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Competing Downtown Plans Promise Lively Council Debate

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday May 21, 2009 - 09:53:00 AM

The Berkeley City Council got its first formal look at its competing Downtown Area plans, with disagreements erupting immediately over the differences, in-cluding a debate on whether or not the two plans were substantially different. 

On the one hand is the plan adopted by the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC), a two-year effort put together by representatives selected by the City Council. On the other hand is the plan adopted by the Berkeley Planning Commission, five of whom served on the DAPAC, which made modifications to the DAPAC plan. 

In a two-hour workshop preceding the City Council meeting, councilmembers heard staff presentations on the two plans, community comment, and got a scant three minutes apiece to speak their own minds. Full council debate on the proposed plan is scheduled for June 2, with July 7—just before the council summer break—tentatively penciled in for final adoption. 

Once adopted, the Downtown Area Plan will set the city's policy and direction for development of its downtown core for years to come.  

What could eventually result is either council adoption of one of the two plans, some sort of compromise version attempting to split the difference, or even a plan that brings in new elements not advocated by either DAPAC or the Planning Commission. As Mayor Tom Bates told DAPAC and Planning Commissioners Tuesday night, the final version won't be the DAPAC or the Planning Commission plan. “It will be the council’s plan.” 

Planning and Development Director Dan Marks’ memo presented to the council for the work session said that the Planning Commission used the DAPAC plan as a “foundation, adding implementation measures, removing redundancies, clarifying language and recommending modifications.” 

Marks’ memo also listed what he called “some significant differences” between the Planning Commission and DAPAC plans, including the commission proposing raising building height limits between Durant and Dwight from a maximum 65 feet to a maximum 85 feet, and allowing four buildings of up to 180 feet in the core downtown area, 60 feet higher than the DAPAC height limit recommendation. Marks said DAPAC recommended creating a pedestrian-only Center Street Plaza on Center between Shattuck and Oxford while the commission did not, and that DAPAC’s plan generally discouraged automobile travel in the downtown area (“DAPAC viewed the automobile as an evil that should not be encouraged,” the Planning Director wrote). Marks wrote that the Planning Commission, on the other hand, “felt that while the effects of the automobile … should be minimized, the automobile … is here to stay and should be accommodated” in the downtown area. 

In formal presentations to the council before the comment period began, selected members of the DAPAC and the Planning Commission, reading from separately prepared written statements, sought to minimize those differences. 

DAPAC chairperson Will Travis said that while the DAPAC conclusions deserve the council’s respect, “in the short 18 months since DAPAC completed its work, there have been dramatic changes in the world that have had profound impacts on Berkeley,” including global climate change and the economic recession. Travis said that DAPAC’s recommendations “reflect the tensions that exist within the Berkeley community” over development issues, adding that “that was present in DAPAC. Some on DAPAC felt that taller buildings and greater density would make downtown more attractive, sustainable, and economically successful. Others on DAPAC were skeptical that more development in downtown would actually achieve these goals. Their primary goal was to protect Berkeley’s neighborhoods from the impacts of downtown development. The membership of DAPAC was pretty evenly divided between these two camps. As a result, DAPAC’s final work product contains some internal inconsistencies. The Planning Commission’s job was to resolve these inconsistencies and craft implementation measures that carried out DAPAC’s goals. The Planning Commission has done this job very well.” 

For his part, Planning Commission Chair David Stoloff called the DAPAC plan “thorough and comprehensive,” adding that “the vision, goals, and most of the policies are exactly or virtually the same in the two plans.” And Planning Commission member Victoria Eisen (who also served on the DAPAC but voted with its minority on most questions, as did Travis) also tried to minimize any differences, saying that “the increased building heights in the Planning Commission’s plan” are not the result of a new group “hijacking the process, rather these changes were made because the Planning Commission was working with the same mission DAPAC had, but in a new landscape” of added conditions and information. 

Others who were allowed to speak for just one minute during the comment period were not so convinced. 

DAPAC member Rob Wrenn said there were “really radical differences between the two plans. There were literally hundreds of changes that have been made, particularly in the land use and transportation elements. The way [those  

differences] have been characterized by some speakers tonight is just plain wrong.” 

Another DAPAC member, Juliet Lamont, called the DAPAC plan “a community-based vision crafted over two years by a diverse, multi-stakeholder citizen body” while the Planning Commission plan was created in a “much more restricted setting and simply uses private development economics … as the driver for its recommendations and policies.” Saying that the Planning Commission plan weakened enforcement measures, Lamont urged passage of the DAPAC plan. 

But Dorothy Walker, another DAPAC member, called the revised Planning Commission plan “a fine plan that deserves the support of the council.” 

Planning Director Marks said that so many changes had been made between the two plans that it was impossible to provide the standard computer file that indicated in strikeout and underline form what was different between the two, as requested by Councilmember Kriss Worthington. Instead, at Councilmember Jesse Arreguín’s request, Marks said that his staff would provide a detailed analysis of the differences between the two plans prior to Council’s June 2 session on the plan.