Press Releases

Planners Approve Easing of Downtown Business Permits

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday June 04, 2009 - 07:15:00 AM

Berkeley planning commissioners finished their adjustments to downtown zoning rules Wednesday night, May 27, easing requirements for entrepreneurs setting up shop in the vacancy-plagued city center. 

Commissioners also gave city staff directions on preparing a new General Plan housing element that will meet the requirements of the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), whose certification is required before the city can receive some of the outside funds allocated by the regional government agency.  

The new zoning rules simplify the application for city permits to open new businesses or change the use of existing businesses in a dozen categories, ranging from department stores to radio, recording and television studios. 

The changes followed a March 10 mandate from the Berkeley City Council directing the commission to find ways to accommodate businesses that will generate more revenue for the city. 

The council had suggested eight business categories. The Planning Commission eliminated one and added five others during its April 29 meeting, the same list the commission approved Wednesday night. 

“Our effort was to see what can happen with minimal staff input,” said Land Use Planning Manager Debra Sanderson. 

“I like anything that’s going to save time,” said commissioner and architect Jim Novosel. 

“Wherever we can do this so that applicants don’t have to go through a long approval process is a good idea. I would like to see it happen in other places than just downtown,” said Commissioner Teresa Clarke, a nonprofit housing  


Gene Poschman, a retired professor and the only commissioner not to vote in favor of the package (he abstained), said he was concerned that “there is a kind of pandering factor here. The council may think they’re doing something positive, but there may be unintended consequences.” 

Sanderson said easing the permit process would help a staff that had been reduced by 38 percent, while workloads for each of the remaining city planning staffers had soared by as much as 50 percent in some cases. 

The new zoning code sections will reduce requirements for eight business categories from mandatory use permits with a public hearing before the Zoning Adjustments Board to either administrative use permits (AUPs) or the simpler zoning certificate. The requirements for four business categories were reduced from AUPs to certificates. 

AUPs require a staff level review by the Planning Department, while certificates are by-right permits, handled as over-the-counter transactions. 

Going the full public hearing route can take over a year, a process that has generated complaints from would-be business owners, Sanderson said. 

Businesses that had requirements reduced from hearings to the AUP level included department stores; quick-service restaurants within 200 feet of residential districts; full-service restaurants with a beer or wine license more than 200 feet from residential districts; non-alcohol-serving full-service restaurants within 200 feet of residential districts; gyms and health clubs; theaters; childcare centers; and radio/television/recording studios. 

Businesses that had requirements reduced from AUPs to certificates included video and DVD rental outlets; quick-service restaurants more than 200 feet from residential districts; full-service restaurants with no alcohol service more than 200 feet from residential zones; and group class instruction businesses. 

Applicants who want to accelerate the process can do so—at a cost—by hiring city-approved consultants to process their applications. The consultant fees are in addition to the city application fees, but enable the applicant to win faster approval than by relying on the hard-pressed staff, Sanderson told the commission. 


Housing quota  

ABAG is a regional agency comprising nine Bay Area counties and serves as an intermediary for regional planning and doling out some state funding to county and city governments. 

The Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) is ABAG’s allocation of projected growth assigned to individual cities and counties, which must show their capacity to issue building permits up to the level mandated by ABAG. 

Governments aren’t required to actually build the housing—a process dictated by the market—but they must be willing to issue the permits if developers want to build and meet local code requirements. 

Of the 2,431 units ABAG said the city must be willing to permit by 2014, Berkeley has already built or issued permits for 737 since the current seven-year RHNA term began in 2007, said Associate Planner Jordan Harrison. 

ABAG divides the quota into affordability levels, and of the units also approved, most fall into the “above moderate-income” category, while 34 percent of the extremely and very low-income units have been approved, 18 percent of the low-income units and less than 1 percent of the moderate-income units. 

The categories are computed on the basis of an area median income (AMI) in Alameda County of $89,300 for a family of four, with extremely low-income classified as up to 30 percent of the AMI; very low-income from 31 to 50 percent of AMI; low-income 51 to 80 percent; and moderate-income, 81 to 120 percent. 

Harrison said the city staff has projected between 500 and 800 units for the downtown and south-of-campus neighborhoods, with the remainder of the new housing to be built along the city’s commercial corridors—University, Shattuck, San Pablo and Telegraph avenues and along Adeline Street. 

Neighborhood activist Steve Wollmer asked commissioners why the allocation didn’t include the so-called accessory dwelling units (also known as mother-in-law apartments) called for in the city’s pending Climate Action Plan. 

“Where is Solano Avenue?” he asked.  

Commissioners also asked the staff to include potential development sites in existing residential neighborhoods.