Page One

City to Hear Public Comment This Week on Two Development Plans for Berkeley (News Analysis)

By Toni Mester
Monday March 05, 2012 - 11:08:00 AM
The dotted lines show two versions of building heights proposed for the Aquatic Park area under the draft West Berkeley Plan.
The dotted lines show two versions of building heights proposed for the Aquatic Park area under the draft West Berkeley Plan.

Public hearings on the Downtown Plan and West Berkeley Project, two development plans that envision significant increases in building heights and mass as well as housing density, begin Tuesday night at the City Council meeting with a public hearing on the Downtown Plan. The meeting starts at 7 PM at City Hall with the public hearing scheduled as the first item on the action calendar. The hearing will be followed by certification of the EIR and adoption of the Downtown Area Plan (DAP 2012) and the first reading of changes to the zoning ordinance and maps. 

Downtown Area Plan 

The Downtown Area Plan has been in the making since the creation in September 2005 of DAPAC, a large advisory committee that hashed out problems and priorities. By the summer of 2009, two versions of a downtown plan had been presented to the Council, one submitted by the Planning Commission and another from DAPAC. 

A compromise plan passed by the Council on July 14, 2009 was answered by a referendum that collected over 9,200 signatures, far in excess of what was required to void the legislation. In response the Council placed Measure R, an advisory resolution stipulating environmental and other mitigations on the November 2010 ballot, which was passed by 64% of 40,760 votes. 

This dialogic, often combative process has brought us to the present plan, 154 pages of policies, goals and development standards illustrated by graphs, maps, and pictures, which is sure not to please everybody. Since June of this year, the Planning Commission discussion focused mainly on the zoning for the Green Pathways and the Downtown Mixed Use zones, but many questions remain unanswered. 

With the Council considering a bond and tax increase for the November ballot, many citizens worry that developers will not be required to foot their fair share of infrastructure costs as well as provide other benefits. How will affordable and family housing or in-lieu fees be assured? Can the roof of a 180 foot (17 stories) building be considered open space? Will UC take even more buildings off the tax rolls? Is the proposed downtown plan consistent with Measure R? 

If any citizen has a concern about any of these outstanding issues or other problem or point related to the Downtown Plan, Tuesday night may be the last opportunity to make your voice heard. The Council hearing will be broadcast as usual on Channel 33, so if you cannot join the crowd at City Hall, please tune in. 

West Berkeley Project 

Public input on the West Berkeley Project continues on Wednesday before the Planning Commission, which will not be broadcast, starting at 7 PM at the North Berkeley Senior Center. Planning Commission meetings are now mostly held at City Hall, but March 7 is an exception. 

The public hearing will be on the draft supplemental EIR (SEIR) of the West Berkeley Project, another development plan with a long, contentious history starting with a tour of industrial properties in February of 2008, when the intent of the Project was to increase zoning flexibility to allow for more office space, R&D, internet based warehousing, and other uses. 

However, when the competition for the LBNL (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory aka The Labs) second campus began in earnest in the autumn of 2010, it became obvious that the City wanted to promote a greater development allowance in select sites to attract the Labs and spin-off R&D companies, even though the Council’s stated intention in developing new standards for Master Use Permits (MUPs) was to “revitalize” West Berkeley. 

After the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) was certified by the Council on March 22, 2011 a citizens group calling itself the Sustainable West Berkeley Alliance (SWBA) filed a lawsuit challenging its validity, which prompted the City in July to authorize a further study called a draft Supplemental EIR (SEIR). 

In addition to the issues raised by SWBA, the SEIR analyzes the impacts of greater heights to 100 feet as well as allowing housing in certain manufacturing zones. In authorizing a study of greater heights, Mayor Tom Bates stated that they didn’t really want to build that high but simply wanted to study the idea. However, during the planning process, some developers had claimed that the proposed MUP height of 75’ wasn’t sufficient for building labs. 

And so the SEIR had a dual function, to avoid paying the legal costs of the SWBA lawsuit and to satisfy the demands of some site owners and developers for a greater allowance to attract the Labs. However, in January of this year, the LBNL announced that it had selected Richmond as the site of its second campus, before the SEIR was completed. 

That doesn’t make the SEIR moot, as the City still hopes to attract Lab spin-offs and other developments in West Berkeley. At stake in the current debate are the potential threats to existing manufacturing interests and residents as well as the environmental impacts on Aquatic Park. 

The small manufacturing concerns that currently operate in the area are mostly represented by WEBAIC (West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies) and its staff, Rick Auerbach, who reached a compromise with the Council in July on allowances for R&D and other uses in formerly restricted zones. However, the SEIR creates another challenge for WEBAIC, a new allowance for 1304 housing units, 553 above the 771 that could be built under existing zoning. 

Recently retired Planning Director Dan Marks opposed housing in certain zones because 

conflicts with neighbors might discourage manufacturing, but his departure and an apparent change of policy have raised another storm of controversy. 

Under the previous EIR, 28 out of 33 of “significant and unavoidable impacts” were transportation/traffic. The increased housing allowances mean even more daily vehicle trips, over 20,000 at the max, raising the question whether the West Berkeley Project is in compliance with the Climate Action Plan, which seeks to limit greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Since the EIR was written and certified, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) has adopted new CEQA guidelines to assess the GHGs, and the SEIR claims to apply them. 

Others impacts concern the environmental community including the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, and CESP (Citizens for Eastshore Parks) which have each taken positions to limit development on parcels on Aquatic Park for fear of disturbance to the birds, over 33 species listed in the SEIR and more in prior studies, and their habitat. Public views of the hills from Aquatic Park would also be obscured. 

The SEIR also studied shadows that fall on nearby residences and portions of Aquatic Park, noise, odors and other environmental impacts. 

The public comment period is open to March 30th. Stay tuned. 

Toni Mester is a resident of West Berkeley.