The battle over the future of Berkeley’s downtown is headed back to the City Council on Feb. 23. Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates is proposing to rescind the most recent version of the controversial Downtown Area Plan, which was approved by the council last July but was stayed by a successful referendum campaign to put it on the ballot for voters to decide in a future election. The mayor said Monday that he wants to put his own new plan on the November ballot instead.
The City Council’s Downtown Area Plan was passed in a 7-2 vote last July.
It would have allowed for increased height limits downtown, including two towers of up to 225 feet—at least 45 feet higher than any building in the city today. But opponents of the plan argued that it failed to take into account the city’s affordable housing needs. Other concerns included height limits, transit options, protection for workers, greenhouse gas emissions and effects on the “quality of life for neighbors in and around downtown.”
Although the council appointed a citizens’ group to draft a downtown plan—a process that lasted four years and included countless meetings—the group’s final document was significantly amended by the city’s Planning Commission even before it went to the City Council, which made further changes.
The council-approved plan’s opponents—led by Councilmembers Kriss Worthington and Jesse Arreguin, the only two councilmembers who voted against it—circulated a citizens’ petition in August for a referendum to overturn it.
“This plan promotes tiny apartments and condos for millionaires, but fails to provide the affordable housing ordinary people need to live in our community,” the petition said. “Instead of reflecting our values, our future is placed in the hands of corporate developers and UC.”
The citizens’ campaign received stiff resistance from the rest of the council. Bates, state Sen. Loni Hancock and Assemblymember Nancy Skinner distributed flyers asking the public not to sign the petition. In a city that welcomes free speech, opposition tactics turned ugly at times, with signature-gatherers reporting harassment by people trying to block the petition. In the end, 9,200 signatures were submitted for a local referendum to decide the fate of the council-approved plan.
One option now is to put the council’s version before the voters in an upcoming election. But the council can also rescind its first plan and adopt a significantly different one as an alternative to the vote specified in the referendum process, which is what Bates says he will recommend.
Arreguin said Monday that critics of the downtown plan were not happy with what the mayor called a “compromise plan.”
“It’s basically the same old plan in different clothes,” he said. “It doesn’t address what is wrong with downtown, doesn’t address vacant storefronts or parking.”
Arreguin added that he wanted to propose a vacancy tax which would require property owners to pay a fee to the city for the blight they were creating by letting a building sit empty.
He said that he had met with the mayor a few times and “made very clear” that he was open to more housing downtown, but not at the heights proposed.
“[Bates] really didn’t give me a whole lot of choice,” Arreguin said. “There really haven’t been any real negotiations. It has always been a one-sided conversation.”
After Arreguin’s reluctance to support his plan, Bates announced at Monday’s Agenda Committee meeting that he had modified his proposal to address some lingering concerns. “I listened to at least 50 to 70 people and tried to hear their concerns to turn a situation that was unfortunate into an advantage,” Bates said. “I am excited about this plan.”
The mayor’s proposed revisions to the downtown plan include building heights and voluntary public improvements by developers.
Maximum height limits in general would be reduced from 85 feet to 75 feet. The exceptions to this for the two extra-tall “point towers” would be replaced by ones for three tall buildings with height limits up to 160 feet and three more that could be up to 140 feet, about two-thirds the size of the power bar building.
The mayor also promises a smooth transition for neighborhoods on the fringes of downtown. For instance, new buildings along Martin Luther King Jr. Way would not exceed 55 feet, with those adjacent to older buildings not rising above 45 feet.
Arreguin argued that although the plan reduces the maximum height limit, it would result in a denser downtown.
“That’s the whole point,” Bates said. “We need to get more people living downtown where there is transit and shops and restaurants.”
Arreguin said that building six tall buildings, plus four 120-foot buildings and an unlimited number of 100-foot buildings—which the new proposal would encourage—would change the city’s skyline drastically.
The mayor acknowledged that although the council’s downtown plan would request developers of skyscrapers to provide benefits for the public, it would be “vague” about how the city would go about ensuring compliance with developer promises, an omission foes of the downtown plan consider a very big loophole.
Bates claims however that the current proposal would ensure “a green and vibrant downtown”—in the referendum’s language—through a voluntary scheme dubbed the “Green Pathway.”
Although the city cannot mandate the benefits called for by the Green Pathway, it is supposed to gives developers incentives, such as a faster zoning permit process, to provide affordable housing and other advantages.
For instance, buildings under 75 feet which invoked the process would be able to get an over-the-counter zoning certificate, though projects above that height would have to have a public hearing. But for the latter, the combined design review and zoning process would not be able to exceed 210 days.
In both cases, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Ordinance would have only 90 days to determine whether or not the building would be eligible for landmark designation.
Preservationists are angry about the proposed time limit, which they say is essentially the same one Bates tried to enact in Measure LL, which sought to modify the ordinance to make demolition easier, but was rejected by Berkeley voters in 2008.
“It’s too tight,” Landmarks Commissioner Carrie Olsen said of the deadline.
“We are talking about a major change,” Arreguin said. “By making it easier for buildings to be demolished, it changes the entire character of the downtown.”
Bates described it as a “night and day” difference that would streamline the city’s zoning laws and help revitalize the downtown.
He said that his proposal—which requires beneficiaries of the Green Pathway to provide 20 percent affordable housing or a $80,000 fee to the Housing Trust Fund for each unit—would also address a recent court ruling, the Palmer decision, which essentially wipes out the city’s affordable housing ordinance for rentals.
“I don’t think a housing fee can substitute an entire unit,” Arreguin said. “The problem is the whole time we have been discussing the downtown, we haven’t really been thinking about what will realistically make it better.”
Worthington said he wasn’t as worried about the height limits as he was about ensuring safeguards for workers and increased public transit.
“We have taken baby steps on affordable housing—it doesn’t really solve the problem but is better than the status quo,” he said.
Developers who didn’t use the Green Pathway process would still be able to stick with the city’s existing zoning process, which would take longer but not provide for local labor or low-income housing.
Bates said he was hopeful that developers would gravitate toward the Green Pathway.
“It has so much more certainty; they will know when decisions are made in six months to a year instead of having to wait for five or seven years,” he said, referring to the Trader Joe’s and the Brower Center projects. “But that’s their choice; they may not choose it.”
Bates said he intended to request City Manager Phil Kamlarz to return to the City Council at the Feb. 23 meeting with recommendations for implementation. He said he was planning to put his plan on the November ballot as a council-proposed initiative so voters could decide what they want.
“There’s a certain group of people who will never be satisfied with the plan and that’s the way it is in a democracy,” Bates said.
The City Council will meet at 7 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 23, for its regular meeting at the City Council Chambers, Old City Hall, 2134 MLK Jr. Way.