Public Comment

Commentary: The Downtown Area Plan 

By Laurie Capitelli
Thursday September 17, 2009 - 09:47:00 AM

It’s déjà vu all over again. Or back to the drawing board. Or how I like to refer to Berkeley process: governing by the last person standing.  

What makes this town great—the diversity of viewpoints and the passion of its citizenry—can sometimes cripple its progress. Our most recent experience with the Downtown Area Plan is a perfect example. The plan was overwhelmingly approved by seven out of the nine members of the City Council. It was opposed by Councilmember Kriss Worthington and newly elected Councilmember Jesse Arreguin. Subsequently, paid signature gatherers, armed with enhanced photos and misleading information about both the number of tall buildings that would be permitted and the requirements for affordable housing and green buildings, convinced enough voters that three years of public process is not adequate. We have to wait another year at least, and spend another huge chunk of money to rehash the plan one more time. Heck, if I had only the information presented by the signature gatherers I might have signed the petition.  

No compromise plan is perfect. The Downtown Area Plan is a compromise plan, taken mostly from the hard work of a 20 member citizen advisory committee working with city staff, then modified by both the Planning Commission and finally the City Council. This series of checks and balances, from citizen input to council approval, is how our local government works.   

Let’s remember that the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee was just that: advisory to the City Council. The Council adopted the lion’s share of the DAPAC work and made amendments where we deemed necessary to make the plan a viable, living document. (Before my election to the City Council, I served on several citizen commissions, task forces and ad hoc committees, all advisory to the City Council. Every group referred heart-felt and well-research planning recommendations to the City Council. Not a single plan was adopted in total, and one was scrapped completely due to the concerns of a single Councilperson.)  

In my perfect Downtown Plan, I would have included  

1. Provisions to double or triple the amount of affordable housing derived from new development.  

2. Strong project labor agreements (PLAs) required for new developments.  

3. Environmental requirements that would avoid potential issues that have arisen (in San Francisco most recently) concerning the effectiveness of the LEED standards.  

4. Insurances that the city receive a significant portion of the increased revenues generated by new development.  

I understood that I couldn’t get everything I wanted in the plan, so I supported the compromise crafted by a super majority on the Council.  

As I traveled through our north Berkeley neighborhoods during last year’s election, countless people lamented about the downtown, and yearned for a vibrant, attractive civic center of which they could be proud. Last spring our Open Town Hall survey of Berkeley residents highlighted a shared vision of a European style, pedestrian rich downtown, with residents, shops, cultural attractions and cafes.  

These improvements will not happen unless and until we can successfully encourage investment in the downtown. This plan was the next step in that process, a step that would build on the recent progress we’ve seen with the new Freight and Salvage, the Shattuck Plaza Hotel, the Brower Center and Oxford Plaza.  

So in the coming months, the council will have three options to consider:  

1. Rescind the plan entirely  

2. Rescind the Downtown Area Plan and adopt a significantly modified plan  

3. Put the Downtown Area Plan on the Ballot in June 2010  

None of these options continue the hard work of improving the downtown. None of the options hold UC Berkeley to an agreed upon limit of expansion into the city core. All of the options sustain a years-long public process that costs time, money and the energy of weary citizens who just want a downtown that attracts them and makes them proud.  


Laurie Capitelli represents District 5 on Berkeley City Council.