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Cost of New Downtown Plan (so far): $1 Million

By Zelda Bronstein
Monday July 19, 2010 - 09:09:00 PM

In the nearly five years since the City of Berkeley started preparing a new plan for downtown, the actual costs of the planning process have never been publicized. On July 1, two days after the council voted 6-2-1 to place the “Green Vision for the Downtown” sponsored by Mayor Bates and Councilmembers Moore, Maio and Capitelli on the November 2010 ballot, the City’s Budget Office told this writer that since Fiscal Year 2006, the City has spent $939,760 on the still-to-be-formulated Downtown Area Plan. Of that sum, officials said, $651,827 has gone to the planner who’s overseeing the project, Matt Taecker. Taecker was reportedly paid with funds the City received from UC as part of the secret 2005 agreement that settled the City’s lawsuit of the University over campus expansion. What remains unclear is whether these arrangements honor the terms of the settlement agreement, and how these two avowedly cash-strapped public entities have found a million dollars (and counting) between them to fund this project. 

The details of the settlement agreement merit scrutiny, because the call for a new downtown plan originated with that contract, which was formulated and approved behind closed doors. Indeed, that call came as a shock to the community; the City’s lawsuit had said nothing about downtown. Nor had the general public been clamoring for a new downtown plan. It still isn’t, to judge by the 9,200 signatures gathered last summer on the petition to referend the council majority’s first stab at a Downtown Area Plan. 

Facing a fight at the ballot, in February 2010 the council rescinded that proposal. Since then, it’s drafted two more, each one skimpier than the last. In fact, at the council’s June 29 meeting, City Attorney Zack Cowan opined that the five-page “Green Vision for the Downtown” (effort # 3) is not a plan at all but merely an advisory measure. 

The settlement agreement stipulated that UC would “pay 50% of the City’s cost of preparing the DAP EIR [Downtown Area Plan Environmental Impact Report], up to a maximum amount of $250,000.” It also said that the City would “employ a minimum of one FTE land use planner for four (4) years.” To fund the preparation of the EIR, the City was authorized to draw up to $250,000 out of the campus’ annual (through 2020) payment to the City of $1.2 million, the latter sum to increase annually by 3%. 

One caveat: Funds annually allocated for transportation demand management ($200,000) and neighborhood programs ($200,000) could not be touched. The agreement also allocated $200,000 annually to City sewer and storm drain infrastructure projects, and $600,000 annually to City fire and emergency equipment, capital improvements and training. (A 2004 study commissioned by the City found that UC annually used $5,760,000 worth of City fire and emergency services and $2,698,000 worth of City sewer/stormwater facilities.) 

What’s perplexing, then, is that all these allocations add up to $1.2 million. In other words, unless the City was raiding the UC monies designated for the City’s sewers, storm drains and fire services, there would seem to have been nothing left to fund the preparation of the DAP EIR, except the paltry 3% annual increase on UC’s initial $1.2 million contribution. 

Taecker has been paid $651,827—all of it, according to the Budget Office, from UC. But the settlement agreement stipulated that UC would pay a maximum of $250,000 to the planner overseeing the DAP EIR. It also said that the City would share equally in that planner’s compensation. Did UC end up paying it all? And by so doing, has UC paid 70% of the total costs of preparing a new plan for downtown Berkeley? 

The settlement agreement stipulated that the City would hire a planner to work on the DAP for four years. Taecker was hired five years ago, in Fall 2005; he’s still on the City payroll. Most recently, he’s been paid out of funds provided by a grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to implement the DAP. But there still is no DAP, and thus nothing to implement. So what’s he actually doing? 

The answer seems to be that he’s working on the mayor’s ballot measure: On June 29, Taecker joined planning director Dan Marks at the staff table, as the council discussed the “Green Vision for the Downtown.” Isn’t it problematic that funds earmarked for DAP implementation are being used to pay for the preparation of a ballot measure? 

Finally, the settlement agreement stipulates that if, due to “City action or inaction not caused by UC Berkeley’s failure to perform under this Agreement,” within 48 months of the agreement’s execution”—which is to say, by May 2009—the new Downtown Area Plan [DAP] has not been adopted and its Environmental Impact Statement has not been certified, the University’s annual payment to the City will be reduced by $180,000 each year or $15,000 per month of delay, until certification of the EIR and adoption of the Plan. The agreement also stipulated that the deadline could be extended by mutual agreement of UC and the City. 

When the city council launched the DAP planning process on September 27, 2005, the staff report acknowledged that “if the City fails to meet the [May 2009] target for completing the new plan and certifying its EIR, “the University will reduce its financial contributions to the City under the settlement agreement; however planning and environmental review may continue to completion.” 

The City missed the May 2009 deadline. On June 2, 2009 the council extended the DAP/EIR deadline to July 15, 2009. On July 14, 2009 the council passed its now-rescinded, first edition of the DAP. Berkeley still lacks a new downtown plan, and the deadline has not been extended a second time. 

Is that why the words “University of California” and “settlement agreement” appear nowhere in either the “Downtown Area Ballot Measure” or the accompanying July 13 staff report to the council? In keeping with the settlement agreement, has the University reduced its payments to the City? If so, by how much? Is UC now contributing anything to DAP preparation? If not, how does the City, which faces a $16.2 million deficit in Fiscal Year 2011, intend to fund the future downtown planning process? 

The July 13 staff report on the “Downtown Area Ballot Measure” devotes two sentences to the measure’s fiscal impacts. We read that if the measure passes, “there will be significant follow-up efforts by staff to adopt a Downtown Area Plan and implementation measures,” and that “additional environmental review may be necessary, depending on the exact changes proposed in the final plan. Not a word about costs of such efforts or how they will be funded. 

On July 1 and 2, I asked the City Budget Office to provide an itemized and annualized account of planning for downtown Berkeley since 2005. As of July 12, I had yet to receive that account.