Planners Tackle Southside, Downtown Zoning Changes

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday May 07, 2009 - 06:39:00 PM

With their Downtown Area Plan off to the City Council and revisions of West Berkeley zoning already under way, planning commissioners are taking up the long-delayed Southside Plan. 

The plan will govern development in the city south of the UC Berkeley campus. 

Land Use Planning Manager Debbie Sanderson briefed commissioners on the update process during their April 29 meeting, assisted by Elizabeth Greene, the planner assigned to the project.  

Work on the plan began in 1997, with an initial draft ready by 1999, and further revisions added to a 2003 draft. 

“Most of the language is a museum piece of where things were in 1999,” said Greene, but some of the recent revisions were based on the 1990 census, because there was concern the 2000 count wasn’t accurate. 

The commission told staff last September to begin another round of revisions, a task completed last month after meetings with UC Berkeley staff, city staff and community members, Greene said, 

The completed document is available at the main library and at the Planning Department, and has been posted on the department’s website.  

Now it’s up to commissioners to make their own revisions, and they picked a three-member subcommittee—headed by Vice Chair Harry Pollack with James Novosel and Patti Dacey as members—to execute the task. 

The full commission will review and possibly revise their draft before adopting a final version to send on to the council. 

The goal, Greene said, is to have the final revisions and an accompanying environmental impact report ready for the City Council in Sep- 

tember, along with accompanying changes in the zoning code to accommodate the plan’s goals. 

Currently the area includes residential and commercial zones. 

The existing zones don’t reflect changes to local and statewide development standards, including city policies on so-called accessory dwelling units such as garage conversions and so-called in-law apartments, nor do they reflect changes to the state density bonus law made in 2004. 

While the existing height limit for most private residential development is three stories, bonuses and variances could bring this to as much as six stories in some residential areas if developers include significant low-income housing in the projects. 

Projects on university-owned property are outside the plan’s scope. 

The revised draft given to commissioners would also raise the maximum height for commercial buildings from 50 feet to 65 feet (or from four up to five floors). 

Commissioner Gene Poschman said he was troubled that low-income units built to qualify for the bonuses weren’t as nice as other housing units in the same projects. 

“If you look at the last six projects approved, the concessions were almost exclusively used to make sure the density bonus units don’t have to be as good as the others,” he said. 


Downtown zoning 

After their review of the Southside Plan, commissioners tackled a March 10 City Council directive charging them to come up with quick fixes to downtown zoning, designed to make things easier for new businesses and for changes in existing ones. 

“They asked us to come back with amendments we could adopt quickly to encourage economic development downtown and to report back by July 1,” Sanderson said. 

She and her staff came up with 20 proposals, all designed to reduce the level of permit review, dubbing the package “a trial balloon.” 

The city has three basic levels of permit for new businesses and changes in use. The strictest is the use permit, which requires a public hearing and approval by the Zoning Adjustment Board (UPPH). Next is an administrative use permit (AUP), which requires a review and approval by city staff. The last category, the zoning certificate (ZC), is granted “by right” and accomplished by a simple over-the-counter exchange of cash for paper. 

Even with the changes, Sanderson said, “there is not a clear idea how effective they will be in reducing vacancies downtown. It’s a question of hope.” 

After a lengthy discussion, commissioners voted 6-1-1 (Dacey opposed, Poschman abstaining) to ease permit requirements from UPPH to AUP for: 

• Department stores. 

• Gyms and health clubs. 

• Theaters not in existing film and performance spaces. 

• Child-care facilities. 

• Recording studios. 

• Full-service restaurants with beer and wine service that are more than 200 feet from a residential district. 

• Full-service restaurants without beer and wine that are within 200 feet of a residential district. 

• Quick-service restaurants within 200 feet of a residential district. 

Commissioners also approved a reduction from an AUP to a ZC for quick-service restaurants more than 200 feet from residential districts, and they decided that radio and and television broadcast studios should receive the full UPPH review. 

The other action item on the commission’s agenda, approval of a condominium tract map for Urban Housing Group’s development at 700 University Ave., received a quick, unanimous approval. 



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