The long-established Council of Neighborhood Associations and other neighborhood groups filed suit in Alameda County Court last week against the City of Berkeley’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for its new Downtown Area Plan (DAP). The suit alleges that the City has made numerous changes since it last reviewed the DAP, in 2009, but has not analyzed their effects, as required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). In particular, the suit charges that the City has proposed a new zoning ordinance, cynically called the “Green Pathway”, which makes it quicker and easier for developers to demolish older buildings, even if they are attractive and historically important.
Residents are concerned that the DAP could greatly alter the character of the existing downtown, and turn it into just another generic concrete-and-glass urban wasteland. There have been numerous objections to the new EIR, including a letter from the City's own Landmarks Preservation Commission, but the City Council has ignored them all.
Another concern is that the Green Pathway, if not challenged, would give the University carte blanche to build labs in the downtown to expand its research in the area of genetic engineering and synthetic biology. This would be done without any community input. In 2005, without consulting its citizens, the City came to an agreement with the University of California (UC) allowing it to expand the building of high rise labs downtown. The University, in partnership with BP, has already built the Helios Energy Research Facility which will genetically engineer plants for biofuel.
Berkeley citizens are concerned that these potentially dangerous technologies of synthetic biology and genetic engineering are not well understood and are subject to very lax regulation. Any expansion of these facilities in the crowded downtown area must first be openly investigated. The Green Pathway proposal combined with the UC/City agreement will deny citizens their right to adequately review the possibly dangerous consequences and to offer alternative locations for these labs.
CEQA gives citizens the important right to have some control over the development that is remaking their cities. Because CEQA gives city councils the right to approve their own EIRs, it is not uncommon for them to take illegal short cuts. This lawsuit is important to everyone, because it is intended to protect ordinary citizens' CEQA rights.