Downtown Plan Deliberations Near Completion, Still Heated

By Richard Brenneman
Wednesday March 18, 2009 - 07:12:00 PM

Berkeley planning commissioners are nearing the end of their rewrite of the Downtown Area Plan (DAP), meeting even as this paper goes to press. 

Their version will go to the City Council along with the separate version prepared by the citizen committee initially charged with creating the new plan that will shape the city center in the next two decades. 

The two drafts are rife with conflicts, with the development-friendly Planning Commission repeatedly revising key sections to make it easier and more profitable to build taller, more massive projects over a wider area of the city’s core. 

Last week’s meeting and this week’s focused on the final tweaks to the most controversial chapter, “Land Use,” and on approving a map that will define the boundaries for high-rises. 

Commissioners eager to expand the area where the tallest permissible structures could be built—the four 180-foot high-rises included in the plan’s draft environmental impact report and a pair of 225-foot hotels—have hit stumbling blocks. During earlier sessions some commissioners also wanted to increase the number of high-rises allowed, but both changes could require a new EIR study to be done. The May 26 deadline for adopting the plan, which was spelled out in the city’s settlement agreement of its lawsuit against UC Berkeley, makes that impossible in the time remaining. 

The agreement was forged as a condition of the city’s dropping the lawsuit, which challenged the university’s plans to add 850,000 square feet of new construction outside the campus boundaries in downtown Berkeley. 

If the City Council fails to meet the deadline, the university could begin cutting back on payments to compensate the city for the impacts of its building on city infrastructure. 

Matt Taecker, the planner hired with the help of university settlement funds to work on the new DAP, told commissioners, “staff proposes adding study areas for a future EIR” that would focus on pushing the high-rise zone north of University Avenue—something commissioners were scheduled to discuss at press time. 

Members of Livable Berkeley, a development advocacy group that includes the author of the university’s EIR for its downtown growth plans, have appeared regularly at the commission to call for taller, more expansive development. 

During last week’s meeting, two of the group’s members, retired UCB development executive Dorothy Walker and Sacha Constantine, called for broadening the study areas.  

Constantine, who identified himself as “an energy expert, if you want to call me that,” said “I really hope we can take advantage of this opportunity.” 

Walker called on commissioners to expand the study area to be “as broad as possible,” so that 180-foot high-rises would be allowed north of University Avenue. 

She also called for the commission to permit the high-rises to be built on the city’s Berkeley Way parking lot, which would plant point towers immediately adjacent to a residential neighborhood—something Taecker said requires an EIR, in part because of the shadows the building would cast on homes. 

Deborah Badhia, executive director of the Downtown Berkeley Association, said that if development occurs on the lot, the building should maintain the same number of public parking spaces to provide for the needs of downtown businesses. 

Barry Luboviski, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO Alameda County Building and Trades Council, also added his voice in favor of more development, but asked the commission to include language in the plan calling for builders to pay workers prevailing wages, including health and pension benefits. He also called for a section that would urge contractors to hire young workers from state-approved apprenticeship programs. 

While Walker also called on the commission to allow maximum possible development at the rear of the Golden Bear building at 1995 University Ave.—purchased last month by the university—neighbor Steve Wollmer warned of possible litigation if it does. 

The Golden Bear, which was not included in the university’s previously published expansion plans, directly confronts a residential neighborhood, and building a tall structure above its rear parking lot could provoke litigation as a violation of the city’s voter-passed Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance, commissioner Patti Dacey warned. 

Nothing can violate the ordinance, she said, without another voter initiative. 

When it came time for commissioners to conduct their own discussions, chair David Stoloff said he would allow 15 minutes for discussion of boundaries and height limits, “followed by a couple of straw votes.” 

Gene Poschman and Patti Dacey, two of the three non-development-sector members on the commission, immediately objected, saying they might need more time for discussions, but Stoloff said he would call for votes as planned. 

“I am not going to sit through a year of him trying to dictate what we do,” said Dacey. 

Poschman said commissioners hadn’t even discussed proposed minimum height limits on new projects in the downtown’s central core, one of three main zoning areas in the new plan. 

The board’s resident policy and wording expert, Poschman said he also objected to a staff-proposed section that would mandate that the plan’s two hotel towers would each have to offer a minimum of 200 rooms. 

They also questioned the staff proposal to require the buildings to occupy a lot of at least 13,000-square-feet. 

Dacey, a critic of expanding the number and area of high-rises, has consistently said that the only reason city officials gave for expanding the plan’s boundaries from the previous plan’s area was to provide buffer zones for the taller, denser development at the core. 

She told her colleagues last week that she was also worried that adding height closer to the residential neighborhoods would impact the ability of residents to generate power through solar panels. 

Planning and Development Director Dan Marks said that taller development would more than offset any greenhouse gas emission increases from loss of solar power. 

While chair David Stoloff insisted on limiting discussion on boundary and height issues to 15 minutes, even usual allies wanted more time. 

In the end, commissioners doubled the allotted time with their discussion before narrowly voting to extend the limits for taller builders to Oxford/Fulton Street along most of the plan’s eastern boundaries, and to extend the 85-foot mixed-use building height maximum further south along Shattuck Avenue. 

Staff rebuffed a proposal to give planning commission a direct say in whether or not a new downtown historic district is created, noting that the function is given to the Landmarks Preservation Commission. 

“I don’t want a historic district to prevent a lot of growith,” said commissioner and architect Jim Novosel. 

A voice from the audience offered an enthusiastic “Great!” It was Mark Rhoades, once the city’s land user planning manager and now a developer himself. 

It was commissioner Victoria Eisner, a private sector transportation planner, who said she hoped her commission could have a joint role in any downtown historic district designation, only to have Marks declare that the city’s Landmarks Preservation Ordinance reserves that right to the landmarks commission. 

Eisner said design review for new buildings might be a joint decision, and Marks said staff might come up with language about reconsidering the landmarks ordinance. 

“Oh, good,” declared an acerbic Dacey. “We can go through the last six years of controversy all over.” 

A former landmarks commissioner herself, like Novosel and James Samuels, Dacey was referring to the council-directed revision of the landmarks ordinance, which voters eventually blocked in a referendum last year.