Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates signaled at the Berkeley City Council meeting Tuesday that he was ready to put the future of Berkeley’s downtown in the hands of the city’s voters.
In presenting his new proposal to replace the City Council’s previously approved downtown plan, which the council rescinded at Tuesday’s meeting, Bates did not deviate from the basic plan he introduced at the council’s Agenda Committee meeting Feb. 16 but did say that the height and number of tall buildings was “still up for grabs.”
Responding to queries from the Sierra Club and community members about as-yet-unspecified parts of the plan, the mayor promised to tighten up the draft and explore strict enforcement of the public benefits included in it.
Opponents of the council’s downtown plan moved to referend it last August in order to put it on a future ballot for voters to decide, claiming it ignored Berkeley’s affordable housing needs, transit options, workers’ rights, greenhouse gas emissions and quality of life.
Density and height were also major concerns. The group working on the referendum campaign, including Berkeley City Councilmembers Kriss Worthington and Jesse Arre-guin, said they were against the 225-foot maximum height proposed in the plan and instead wanted to see the tallest buildings downtown be closer to 120 feet, as suggested by the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee.
Arreguin said that although Bates had met with him a few times since then—“I was the only member of the referendum campaign he met with”—they were unable to resolve their differences.
On Wednesday, the City Council voted unanimously to rescind the council’s original downtown plan and voted 8-1—with Arreguin the only dissenting vote—to ask City Manager Phil Kamlarz to return with a set of recommendations they could vote on.
Under the mayor’s plan, which he described as a “much better” one than the previous one, the usual maximum height allowed downtown would be 75 feet, with specified exceptions.
Although Bates had initially proposed allowing six tall residential buildings with a maximum height limit of 160 feet as exceptions, at Councilmember Linda Maio’s insistence the number was changed to three 180-foot buildings, one of which could be a hotel.
“One of the goals of the downtown plan was to get more people living downtown, in the neighborhood of about 5,000 new people,” Bates said. “Even though [the plan] has been dubbed as coming from my office, it’s coming from everybody on this dais. It’s ebbing and flowing.”
Bates said he was hopeful that developers would “voluntarily” opt for the Green Pathway—a voluntary scheme that fast-tracks projects in exchange for public benefits. Existing problems in the Green Pathway are supposed to be addressed by the Planning Commission before coming back to City Council.
One of the things Bates said he wanted the commission to figure out was “how much money [developers] should provide to the city’s transportation fund if they don’t want to provide parking.”
“It’s an opportunity for us to get the greenest downtown anywhere in America,” Bates said of his plan, complete with LEED, parking for bikes and cars, and energy efficiency requirements. “It’s an opportunity to live in a place that will become one of the most vibrant in America.”
According to Bates, the Green Pathway would also help the city tackle the recent Palmer decision, which will prevent the city from mandating inclusionary housing in rentals, by requiring that developers either put $80,000 into the Housing Trust Fund or build affordable housing units somewhere in the city.
It also ensures that developers hire local help, if not from Berkeley then at least from the Green Corridor, which includes Richmond and San Leandro.
“I know everything is not perfect,” Bates said. “Some people in here feel [the buildings] are too high and others feel it’s too low.”
Arreguin argued that there was nothing in the mayor’s plan that convinced him that creating taller buildings would solve the vacancies plaguing downtown.
“I just feel it’s deja vu all over again,” Arreguin said. “One of the major concerns was height. I am waiting to see how tripling the height of buildings will help small businesses. I hope that at some point that plan will start tackling the real problems facing our downtown.”
Councilmember Gordon Wozniak asked that a “super-green option”—which Wozniak called his “pet project”—be studied by the city manager. The option would defer building fees by five years if buildings met energy efficiency standards successfully.
Erin Rhoades, executive director of Livable Berkeley, which backs Bates’ plan, stressed the importance of a denser downtown, which she said would help the city during a time of economic uncertainty.
“The real key to a lively downtown is what happens on the ground,” said Donlyn Lyndon, professor emeritus of architecture at UC Berkeley. “How Oxford Street can become a link between University Avenue and the downtown. What matters is that you have volumes [that are] not too obtrusive.”
There were others, like Berkeley resident Stuart Jones, who called Bates’ plan “greenwash—just like atomic energy,” and stormed out of the meeting.
Another point Arreguin seized on was a provision in the Green Pathway that would allow developers to require the Landmark Presevation Commission to determine within three months whether a building on a desired project site could be designated a landmark.
Arreguin compared this to the proposed time limit 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.