Commission Expands Downtown Area for High-Rise Construction

By Richard Brenneman
Wednesday February 18, 2009 - 06:58:00 PM

A proposal to dramatically expand the section of downtown Berkeley where high rises could soar hit a rough spot last week.  

Four commissioners, including Chair James Samuels, had written their own revised Land Use chapter, which would remove the 220-foot maximum building height as well as open most of the city center to a soaring skyline.  

But city Planning and Development Director Dan Marks said at the Feb. 11 meeting that the expanded boundaries, especially north of University Avenue, could force a new environmental review.  

He said redrafting and recirculating the plan’s Draft Environmental Impact Report would delay City Council action well past the May 26 signing date set by the agreement that ended a city lawsuit against UC Berkeley.  

Nonetheless, Marks said, staff might be able to work around the sticking points. “I continue to urge the commission to move forward,” he said.  

Four commissioners, all with livelihoods derived from development, had pushed the proposal, backed by Livable Berkeley and Berkeley Design Advocates, the city’s leading “Smart Growth” interest groups.  

The other three, in addition to Samuels, are:  

• Harry Pollack, an attorney whose clients include developers John Gordon and Avi Nevo. 

• David Stoloff, a professional planner. 

• Teresa Clarke, a construction project manager for Affordable Housing Associates, formerly headed by now-private developer Ali Kashani.  

Also speaking in favor of the project during the public comment session was Erin Rhoades, Livable Berkeley executive director and spouse of Kashani’s partner and former Berkeley city Land Use Planning Manager Mark Rhoades.  

The commission has been steadily rewriting the plan prepared by the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC), and will present its own version to the City Council alongside the original.  

The commission’s revisions are far more developer-friendly than the original.  

Two powerful external forces are shaping the plan. First is the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), a regional government body that parcels out an array of state and federal revenues to local governments. The second is UC Berkeley.  


Changing or not  

At the start of the meeting, Samuels insisted the commission isn’t changing the downtown plan. “In my mind, what we’ve been doing are making recommendations. But we are not changing the DAPAC plan.”  

Nonetheless, the environmental impact review now under way was based on commission-specified development standards, not the more restrictive limits set in the DAPAC version.  

The EIR will determine growth limits and ease construction of projects within those limits—although the eventual implementation of measures mandated by new state legislation (SB 375) would eliminate the need for further EIRs on many new projects in the planning area,  

One commissioner who had raised questions about some of the commission majority’s earlier revisions—Roia Ferrazares—was fired by City Councilmember Darryl Moore and replaced with Clarke, who helped draft the greatly expanded proposal now before the panel.  

That move left only architect James Novosel as a swing vote. It was Novosel who had first proposed the inner and outer core designations which the commission majority initially sought to eliminate.  

While the DAPAC plan allowed for two 220-foot hotel towers and a limited number of 180-foot buildings in the inner core, the four commissioners want to dump height limits for any high rise that helps the downtown gain an additional 5,000 residents.  

They also, at least initially, sought to expand the no-height-limit zone south along Shattuck Avenue from the inner core to the outer all the way to the southern planning district boundary at Dwight Way, with a minimum six-story height for new buildings in the district’s expanded core.  

Dacey warned that the expanded boundaries for high rises would “guarantee a lot more opposition if huge buildings start getting close to the neighborhoods.”  

But the biggest technical problems posed by the “gang of four” proposal—Commissioner Gene Poschman’s nickname—arose from pushing the area for unlimited height all the way north to Berkeley Way, where Matt Taecker, the planner hired with the help of university funds to guide the downtown planning process, said 180-foot buildings would shadow “a couple of homes” on Hearst Avenue in mid-winter.  

Because the shadowing and aesthetic impacts of high rises in the expanded core weren’t considered in the draft EIR, Marks said, a new review might be needed, depending on what consultants had to say on the question.  



Commissioners spent the first two hours of the meeting parsing the district’s internal boundaries.  

Dacey’s strong insistence that pushing the inner core all the way to the southern boundary would spark resistance from neighbors worried that huge towers might be sprouting up along Shattuck did lead to a compromise, with the retention of a much-reduced outer core in the south, starting midblock between Durant Avenue and Channing Way and extending south to Dwight.  

That, in turn, would scrap DAPAC’s decision to allow at taller building at the Durant/Shattuck intersection only in exchange for a grocery store on the ground floor.  

