Planning Commission Ponders Housing Law Update

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday June 30, 2009 - 03:50:00 PM

Mandated by state law to analyze the city’s Housing Element for constraints on building new housing, Berkeley Deputy Planning and Development Director Wendy Cosin couldn’t find any. 

That’s what she told the Planning Commission June 24, when commissioners held a hearing to see if any changes were needed to the Housing Element, a key section of the city’s General Plan.  

While citywide development standards resemble those of other cities and can’t be restrictive of adding new housing units to the city, “in the commercial zones where there is no density set, its the opposite of a constraint,” resulting in high-density housing, Cosin said. 

The city’s No. 2 planning officer said the city may have to deal with one potential constraint, the requirement of a use permit for the construction of any new housing. 

Use permits require a public hearing in front of the Zoning Adjustments Board before new housing can be built, adding “delay and uncertainty which we may need to address,” Cosin said. 

The city will have to examine all the new plans and regulations adopted by the City Council since the last time the housing element was updated, Cosin said. 

“We have met with developers to learn their concerns,” she said, and the Planning Department will be considering new policies for the future, “like a buffer zone that backs up to transit corridors.” 

Other changes could include definition of projects which could be built “by right,” rather than through a use permit. Another possible change would be easing regulations for accessory dwelling units, or ADUs—otherwise known as “mother-in-law apartments.” 

Steve Wollmer, a Berkeley resident who has been critical—sometimes to the point of legal action—of some transit corridor projects, said that the city’s density standards haven’t lead to much affordable housing, either of the right price or the right type. 

The city has very little housing for people with very low incomes, Wollmer said. “The problem isn’t development standards in residential neighborhoods,” he said. “It’s the development standards in the commercial districts.” Upzoning along transit corridors won’t help either, he said.  

Planning commissioner Gene Poschman also questioned the notion of a transit corridor buffer, and when he asked for specifics, Cosin acknowledged that “we haven’t done the analysis yet.” 

Commissioner Teresa Clarke, a non-profit sector developer, said the city should not only look at ADUs but “areas where you can do four units,” such as 5,000-square-foot lots where “it’s cumbersome to go through a huge public process to add new units. If all R-2 zones had more units, they would be on a scale a lot of neighbors wouldn’t object to” 

West Berkeley resident Edward Moore said he was troubled that he couldn’t add an ADU to his Victorian-era house because of lot size requirements. 

“I’d like to encourage us to have more mother-in-law units in R-1 zones,” now reserved for single-family dwellings, said commissioner James Novosel, who said allowing tandem off-street parking, currently not allowed in the city but legal in Albany and El Cerrito, should be allowed if the units are built. Tandem parking allows cars to park off-street end to end. 

Novosel said duplexes in R-2 zones should be allowed to include a single ADU each. 

Commissioner Harry Pollack said another way to encourage more units might be allowing buildings to downsize their units, “to make them affordable.”  

Chair David Stoloff said intensification of residential development by upzoning abutting properties behind transit corridors “doesn’t have to be a blanket thing for the entire city. San Pablo Avenue would be very appropriate.”  

Stoloff said the commission is also “ready for the idea of reducing lot size for secondary units.” 

The discussion ended without formal action.