The Berkeley Planning Commission sees the Central Berkeley of the future as a thicket of tall buildings covering the maximum possible area, but many of the members of the public who spoke at Monday’s hearing on the commission’s proposed Downtown Area plan found the vision alarming.
The meeting paved the way for the commission’s final two meetings on its proposal for radical revision of the draft submitted by the citizens’ Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC) before the final decision goes to the Berkeley City Council. Even a substitute planning commissioner at the hearing who had been in the minority on DAPAC when the final comprise draft passed expressed his doubts about the Planning Commission’s new version.
Two temporary appointments were sitting in Monday night, Dorothy Walker filling in for missing Chair David Stoloff and Will Travis for Commissioner Victoria Eisen.
Travis, a planner who serves as director of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, and Walker, a retired UC Berkeley development executive, had both been members of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC).
Travis, who chaired the 21-member citizen panel, and Walker were part of the DAPAC minority that called for more and bigger buildings than the majority was willing to accept. But even Travis revealed himself as a critic of the Planning Commission’s rewrite of the DAPAC plan during Monday night’s meeting.
At issue was a point neighborhood activist Stephen Wollmer had repeated time and again to commissioners during their rewrite of the DAPAC plan—the notion that spreading high-rise development outside the downtown core violated the rationale for expanding the area covered by the new plan in comparison to its 1990 predecessor.
“The whole idea was to create a transition zone” in order to minimize the impacts of high-rises on surrounding residential neighborhoods, Wollmer told commissioners repeatedly.
“The whole notion of enlargement of the downtown was a very good idea because it allowed for a transition to surrounding areas,” Travis told his temporary commission colleagues Monday night. “I think the whole notion of spreading taller buildings into that area is not a sound direction,” he concluded.
The penultimate decision on all decisions about the city’s downtown area plan is up to the Berkeley City Council, though UC Berkeley has veto power, thanks to the settlement agreement that ended a city lawsuit challenging the university’s Long Range Development Plan 2020, which calls for adding 850,000 square feet of tax-exempt off-campus university buildings to the downtown area.
While the settlement requires the City Council to adopt a downtown plan and its accompanying environmental impact report (EIR) by May 26, city Planning and Development Director Dan Marks told the commissioner on April 1 that the city is asking the university for a two-month extension—which he said the city is likely to get.
That delay will give councilmembers time to reconcile the two versions of the plan before them—the Planning Commission rewrite and the DAPAC original—without incurring cuts in the mitigation payments that the city is supposed to get from the university to offset some of its development agenda’s impacts on city infrastructure and services.
Marks and Matt Taecker, the planner hired with the help of university funds to work on the plan, dropped another surprise on the commissioners Monday night when they said they’ll come back to the commission April 15 with changes to the city’s General Plan that will be needed to accommodate the downtown plan.
“At the next meeting we will have a complete list of all the General Plan amendments,” Marks said, including changes in the plan’s policy T-35, adopted by the city after a hotly contested battle, which aims to force drivers out of their cars and onto alternative modes of transit.
Commissioner Gene Poschman, himself a DAPAC veteran, said T-35 “was one of the most important parts of the General Plan,” and the idea of changing it had never been brought before the commission.
That section was adopted over the strong objections of the Downtown Berkeley Association, which has been pushing commissioners for policies that ensure no parking is lost and which has already won a vote watering down DAPAC’s call for a pedestrian plaza on Center Street between Shattuck Avenue and Oxford Street.
“We’ll bring you all the changes and you’ll have to act on it,” Marks said.
But Marks said a requirement for parking was needed to implement the plan’s policies, which would allow developers to eliminate mandated parking in exchange for payment of an in-lieu fee to fund parking structures.
Most of Monday night’s meeting was given over to comments from the public, starting with Carrie Olson, chief operating officer of MoveOn.org and a member of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Olson said she was “dismayed by the Planning Commission proposal that would severely disrupt the balance” between new development and the downtown’s historic character, which she said had been better protected in the DAPAC version.
She described the plan’s land-use chapter as “a very ominous proposal that sadly fails to take into account the impacts of the state density bonus law.”
Wollmer said many parts of the DAPAC plan had been changed significantly “and I don’t think for the better,” and agreed with Olson that density bonus law requirements could lead to even bigger structures that would appear to be allowed by the commission’s revised plan.
