Public Comment

Planet Needs to Publish Correction

By Rob Wrenn
Wednesday March 03, 2010 - 09:38:00 PM

Riya Bhattacharjee's article on the Downtown Plan in the February 25-March 3 Planet presents a factually inaccurate picture of the differences between the Downtown Plan adopted by the City Council last year and the plan adopted and sent to the Council by the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC) in 2007. She says the Council adopted a 225' maximum while the DAPAC plan "suggested" a 120' maximum. 

In fact, the DAPAC plan would have allowed two hotels up to a height of 225'. The DAPAC plan allowed this exceptional height because if thought that hotels could provide unique benefits, and allowed it in return for the hotel's provision of substantial benefits to the community, along the lines of what was suggested in the 2004 Hotel Task Force recommendations, as well as meeting green building standards with the goal of having the "greenest" hotel possible. Bhattacharjee's article says that Councilmember Arreguin was against the 225' height, when in fact he voted for a 225' height maximum for up to two hotels as a member of DAPAC. Further, the Council-adopted plan would also not have allowed 225' except for a hotel. 

The height limits in the DAPAC plan and the Council plans, publicly available documents, are a matter of fact, not opinion, so the Planet should publish a correction or clarification so that readers are correctly informed about the actual differences between the various downtown plans. Unfortunately, this is not the first time that the Planet has published a factually inaccurate or incomplete account of a local issue. 

The Planet article goes on to discuss the Council's recent action on the Downtown Plan and reports that Councilmember Maio supports allowing up to three 180' buildings, one of which could be a hotel. Taken as a whole, with the inaccurate reporting of the DAPAC position, a reader could be expected to come away with the false impression that the DAPAC wanted a 120' limit, while the Council voted for 225' and that, now that the Council plan has been subjected to a successful referendum signature gathering drive, the Council is going down to 180', roughly midway between DAPAC and the Council. 

In fact, with respect to hotels, the Council's recent action reduces the maximum height of hotels to below what would have been permitted in the DAPAC plan. This raises the question of whether the Council has new information suggesting that a new hotel would be economically viable and provide substantial community benefits if the height is capped at 180'? Or is the Council giving up on the idea of a new hotel because the short-term prospects for a hotel in this economy are not good? An area plan should have a useful life of at least 15 years and should set parameters for more than just the next few years. 

With respect to housing and office buildings, the DAPAC plan did favor "mid-rise" development, buildings in the 5-10 story range, and made an exception only for hotels, allowing them to be "high-rise" buildings (if high-rise is defined as more than 10 stories). The plan was the product of an extensive public process. With subcommittee meetings included, there were over 100 public meetings. Like previous plans in Berkeley, the DAPAC plan attempted to balance competing interests. It rejected the no-growth position favored by some Berkeley residents, but it also set clear standards for the substantial growth and increased density that would be permitted. Developers were expected to give something in return for being able to build more densely. DAPAC wanted "green", more energy-efficient buildings, along with more open space, better transit, and more affordable housing. 

Unfortunately the Planning Commission and the City's planning staff showed no respect for all the work that went into the DAPAC plan and they produced a radically different plan with much less public input. Not surprisingly, their plan sparked widespread opposition and not just from the city's vocal minority of naysayers whose default position is to oppose new development, whatever it is. 

Ultimately, the City Council is responsible for the current mess because it allowed the Planning Commission and the staff to make radical changes to the plan that had emerged from the DAPAC public process, and because it chose the commission's version of the plan as the starting point for its discussions. It would be normal for the Council to make some changes to a plan; there was no expectation that the Council would adopt the DAPAC plan exactly as written, but in past years, the Council has not endorsed such major changes to a plan after it has come from a public planning process involving some kind of citizen's advisory committee and active participation of residents with diverse viewpoints. 

Faced with massive opposition to the Planning Commission plan, the Council, to its credit, did make major changes to the plan before adopting it in 2009. The plan ultimately adopted by the Council was, in many respects, closer to the original DAPAC plan than to the PC plan and could be fairly characterized as a compromise between the two. 

Unfortunately, the Daily Planet failed to report on these changes and most members of the public were unaware of them. To be fair to the Planet, the changes were made at the last minute. But the Planet also did a poor job of reporting the issues in the aftermath of the Council's vote when a referendum petition campaign was launched to block the plan. 

Now the Council is taking another shot at putting together a plan. I hope their efforts are successful. The mayor's proposal and the council's action are steps in the right direction. Hopefully, the end product will be something that those of us who served on DAPAC can support. The 1990 Downtown Plan is out of date and does not provide a sound basis for moving forward and is not consistent with the City's Measure G commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Downtown needs a new plan to guide future development. 

The Planet does a fine job of providing a forum for the full range of opinions on local issues in our community, even if some of the opinion is poorly thought-out or poorly written, or, worse, full of misinformation. But, it should decide if it also wants to be a newspaper that accurately reports on what the City Council and commissions and developers are doing and gives readers information that will help them to try to make sense of the issues and all the letters and opinions. If the Planet lacks the resources to be a newspaper, which would be understandable, then it should just stick to being a forum for opinions and give up the pretense of being a newspaper. Inaccurate and incomplete reporting is worse than no reporting at all. 

Berkeley needs its own newspaper to supplement the infrequent coverage of Berkeley issues in the Chronicle and other papers. I would love to be able to read the Planet online and get accurate reports of all the important Council and commission votes. If the Planet wants to be a newspaper, fact checking of articles would help, as would making sure that reporters are present at important meetings. To offer one example, the Planet has published over 100 opinion pieces and letters related to bus rapid transit in recent years, allowing a thorough airing of competing viewpoints, but failed to report the action the Planning Commission recently took on that issue. BRT and the downtown plan are unfortunately not the only examples of issues that have been throughly discussed by Planet letter and opinion writers but not adequately or accurately covered in the Planet's "news" pages. Does the Planet wish to be a newspaper or not? 

Rob Wrenn is a former member of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee and Planning Commission's Hotel Task Force