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Commissioners Finish With Downtown Plan

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday May 21, 2009 - 09:53:00 AM

Planning commissioners gave the downtown plan a final sendoff last week, passing their approval of the plan’s environmental review on to the City Council. 

Commissioners also voted for amendments to the city’s all-encompassing General Plan, needed to make it conform to the new district plan. 

The commission voted 7-1 on both measures at the May 13 meeting, with only Gene Poschman in opposition. Patti Dacey was absent. 

City Planning and Development Director Dan Marks said he believed the draft and final environmental impact reviews (EIRs) are adequate. “All the issues that were raised have been adequately addressed,” he told commissioners. “We’re ready to consider endorsement.” 

Poschman said he had submitted a lengthy list of comments, and had been surprised at some of the answers provided in the final document. 

When he pointed out that the commission’s revisions to the Downtown Area Plan Advisory’s Committee’s own version of the plan would lead to a significant loss of views of the Berkeley hills to some flatlands residents, the EIR’s authors responded that views of the hills are only protected by law for other residents of the hills. 

Poschman also charged that the EIR’s assessment of greenhouse gas generated by the plan had failed to adequately address the impacts of building new high-rises. 

After Poschman finished, James Samuels moved for approval of the plan, followed by the vote. 

Commissioners spent more time revising the language of the General Plan amendments, changing or largely eliminating old sections of the plan referring to downtown development based on the previous 1990 downtown plan to bring them into alignment with the new area plan. 

By the time the commissioners had finished, even Poschman said he’d vote for the revisions—if he were in favor of the commission’s revisions of the new downtown plan. 

But when Harry Pollack moved for approval, Poschman cast the lone dissenting vote. 

Both the commission’s revisions and the original DAPAC draft will be before the City Council when they deliberate on a final document. But given the short time available, councilmembers will have little time for serious changes. 

DAPAC’s version is more restrictive in the numbers of tallest buildings allowable in the city center, and would impose more stringent “green building” requirements and other amenities to be financed by new development. The commission’s draft is considerably more developer-friendly. 

While councilmembers received their first briefing on the plan and accompanying documents Tuesday, May 19, formal action isn’t scheduled until June 2, when a hearing on the plan and amendments is scheduled, with a second meeting on the plan tentatively scheduled for Bastille Day, July 14. 

The plan was created as the result of the settlement of a city lawsuit challenging UC Berkeley’s projected off-campus growth through 2020. In addition to compensatory payments offsetting some of the costs of the planned 850,0000 square feet of new construction, the university also agreed to share costs of preparing the new plan. 

The university must also approve the new plan, which was originally scheduled for city adoption by May 28, then approved delay without imposing cost sanctions that might otherwise have applied. 

With the downtown plan out of the way, commissioners will be focusing in upcoming meetings on completing the long-delayed Southside Plan and on making revisions in West Berkeley zoning to make bigger projects easier to build.