on discrete pollution sources but on climate-wise land use and transportation policies to reduce future urban sprawl and today’s excessive dependence on the automobile. SB 375 establishes regional GHG-reduction targets and requires all local land use plans (including our DAP) to affirmatively meet or exceed GHG-reduction standards set by the Air Resources Board. Under SB375, as the California League of Conservation Voters described it, “By rewarding local governments who implement regional plans with transportation dollars, the State creates its biggest incentives for smarter growth.” 

We should not fault the DAPAC for failing to include these new climate-protection measures in its own considerations—it was never asked to do so, and it completed its work too soon. But the Planning Commission and the City Council have no such excuse. These three new enactments create a “new climate” for more positive consideration of increased density in our Downtown Area Plan. Our Climate Action Plan and state law now require urban plans such as the DAP to be proactively climate-protective. And taking that step will encourage us to embrace—rather than just reluctantly accept—the significant additional concentrated growth our downtown needs to be both more economically viable and more enjoyably livable as an urban center for the whole town. 


Alan Tobey has lived in Berkeley since 1970.