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New: The Berkeley Downtown Plan Gets Shorter

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday April 15, 2010 - 07:58:00 PM

The Berkeley Planning Commission was presented an abbreviated version of the Downtown Area Plan Wednesday.  

The plan incorporates changes suggested by Mayor Tom Bates to the Berkeley City Council’s original downtown plan in February and will be placed on the November ballot following council approval.  

The Berkeley City Council on Feb. 23 voted unanimously to rescind its original downtown plan which was referended last year.  

It also voted 8-1—with councilmember Jesse Arreguin the only dissenting vote—to ask City Manager Phil Kamlarz to return with a set of recommendations they could vote on.  

State law requires the Planning Commission to review the plan and make a recommendation on area plans and general plan amendments.  

A public hearing has been scheduled for an April 28 Planning Commission meeting, following which council will have to take action by the end of July.  

According to the city’s Planning Director Dan Marks, the new abbreviated plan has been shrunk from the rescinded plan’s 150 pages to 20 in order to include only the key pieces on the ballot.  

Marks’ report to the Planning Commission says that the “council requested that the Downtown Area Plan” document be significantly reduced in size and focus on goals, policy and key implementation measures” to “allow voters to reasonably judge the plan.”  

Marks said that although he wasn’t present when the council discussed this, it was his “understanding that the council felt 150 pages was an excess.”  

The shorter plan consists mainly of goals and policies and leaves out the bulk of the implementation measures which were present in the original downtown plan.  

According to Marks, “it includes only those implementing provisions that the council specifically indicated it wished to see clearly articulated in the new downtown plan.”  

The new plan includes stronger requirements for all new construction—such as affordable housing and open space, a voluntary green pathway that would give developers incentives in exchange of public benefits and limits to highrises and buffer zones surrounding the downtown.  

Marks said that the implementation measures would not be entirely forgotten because “no plan is complete without implementation.”  

“Once the voters approve the plan, the implementation measures can always be brought back,” he said.  

But not everybody agreed with this explanation. Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who along with Arreguin worked on the referendum campaign, said that if a plan is “just glittering generalities, it’s not really doing anything.”  

“Most of the controversy is about details—the devil is in the details,” he said. “Nobody on the City Council said anything about chopping the plan. It’s an insult to voters’ intelligence. Berkeley voters are very smart. They can read and talk with friends to discuss things—I don’t think you have to baby Berkeley voters.”  

Arreguin said that although the referendum campaign’s members had not yet arrived at a formal position about the abbreviated version, the plan still did not address some of their main concerns: heights, public benefits and protection of neighbors.  

“The plan needs a lot more work,” he said. “It’s trying to hide the fact that it allows for buildings up to 18 stories by saying that the heights are equal to current heights downtown.”  

Worthington said he was disappointed that the new plan chose to overlook hundreds of hours of work carried out by the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee and the Planning Commission.  

“We can just name it ‘I love the downtown’ and put it on the ballot,” he said. “This watered down version doesn’t accomplish much. People can just referend it again.”