Election Section

Measure R: Claims and Facts

By John English
Tuesday October 12, 2010 - 11:05:00 AM

Measure R is a deceptive attempt to slip through some highly controversial specifics by linking them to a parade of nice-sounding vague generalities and an alleged “green vision for the Downtown.” Don’t be fooled by proponents’ greenwashing rhetoric. Read the fine print. 

I’ll look here at several key issues by comparing (a) proponent claims, as quoted from the voter pamphlet, with (b) what Measure R itself actually does or doesn’t prescribe. 

The Nouveau-RFD

Proponents’ Claim: “The new Plan will ensure that a comprehensive, independent analysis of potential impacts on historic sites will be reviewed by the Landmarks Preservation Commission prior to approving any project….Any new development must be reviewed by the Landmarks Commission for its impacts on historic structures nearby.” 

The Reality: Measure R mentions a “City-conducted analysis of historical value” after the completion of which the LPC would have just a limited time to decide whether or not to landmark a developer’s targeted property. This is very reminiscent of the RFD (Request for Determination) process that was the most controversial part of proposed Measure LL in 2008. Lest we forget, the voters back then firmly rejected LL. 

Even if (a very big if!) you assume that Measure R’s “City-conducted” analysis would be unbiased, the claim that the analysis, and review thereof by the LPC, would be required for “any new development” is patently false. 

That analysis and review are mentioned only as part of the proposed special “Green Pathway” review process–using which is described by Measure R itself as “voluntary.” Developers could choose instead to follow the standard review process (and indeed, doing so would have some advantages for them). 

Even within the so-called Green Pathway process, the pertinent rule would vary depending on whether or not a proposed development were taller than 75 feet. Developers of lower-rise projects would have to submit an application “including funds for City-conducted analysis of historical value.” But the comparable wording for projects higher than 75 feet instead calls for submitting an application “with possible option to pay for City-conducted analysis of historical value.” So developers of the tallest new buildings could instead “opt” to submit THEIR OWN analysis (done by their hand-picked consultant), with predictably self-serving results. 

Height Limits

Proponents’ Claim: “Measure R restricts building heights….The new Plan allows two residential buildings and one hotel no higher than the Wells Fargo and Great Western Buildings….Despite what opponents claim, no building could be taller than what we have now. The plan does not permit anything higher.”  

The Reality: Proponents are trying to confuse “what we have now” with Downtown’s present two very tallest buildings. In fact, of course, virtually all of Downtown’s existing buildings are much, much lower than those existing towers. So are Downtown’s present allowable heights, under existing zoning and the present Downtown Plan. 

For several parts of Downtown, Measure R would substantially INCREASE allowable heights. 

And it’s quite untrue that nothing could exceed Measure R’s specified height limits. One reason involves the State Density Bonus Law. Though developers using Measure R’s Green Pathway review process would have to waive the right to a bonus under the state law, following the Green Pathway would (as I’ve already pointed out) just be voluntary. So developers who opt to instead follow the standard review process could still demand a State-required density bonus–possibly including height increases even above Measure R’s 180 feet. 

Furthermore, Measure R’s own proposed height limits are NOT as firm as advocates pretend them to be. Look closely at the part of the measure’s Section 4 that specifies those limits. Its preamble says the people merely “advise the City Council that planning efforts for the Downtown should include consideration [sic!] of” the indicated height limits. So passage of Measure R would get touted as sanction for letting developers build that high–but wouldn’t preclude the Council from letting them build even higher! 

Effect on University Projects

Proponents’ Claim: “UC Berkeley agreed to the plan adopted by Council. Without voluntary agreement with the plan, the UC could develop however and wherever they want.” 

The Reality: Here’s another case of flagrant obfuscation. The plan that “UC Berkeley agreed to” was the one that the City Council adopted in July 2009 and subsequently rescinded after citizens mounted a successful referendum campaign.
Measure R proponents are trying to confuse voters into thinking that UC has agreed to comply with the height limits specified in Measure R. But the Council’s July 2009 plan gave to UC special major concessions: allowing 100-foot-high buildings on nearly all of UC’s extensive present landholdings in Downtown, and letting UC build two 120-footers in addition to the plan’s other 120-footers. Though Measure R doesn’t mention those extras, the University surely hasn’t now given them up! To illustrate: At Hearst Avenue and Oxford Street, where Measure R proposes a 60-foot height limit, UC is constructing the Helios Building, which will be 100 feet high. 

Appallingly, the operative parts of Measure R itself avoid even mentioning the University at all. But if Measure R were approved, the Council in subsequently adopting the new Downtown Area Plan per se presumably would ADD BACK IN those special extra-height concessions for UC.