News Analysis: A Tale of Two Downtown Plans

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday June 04, 2009 - 10:08:00 AM

The two downtown plans before the City Council offer two conflicting visions, one defined by the dream of a “green,” human-scale city center, the other by the developers’ high-rise imperatives. 

The two documents reflect the concerns of their creators, respectively a panel of community activists and a development-dominated Planning Commission. 

Councilmembers aren’t bound by either document and can choose elements from both to produce their own revisions, just as the Planning Commission recrafted the work of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC). 

But a hint of the council’s preference may have come from its vote to back the Planning Commission’s requests for a study of the economic viability of building heights called for in the DAPAC plan, a study commissioners used to call for taller buildings than the DAPAC majority had approved. 

Planning commissioners eagerly approved taller structures than DAPAC had sought, reduced DAPAC’s call for the Center Street pedestrian plaza to a recommendation to consider the notion and eliminated DAPAC’s mandatory green building requirements. 

The struggle between the contending visions was evident in DAPAC and in the appointees of Mayor Tom Bates. 

Travis, the mayoral appointment as chair, found himself on the losing side of several key votes, with environmentalist Juliet Lamont—the other Bates appointment—a leading voice on the winning side. 

But it was Travis’s vision that prevailed at the Planning Commission, and it is that version city councilmembers saw first when presented with a side-by-side comparison of the two drafts written by the city’s planning staff. 

Unlike typical presentations of original and revised documents, the commission’s rewrite is placed in the left-hand column—where originals are usually placed—while the DAPAC original is presented on the right, the typical placement of revisions.  

The covering memos also urge the council to give primary consideration to the Planning Commission rewrite, noting that “staff believes substantial reorganization and modifications” would be needed if the council started off deliberations using the DAPAC original. 

A key difference between the two plans is their respective visions of the future skyline of the city center. 

DAPAC members waged a protracted struggle over the issue, finally adopting a compromise that allowed more tall buildings than the majority had wanted in exchange for concessions ensuring they’d be built with “green” technology, consuming the least possible energy and generating a low carbon footprint—a victory for Lamont and her allies. 

But planning commissioners scrapped the green building requirements while boosting the skyline, handing the victory to Travis—who sat in as an interim planning commissioner during one session. Another member of the DAPAC minority, retired UC Berkeley development executive Dorothy Walker, also sat in as an interim commissioner, though she was blocked from one session because the necessary paperwork hadn’t been submitted on time. 

None of the DAPAC majority served interim terms. 

Four planning commissioners served on DAPAC, with architect James Samuels—chair during the early part of the commission’s downtown plan deliberations—representing the DAPAC minority and Patti Dacey and Gene Poschman the majority. Architect James Novosel, a swing vote, also served on the committee. 

Commissioners signaled their intent to raise the roofs early on, when they adopted a set of potential high-rises to be evaluated by the plan’s environmental impact report. 

While both DAPAC and the commission had called for a general height limit of 85 feet for private development and 100 feet for UC Berkeley buildings within the city center, with two hotels at 225 feet, DAPAC had called for four buildings at 100 feet and four more at 120 feet, while commissioners called for six at 120 feet and four more at 180 feet—the so-called point towers that staff had unsuccessfully urged DAPAC to adopt. 

Planning commissioners also extended the area where the tallest buildings would be allowed. 

While DAPAC had declared environmental sustainability the centerpiece of its plan, the commission focused on the presumed economic feasibility of construction, adopting a call for a study to determine just what building heights could be developed—a study commissioned before the full scale of the current economic crash had become evident. 

Commissioners then used the document to justify their raising of the height limits and abandoning DAPAC’s mandatory green building requirements, citing the study’s conclusion that only at heights of 180 feet did residential buildings approach economic feasibility—and then only if all green building requirements were abandoned—and halving proposed “in-lieu” fees for converting required low-income housing to market-rate units. 

DAPAC’s requirements were often reduced to “encourage” or “consider,” leaving the commission plan considerably less green. 

So at the very time the City Council will be adopting a climate action plan hailed as one of the country’s most stringent, it will be considering another plan that would strip the city’s largest new buildings of requirements to consume less energy and generate less carbon. 

Commissioners also replaced DAPAC’s call to “close Center Street between Shattuck Avenue and Oxford” Street to create a pedestrian plaza with a “consider pedestrian enhancements which could result in a narrowing of traffic lanes.” DAPAC had envisioned the area as a grand urban plaza in the European tradition, while commissioners heeded calls from merchants and developer Patrick Kennedy—who plans a housing project on the block—to keep traffic open. 

The commission’s draft is also considerably more car-friendly than DAPAC’s, another irony in light of the Climate Action Plan’s call to abandon private transit for bikes, buses and BART.