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City Council Passes Downtown Plan

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday July 16, 2009 - 10:37:00 AM

The Berkeley City Council worked late into the night Tuesday to pass a modified Downtown Area Plan (DAP), setting the direction and goals for development in the city center for the foreseeable future. 

The plan passed on a 7-2 vote with Jesse Arreguín and Kriss Worthington voting against it. The plan is the fifth official version, with Planning and Development Department staff producing one new version on July 10 for consideration at Tuesday’s meeting, and then producing the final amendments only hours before the meeting after councilmembers, staff, and a collection of citizens worked on compromise language and provisions throughout the day. 

The plan was originally drafted by the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC), with a modified version written by the Planning Commission, and a third staff-written version modified from the Planning Commission version last month after Bates, Maio, and Capitelli offered amendments to bridge some of the differences between the DAPAC and Planning Commission versions. 

The council also approved the DAP’s environmental impact report on an 8-0-1 vote with Arreguín abstaining. 

The council ignored requests by several speakers from the public to put off consideration of the final plan for at least a week—and possibly even until the fall—so that the community could analyze the final version. 

In the end, the differences on the council over the final plan came down to taller building height limitations. Councilmembers fiddled with those numbers up until the final vote, initially approving a plan by Bates for three exceptions at 180 feet and four at 120 feet, then reconsidering that vote, and finally agreeing on a plan offered by Moore that allows two buildings at 180 feet, four at 120 feet, and two at 100 feet. Arreguín voted no on the final building height allowance and Worthington abstained, with the other councilmembers and the mayor voting yes. 

The plan also calls for UC Berkeley to be allowed two buildings at 120 feet in the downtown area. While the university is not legally bound by the height limitations in the city’s Downtown Area Plan, UC Berkeley officials have been deeply involved in the negotiations over the plan,and have said they will voluntarily comply with the final height limitations. The cover page of the Downtown Area Plan lists the author of the DAP as “City of Berkeley in cooperation with the University of California, Berkeley.” 

Moore, who authored the final height limitations, said he would even be in favor of a greater density in the downtown area than was called for in the final version. “I think [former Oakland Mayor] Jerry Brown was right when he wanted to bring 10,000 new residents into the downtown of Oakland,” Moore said. “We’ve seen the success there with the development and restaurants and businesses which are supported because they have dense development in downtown Oakland. I work there every day and I see it. ... If I had my way, we’d build bigger, denser buildings.”  

But with a smile and a nod toward Arreguín, who sits next to him on the council dais, Moore said he was offering his modified height limitation amendment “given that this is Berkeley, and we have to all compromise.” 

Arreguín, who represents the downtown area in his council district, said the higher building height limitations kept him from voting for the final plan. “You’ve put me in a situation where I can’t vote for this plan,” he told his fellow councilmembers. 

The council also failed on a 2-7 vote (Arreguín and Worthington, yes) to approve a plan by Worthington to bifurcate the plan, voting separately on what Worthington called the “controversial” parts from what he called the “90 percent of the plan that we all agree on.” Worthington said that such a procedure would ensure that application of the provisions of the majority of the plan would not be held up by a threatened citizen referendum against the DAP. But both Capitelli and Maio said that it would be impossible to separate many of the individual provisions out of the integrated plan without destroying the compromise agreements that had put the final version together. 

Citizens will have 30 days after a final version of the plan has been certified and published to complete the petition process that could lead to a referendum on the DAP. 

Also at Tuesday’s meeting, the council unanimously approved Arreguín and Moore’s modified resolution calling for the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (LBNL) to coordinate its controversial transportation of demolition debris through Berkeley city streets from the decommissioned Bevatron particle accelerator. 

One of the provisions of the Arreguín-Moore resolution asks the LBNL to “consider compensating the City of Berkeley” for the impacts of the heavy truck use of Berkeley streets during the waste transportation. LBNL officials said Tuesday they would consider that request. 

At least some of the debris contains radioactive nuclear waste materials, but LBNL officials said Tuesday night that any hazardous debris being transported has been sealed and tagged according to federal standards. 

A coalition of Berkeley residents has been calling for a halt in the debris hauling, charging that the nuclear waste material was dangerous to residents’ health and that the hauling violated Berkeley’s Nuclear-Free Zone Ordinance. Many of them showed up at Tuesday’s meeting, calling on the council to prevent the demolition and debris hauling, which has been going on for several weeks. 

At one point in thepublic speaking time, Berkeley activist Zachary Runningwolf accused LBNL of being “very arrogant; they are liars. They said last February that they would come back with a demolition plan. Now we find out that conveniently, on your own, you have passed nuclear waste through our city streets.” Saying that “every single person in this room is in danger from these liars,” Runningwolf turned directly to a man at the front table whom he presumed to be an LBNL official and said “you’re a liar, at best, and you’re extremely dangerous.” The man sat red-faced and silent at the table, staring back at Runningwolf.  

Following Runningwolf’s presentation, Mayor Bates told him he owed an apology to the man, whom he identified as a city staff member and not an LBNL official. Runningwolf apologized to the staff member, butm walking back into the audience, he spotted an LBNL official in the crowd and told him, “I’m not apologizing to you, though.” 

At a question from councilmembers, Acting City Attorney Zach Cowan said that portions of the Nuclear-Free Zone Ordinance, which prohibits the transportation of nuclear materials through the city, are pre-empted by federal law, which covers the operations of federal facilities such as the Lawrence Lab.