While only Dacey and Poschman opposed the new boundaries, Novosel joined them on the losing end of a majority to raise the outer core maximum height from 65 feet to 85.  

A 7-2 vote also expanded the inner core boundaries to Oxford/Fulton street on the east.  

ABAG has given Berkeley a quota of 2,712 new housing units by 2014. While the quotas don’t mean the housing will actually be built, the city must grant permits up to that number if developers request them—and they fit city zoning requirements—or risk losing much-needed funds.  

But the four commissioners added a new twist by calling for population rather than housing units, with the 5,000 figure calculated by multiplying the 3,100 new units in the draft EIR by 1.75 residents per unit—which yields a total of 5,425.  

Commissioner James Novosel said the actual figure would be higher because downtown apartments are typically rented by students, giving a population per unit closer to 2.7 than 1.75.  

“I still believe the DEIR is far in excess of what we are likely to achieve,” said Marks.  

Samuels said his group had picked the 5,000 figure “as a way of getting across that we want a lot more people downtown.”  

Taecker, the planner guiding the process, described the commissioners’ proposal “a dramatic expansion of the inner core.”  

“This puts us on steroids,” quipped Patti Dacey, one of the two remaining commissioners who has been consistently critical of the commission revisions.  

She and fellow holdout Poschman both served on DAPAC, as did Samuels—where their roles were reversed, with Samuels on the losing end of key votes.  


Council choice  

Although both the DAPAC original and the Planning Commission versions of the plan will go to the City Council, the decision by Councilmember Moore—who typically votes with the council majority—could be a sign of which way the final vote might go.  

The council has the option of preparing its own draft, but councilmembers will have minimal time, a completed EIR and the strong support of development interests for the version nearing completion by the planning commission.  

Commissioners also sped through the plan’s Land Use chapter, the document that will set out policies governing what can be built and where.  

Again, commissioners hacked away at the DAPAC draft, removing restrictions. In some cases, Marks said, the restrictions were removed from the staff’s own suggested rewrite because the numbers involved couldn’t be sustained without further analysis.  

The draft that slowly emerged would be filled out later by staff with the charts and numbers.  

Samuels tried to restrict discussion to a rewritten version that lacked the stricken sections of the DAPAC draft, but relented when Dacey and Poschman sharply objected.  

Novosel said he wanted to add a statement about parking, reflecting a policy of restricting ground floor parking in new buildings in order to open space for more retail businesses.  

Marks said the rewrite would include parking.  



When Novosel asked why staff had removed DAPAC requirements for open space accompanying each building, Marks said specifics couldn’t be included without extensive analysis to determine what they should be or their consequences.  

Otherwise, he said, “huge, unintended consequences” might ensue.  

“That phrase is reserved for when you don’t have a very good argument,” Poschman said. “The great philosophical question is ‘unintended consequences,’” which he said was frequently invoked “by neocons and right-wingers.”  

“And left-wingers,” Marks shot back.  

Another quandary commissioners couldn’t resolve was how to create family housing in a downtown where apartments are usually gobbled up by students of a university which has a policy of not building its own housing.  

Commissioners briefly returned to the issue of minimum heights when they realized some of downtown’s newest or newly planned projects wouldn’t meet their newly promulgated minimums, including the planned UC Berkeley Art Museum and the now-in-construction Freight & Salvage Co. performance venue.  

And when it came to defining community benefits that would allow a high rise to scrap the height limits, Pollack said that any fees to pay for benefits should be set so the project would be financially successful and the city would get the hoped-for public benefits.  

Novosel said factors could include open space creation, restoring historic resources, improving downtown infrastructure and/or public works, green building certification and aesthetics.  

“I would like a set of options a developer could chose from,” said Clarke, so builders “would have to do three, four or five of those things.”  

“What if they did one thing really well?” Marks asked. And any policy the city adopted would have to be uniform, since the council has never told the Zoning Adjustments Board they can decide on projects on a case-by-case basis.  

Poschman said the staff’s proposed revision of the chapter’s section on benefits exchanged for height would effectively decouple the tradeoffs from the assurance that benefits would result.  

Stoloff said one solution might be a calculation to determine the value of benefits a developer received from the additional height. “I don’t know what percentage to say, but at least there’s a metric there.”  

“I like this direction,” said Pollack.  

Poschman smiled and shook his head.  

The meeting ended.