“The theme of the plan seems to be ‘Build, Baby, Build,’” said Austene Hall, a preservation advocate who had filled in for commissioner Patti Dacey at the April 1 commission meeting.
Hall said downtown Berkeley could meet the plan’s proposed goal of 5,000 new residents by more modest development at appropriate downtown locations rather than through the addition of significant numbers of new high-rises.
Another critic who came from DAPAC’s ranks was environmentalist and Sierra Club activist Juliet Lamont, appointed by the same councilmember who named Will Travis chair—Mayor Tom Bates.
Lamont and Travis had formed two opposing poles during DAPAC’s two-year life, with Lamont on the prevailing side.
Lamont began with a declaration of support for the original DAPAC plan, which has been endorsed by the Sierra Club and which she described as a “community vision put together to think about how our community develops,” without caving in to market demands and constraints.
“We have seen what happens nationally and internationally when we start to think like that,” she said.
The commission draft, she said, would lead to polarization “and will lead me to oppose it, when I was in favor of more density in return for all the good things we could get.”
Other critics of the commission’s revisions included:
• Martha Nicoloff, who quoted a PG&E expert who said the only truly energy-efficient buildings are wood-frame structures of 50 feet or less with windows that open.
• Nancy Holland, who charged commissioners with abandoning DAPAC’s compromises and creating a new plan “that gives special interests what they want.”
• Miranda Ewell, a Berkeley resident who predicted “a howl of protest in the city” if the commission’s draft is adopted.
• Merrilee Mitchell, who began, “Yep, I’m mad tonight,” then laid into the commission for what she called “a lack of sunshine” in a plan that she said “would give UC lots of access and we’re not going to have any.”
Fans of the commission revisions were fewer in number and came primarily from the development and business communities.
Deborah Badhia, executive director of the Downtown Berkeley Association, said the board supported the revisions, though the group wanted stronger language limiting support for the Center Street plaza to a feasibility study.
“Our vision for the downtown is an active downtown with more residents to create a thriving cultural context,” she said, adding that Shattuck Avenue street fronts within two blocks of the downtown BART plaza should be specifically preserved for retail stores.
Ariel Rabin, a member of the Downtown Business Improvement District Advisory Board and a member of a family that owns buildings on Shattuck and Telegraph avenues, said he came to “strongly support the plan in its current form.”
Alan Tobey, a member of both Livable Berkeley, the city’s leading “smart growth” advocacy group, and the Sierra Club, said the commission’s draft embodied the right strategies to fight global warming.
Tobey said he couldn’t support DAPAC’s version “because of the climate context,” which he said that plan failed to address.
Livable Berkeley Executive Director Erin Rhoades offered her support for the commission’s draft, which she called “a great leap forward from the 1990 plan” and “the best way for our city to address the biggest issue of our day, global warming.”
Her spouse, former city planning manager Mark Rhoades, is now in the private development sector.
More support came from Tony Bruzzone, president of Berkeley Design Advocates, another smart-growth advocacy group.
“I want to thank you for the great improvement in the plan,” he said, praising the commissioners for eliminating restrictions on building mass.
Several members of UNITE HERE! Local 2850, the hotel workers union, came out to urge commissioners to make sure the plan provided for livable wage jobs for their colleagues who would be working at the two new, 225-foot hotels called for by the plan.
Nischit Hegde, a Local 2850 activist, said she was concerned that the plan gave the hotels special treatment by allowing them greater height than any other buildings spelled out in the plan.
“While we recognize that hotels give a lot in fees to the city, they also have great impacts, including toxins, fumes and other impacts on infrastructure.
“We ask that hotels actually earn their allowances rather than just be entitled to them,” she said.
At least five members of her union came to the microphone to argue for union jobs, citing the benefits membership had brought to their own lives.
The commission gets its next-to-last shot at the plan next week at its April 15 session, when it is scheduled to make any last-minute changes and adopt its final draft.
One more session will be required to consider the plan’s environmental impact report.
While the end of the downtown plan rewrite could mean commissioners may be able to drop their weekly meeting schedule and resume their traditional practice of two meetings a month, they still have a full plate, including their ongoing project to rewrite West Berkeley zoning, a revision of the city’s General Plan Housing Element and, perhaps, finally some work on the long-delayed South Berkeley Plan.