Public Comment

Commentary: Top Ten Super-Sized Flaws of the Downtown Area Plan

By Kriss Worthington
Thursday July 23, 2009 - 09:54:00 AM

During the City Council and public debate on the downtown, much of the discussion revolved around the super-sized height of the buildings. My comments focused on affordable housing, public transit and environmental impacts such as greenhouse gases. Here I will describe what I see as the super-sized flaws of the Downtown Area Plan. 


1. Super-size prices on million-dollar condos. According to the feasibility study most of the units in the taller buildings would need to charge $900,000 to $1 million dollars per unit to be profitable enough to build. 


2. Super-size loopholes in affordable housing. Many rental projects will continue to have less than 20 percent units affordable as we have seen in multiple loopholes used in previous projects. According to staff statements at the council meeting, condo units are likely to pay fees not to provide affordable housing in their projects. (Four councilmembers supported increasing the inclusionary requirement to 25 percent but it lost by one vote.) 


3. Super-size jobs/housing imbalance. If middle-class and low-income residents can not afford what’s built, the additional employees will need to travel from out of town to work here. 


4. Super-size give-aways to for-profit corporate developers to externalize the cost of open space, child care, and transportation onto the taxpayers. When Sutter and UC executives complained, the plan was changed, even though the change might hurt employees, students, patients or taxpayers. 


5. Super-size traffic problems at 11 key intersections, most of which would get the worst possible (F) rating for level of service. Numerous transit improvements were proposed but not included in the plan. 


6. Super-size abuses of process with neither the public nor the City Council recieving the amendments in the required time before the meeting, so few people had a chance to read or comment on the dozens of last day changes. City Council meetings legally end at 11 p.m. To continue later there must be a motion made to suspend the rules and specify what items will be discussed late. The proper motion was not made.  


7. Super-size vagueness and confusion. While there are good things mentioned in the plan, some are encouraged and some are even “required.” But language suggests there will be a “toolbox” for developers to choose from, not actual clear requirements. Given the notorious complexities of Berkeley zoning processes, this lack of specificity invites more confusion or favoritism, rather than offering clear direction to all involved. 


8. Super-size damange to the EIR process. If a private corporation declared they did not like the environmentallly preferred alternative and adopted a “statement of overriding consideration,” we would demand that they study and fund mitigations to make up for the significant impacts. If they said we’ll compare our choice to building it somewhere else we would laugh or complain. Berkeley is driving a super-sized excuse through the EIR process that may be used as a loophole by many corporations in the future. 


9. Super-size high-rises without appropriate environmental mitigations or adequate affordable housing. According to the EIR with no new plan there would be 1,800 additional units likely to be built. With the plan there will be about 2,900 units. In the 10 buildings from approximately 10 stories to 18 stories there would be about 800 to 900 new units. The financial feasibility study suggests most of these will be million dollar condos. While I personally think more density is a generally good idea, is the gentrifying impact of million dollar condos really the best goal for a Berkeley plan? I care about diversity and democracy as well as density. 


10. Super-size public participation. Many dozens of resident opposed the bad features of the plan and asked for changes. Some changes were made but not enough. I believe Berkeley deserves a better Downtown Area Plan and it is up to you to see if you make it happen.  


If enough voters sign the referendum, the City Council will be forced to fix some of these problems or put the plan on the ballot. Perhaps there is still time to get a plan that is super-sized on fiscal responsibility to the taxpayers, and Berkeley values like diversity, democracy, and greenhouse gas reduction right here in Berkeley. 


Kriss Worthington represents District 7 on Berkeley’s City Council. 


Alliance for a Green and Livable Downtown, a group of Berkeley residents organized in opposition to the recently passed Downtown Area Plan, are collecting signatures for a referendum of the plan. See