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City Council to Address Downtown Plan Issue

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday September 17, 2009 - 09:56:00 AM

With Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates opting to take a slower approach to resolving the issues over the Downtown Area Plan, the possibility has emerged that some of those issues may be worked out though citywide changes to Berkeley policies and ordinances. 

Two of those issues—increasing the percentage of inclusionary housing in the city and beefing up worker protections in city hotels—are on the agenda when the Berkeley City Council meets on Sept. 22 following a two-month summer break. A third issue, beefing up the city’s transit policy, was originally on the Sept. 22 agenda, but has been moved to council’s Sept. 29 meeting because of a full Sept. 22 agenda. 

According to Councilmember Kriss Worthington—who, along with Jesse Arreguín was one of the two Berkeley councilmembers who voted against the plan when it came before the council last July—the three issues to be considered on a citywide basis in the next two council meetings “are, for me, [three of] the four things that were the biggest flaws in the Downtown Area Plan.” 

Worthington’s fourth “flaw” in the plan, the lack of adequate prevailing wage provisions, is tentatively scheduled to be brought before the council in October, also as a citywide issue. 

But probably the most contentious issue in the Downtown Area Plan—the number and height of extra—tall buildings it allows in the downtown area—is not yet being formally addressed by the council. 

The council meets at 7 p.m. on the 22nd at its regular location, in the upstairs council chambers at the Old City Hall Building on Martin Luther King Jr. Way downtown. 

The council passed its version of a comprehensive Downtown Area Plan on a 7-2 vote in July, aimed at setting the direction, goals, and parameters of downtown Berkeley development for the foreseeable future.  

But late in August, opponents of the plan turned in some 9,200 signatures of Berkeley residents calling for a citizen referendum on the council’s Downtown Area Plan, some 3,600 more than were needed to invalidate it. The office of the Alameda County Registrar of Voters is currently reviewing the signatures, and has until October 2 to certify them. If the Registrar’s office certifies that at least 5,528 valid signatures were gathered against the Downtown Area Plan, passage of the plan is negated, and the Berkeley City Council must either bring the plan to the voters or pass a new, amended plan that is significantly different from the last one. 

Shortly after the petition signatures were submitted, Mayor Bates told the Berkeley Daily Planet that he was tentatively planning for a Council discussion of the next steps surrounding the Downtown Area Plan at Council’s Sept. 22 meeting, either in open or closed session. 

But no Council discussion of the issue is on the Sept. 22 agenda, and Bates said following a City Council Agenda Committee meeting this week that he is now looking at February as the deadline for the council to decide on what next steps to take. If a citizen referendum on the plan is to be placed on the June primary ballot it must be submitted by the city in early March, with city staff estimating that a February Council decision is needed to make that date. 

In the meantime, Bates said this week, he is “considering” his options on the best way to proceed. One of those options is for the council to pass a new Downtown Area Plan with enough concessions to the original plan’s opponents to forestall a new successful petition drive. 

Bates said that “some of [Worthington’s] concerns” may be addressed in the decisions on the citywide issues coming before the council in the next two meetings, but conceded that this will not be enough to win agreement for a referendum-free new plan. 

“Negotiations are difficult because there are varied concerns” by the opposition, Bates said. “We could satisfy Kriss’s concerns, but not [Arreguín’s] or [Planning Commission member] Patti Dacey’s.” Dacey spoke out often against the council-passed downtown plan during the council deliberations, and was a key member of the petition drive committee. Bates added that it is “also not clear exactly what concerns drove citizens to sign the petitions.” 

In a telephone interview this week, Worthington agreed that while it would be an important step forward, satisfying his four issues on a citywide basis will not by itself seal the deal for a successful new Downtown Area Plan. 

While Worthington said that the “four key issues” of transit policy, affordable housing, hotel workers rights, and prevailing wage were his top concerns about the Downtown Area Plan and would begin to clear the way towards a possible settlement without a citizen referendum, “many, if not most, of the people who signed the petitions and opposed the plan felt that the super-tall buildings allowed in the plan were at the top of their list.”