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Campaign Gets Underway for Referendum on Downtown Plan

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday July 30, 2009 - 10:44:00 AM

In a move that was widely expected, opponents of the city of Berkeley’s Downtown Area Plan have begun a petition drive for a voter referendum on the plan.  

The Downtown Area Plan, passed by the Berkeley City Council on a 7–2 vote earlier this month, sets the direction, goals, and parameters of downtown Berkeley development for the foreseeable future. 

If at a minimum 5,558 valid signatures of registered Berkeley voters are collected and turned in to city officials by Aug. 20, the City Council has the option of either invalidating the Downtown Area Plan itself or putting a referendum on the November 2010 ballot for voters to decide if they want the plan implemented. 

The petition wording says “we the undersigned voters of the City of Berkeley protest the passage of [the resolution] adopting a new plan for our downtown. The plan gives developers the right to build massive skyscrapers (up to 22 stories) without environmental protections and improvements essential for a vibrant Downtown. The Council’s plan lacks good transit options, protections for all workers, mitigations for greenhouse gas emissions, and does nothing to preserve the quality of life for neighbors in and around the Downtown. This plan promotes tiny apartments and condos for millionaires, but fails to provide the affordable housing ordinary people need to live in our community. Instead of reflecting our values, our future is placed in the hands of corporate developers and UC. The plan should be put before the voters.” 

Representatives of Livable Berkeley, one of several groups that supported the final version of the Downtown Area Plan, and the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce did not return calls asking for comment on the petition drive. A spokesperson for Mayor Tom Bates said that if the mayor issued a statement on the petition drive, it would not be until after the mayor returns from vacation Aug. 17. 

One of the first to sign the petition was Berkeley City Councilmember Jesse Arreguín, who, along with Councilmember Kriss Worthington, is on the committee coordinating the signature-gathering. Arreguín and Worthington voted against the Downtown Area Plan when it was approved by the council July 16. 

During council deliberations on the plan, Worthington had hinted several times that a referendum petition drive was likely. 

“I voted against the downtown plan because I felt that the final plan doesn’t really address a lot of the critical needs that we have as a community,” Arreguín said by telephone this week. The councilmember cited the need for more affordable housing, ensuring that new buildings “are contributing to the revitalization of downtown Berkeley through providing public benefits,” ensuring that we have adequate protections for workers in businesses in the downtown area, and protecting for neighborhoods as among the reasons he opposed the final version of the plan. He felt that “the council’s plan is really a blank check for corporate developers and university executives. It doesn’t reflect the values of the people of Berkeley and doesn’t reflect our priorities. I think it’s critical that we get enough signatures on the petitions so we can put this on the ballot and let the voters decide the future of downtown and that we’re not just leaving it in the hands of a few property owners and developers.” 

And while debate over the various building-height limits got much of the attention during the extended meetings in which the council passed the plan earlier this month, Worthington said by telephone this week that height was not his major concern about the council version of the plan. Instead, he said, he was disturbed about the lack of adequate affordable housing, support for public transportation, and mitigations of greenhouse gas emissions in the plan. 

In a telephone interview, Worthington said that opponents of the referendum were already using what the councilmember called “scare tactics” to try to get people to refuse to sign the referendum petitions, including telling individuals that it would cost $200,000 to hold a “special election” for the referendum. Worthington said that, if the petition campaign is successful and the referendum is held in November 2010, during the next general election, that the actual cost to the city would be in the neighborhood of $10,000. 

Also on the petition coordinating committee are Berkeley School Board member John Selawsky, Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board Chair Lisa Stephens, Planning Commissioners Gene Poschman and Patti Dacey, Austene Hall of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association and the Landmarks Preservation Commission, and Tom Hunt.  

Stephens, Poschman, Dacey, and Arreguín all served on the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee, the council-appointed citizens’ group that wrote the original version of the Downtown Area Plan. That version was later modified by the Berkeley Planning Commission, and the Planning Commission version became the foundation for the final plan passed by the council.  

City Clerk Deanna Despain certified the referendum petition for circulation on July 23, two days after she certified the Downtown Area Plan itself and released its final, passed version to the public.