Planning Commission Approves New Downtown Plan

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday April 16, 2009 - 06:38:00 PM

Planning commissioners voted 7-2 Wednesday, April 15, to approve their taller, denser rewrite of the plan that will guide the development of downtown Berkeley for the next 20 years. 

With the plan for downtown Berkeley out of the way, commissioner and non-profit housing developer Teresa Clarke said the city should now make similar moves to pave the way for major housing projects near the North Berkeley and Ashby BART stations. 

“What are we going to do to get more tall buildings near BART in North and South Berkeley?” asked Clarke after the vote. She compared neighbors who call taller buildings neighborhood-ruining “catastrophes” to critics of affordable housing projects who first say “the sky is falling,” then later hail the projects as “wonderful.” 

While several of the seven commissioners who supported their revisions described the result as an affirmation of the original plan drafted over the course of two years by the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC), commissioner and former DAPAC member Gene Poschman said the rewrite had gutted DAPAC’s vision. 

City Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, who attended Wednesday night’s meeting and several other commission sessions, agreed. 

“I have very serious concerns about the plan the commission has adopted,” he said. “It is not representative of the plan DAPAC adopted by a 17-4 vote, and which came out of two years of intense debates and concerns. Not only has the commission decoupled DAPAC’s requirement of green features and affordable housing requirements to build high-rises, but they have significantly expanded the area where high rises can be built, which will create serious problems for neighbors.” 

It is up to the City Council to decide the plan’s final shape, though the possible parameters have been defined by the already completed environmental impact report (EIR) which is based on the Planning Commission’s expanded development parameters, and not the lower skyline approved by DAPAC. 

While the majority of DAPAC members came from outside the development community, six of the commission’s nine members have drawn their paychecks from the building sectors, including three private-sector planners (Chair David Stoloff, Victoria Eisen and Clarke), two architects (James Samuels and James Novosel) and an attorney who represents developers (Vice Chair Harry Pollack). 

They were joined in their vote for the plan by Larry Gurley, a college mathematics professor. 

The two opposing votes came from retired professor Poschman—Arreguin’s appointee—and Patti Dacey, a private investigator picked by Councilmember Kriss Worthington. 

The plan, whatever its final form, results from the confluence of two powerful forces: the expansion plans of the University of California and the mandates of regional government in the form of the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG). 

The immediate impetus for the plan was the settlement agreement ending a city lawsuit challenging the university’s Long Range Development Plan 2020, which calls for the school to build 850,000 square feet of off-campus buildings in the heart of downtown Berkeley. 

In exchange for dropping the suit, the city accepted mitigation payments to offset impacts of the university expansion on city services and to help pay for the costs of creating a new downtown plan to accommodate the growth, giving the university an equal say in approving the ultimate draft. 

The May 25, 2005 agreement mandated City Council approval of the final draft within 48 months, calling for reductions in mitigation payments by $15,000 for every month of delay. City Planning and Development Director Dan Marks told commissioners earlier this month that university may agree to a brief delay to allow the City Council more time to iron out details of the final draft. 

ABAG’s role came from its mandate that Berkeley be willing to build more than 2,700 new residential housing units by 2014, and refusal could result in the loss of some state and federal funds administered through the regional agency. 

Marks told DAPAC members that the city wanted to allocated most of the units to the downtown area, since opposition from other neighborhoods could prove insurmountable. 

While the DAPAC majority held that the new housing could be accommodated without recourse to a significant number of high-rises, the committee compromised by allowing limited numbers of taller buildings in exchange for affordable housing “in-lieu” funds and payments to provide a public and environmental amenities. 

Samuels and others from the commission majority said the requirements had been rendered moot by the economic crash and the pressing need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But Juliet Lamont, a former DAPAC member and Sierra Club activist, told commissioners earlier this month that the environmental organization backs the DAPAC plan as the greener of the two documents. 



Before commissioners began their own discussion of the final draft, several audience members offered their own comments, including downtown Berkeley’s leading private-sector developer, Patrick Kennedy. 

While the commission had already eliminated many of DAPAC’s would-be requirements for high-rise development, Kennedy said even more reductions were needed if the city center was to become anything other than “a fright show,” a “graveyard” peopled by doorway-sleeping drunks. 

“I’ve been trying to rent commercial space on Center Street for two years, and I haven’t had a single inquiry from a retailer,” he said. 

While Kennedy said he backed the commission’s elimination of additional payments for green amenities, he said the city needed to go further by eliminating all development fees currently charged. Property taxes alone would suffice, he said, citing the $484,988 in property taxes and business license fees paid last year by the Gaia Building, a structure built by Kennedy’s Panoramic Interests and subsequently sold to Equity Residential, a company owned by Chicago real estate investor Sam Zell. 

“Downtown is on life support,” Kennedy said, and only new housing construction will save it, a view echoed by another retired developer, Dorothy Walker, formerly of UC Berkeley’s capital projects department.  

But architect Novosel, who later voted for the plan, said, “I actually like the downtown.” 

Another developer echoed Kennedy’s views. “Our downtown is really deteriorating,” said Ali Kashani, a developer whose latest partner is the city’s former Land Use Planning Manager Mark Rhoades.