City Council Approves Climate Action Plan

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday June 04, 2009 - 06:59:00 AM

The Berkeley City Council moved forward on its two major policy initiatives Tuesday night, giving unanimous approval to a slightly amended version of the Climate Action Plan (CAP) and holding its first public hearing on the Downtown Area Plan (DAP) before giving suggestions to staff for possible changes. 

The Downtown Area Plan, which will set the direction and parameters for development in the city’s downtown area for years to come, will come back to the council again for review on June 9, with a final vote on adoption tentatively scheduled for July 7. 

Complicating the decision over the DAP is that there are actually two plans, the original version produced by the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC), which was then modified into a second version by the Planning Commission. The council must reconcile the differences between the two plans, a task made even more complicated, as Mayor Tom Bates pointed out on Tuesday, in that both plans were drawn up by committees made up of members selected by the councilmembers themselves. 

Noting that both the DAPAC and the Planning Commission properly carried out their roles in producing the competing plans, Bates said, “I hate this dilemma that somehow we have to choose one plan over the other plan. I think that’s false process. I think it’s a mistake to fall into that trap. What we need to do is look at both plans and decide what is good in one plan, what is good in the other plan, and then meld them together and come up with a plan that will be the council’s plan, that will be the people’s plan.” 

At the City Council’s request, Planning and Development Director Dan Marks produced a 155-page report for Tuesday’s meeting with a side-by-side reprinting of the two DAP versions, complete with highlighted notes by city staff on the differences between the two. 

Some areas of a growing council consensus on emphasis began to emerge during Tuesday night’s debate. Councilmembers Kriss Worthington, Linda Maio, Jesse Arreguín, Darryl Moore, and Max Anderson all said they wanted a strong affordable housing component to the downtown plan, with Maio saying that, while “the term ‘workforce housing’ was not prominent in either plan,” she wanted an emphasis on housing for people who are working in the downtown area “because we don’t want people in their cars driving from Walnut Creek or Pinole or whatever through our neighborhoods to get to their jobs.” 

And Worthington, Maio, Arreguín, Moore, and Bates all expressed support for turning a portion of Center Street into a car-free, pedestrian-only plaza—a feature of the DAPAC plan and a popular item with many citizens attending Tuesday’s meeting—with Worthington calling the plaza idea “enormously important” and Moore describing it as “exciting.” Bates went even farther, suggesting that open space areas might be set up on eastbound Shattuck Avenue near the Berkeley YMCA which he said could be “an extension of the plaza on Center Street; we could easily accommodate that,” expanding the downtown BART Plaza, and even opening up longer sections of Shattuck “to make it a garden-like way.” Bates said that the funding for such concentrated open space areas could be achieved by lifting requirements to have developers put in open space areas on their developed properties, which the mayor said would end up being too small to be useful, and instead having the developers contribute money to larger, common plazas. 

With both the council and the community divided over which version of the DAP is the better—DAPAC’s or the Planning Commission’s—the council still has a way to go before reconciling the differences and agreeing upon a compromise plan. With some citizens already threatening a citizen referendum to adopt their own downtown plan if the DAPAC version is not closely followed in the final version, Worthington asked the city attorney if such a referendum would be legally permissible and, when told that it was, said that “if we adopt the Planning Commission version of the plan, I’ll be the first in line to circulate a petition.” 

The Climate Action Plan sets detailed standards for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Berkeley. 

The council adopted the Climate Action Plan after including four out of five suggested minor amendments sponsored jointly by Councilmembers Susan Wengraf and Arreguín. One amendment encouraged neighboring transit-rich cities to reach their share of regional growth as Berkeley has; a second removed language that would have minimized lot size requirements for so-called accessory dwellings; a third put emphasis on preserving historic buildings as a climate action strategy; and a fourth noted that any zoning or General Plan changes called for in the Climate Action Plan would have to go through the normal separate council-approval process. A fifth amendment to remove a call for “corner stores” and small markets in neighborhoods that don’t currently have them was rejected on a 2-7 vote (Arreguín and Wengraf voting yes). While Wengraf said she was worried that such “corner stores” too often provide only liquor and junk food, other councilmembers said they did not want to discourage small grocery outlets from locating in underserved areas. The “corner store” provision was originally put in the Climate Action Plan to provide an alternative for residents forced to travel across the city by car to buy small grocery items. 

The council ignored a request by the Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste that the effects of greenhouse gas emissions produced by the University of California and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory be included in the CAP. Worthington said that the failure to include the “largest sources of greenhouse gas” (including UC, the lab, and the 880 freeway) was “unfortunate,” but conceded the votes were not on the council to bring them in. “It’s just not going to happen,” Worthington said, and the issue was not formally considered by the council. 

The council did, however, approve Worthington’s amendment that the greenhouse gas emission reduction targets be increased from 2 percent to 3 percent for the first two years of the plan’s implementation. 

In approving the Climate Action Plan, the council also adopted a staff “negative declaration” finding under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) that the CAP itself would have no adverse effects on the environment. By making that finding, the council avoided a full CEQA Environmental Impact Report on the CAP, a process that might have taken two years to complete. 

The Climate Action Plan passage did not include consideration of the costs to the city for implementation. At Worthington’s request, city staff members said they would provide an itemized breakdown of the cost in time for the council’s expected June 23 vote on the city’s next budget.