Public Comment

Determination of Community Benefits for Large-Scale Downtown Berkeley Buildings

Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club
Wednesday March 04, 2015 - 04:21:00 PM

The Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club requests that the ZAB and City Council enhance the significant community benefits to be provided by developers of the three large scale developments allowed in the downtown, including those to be applied to the proposed Harold Way project.

Many of the design elements of the Harold Way project as proposed, including its height, are concerning in and of themselves. In this letter, we only address the larger issue of the community benefits to be provided. As Harold Way is the first of the projects to be considered under the Downtown Plan, whatever benefits are required of its developers will set a standard against which the other very large developments will be judged. The community as a whole should be involved in the definition of these benefits given the impact these buildings will have on all of our citizens. 

Definition of Community Benefits 

Significant community benefits should go beyond what is required under statute or adopted standards or which represent common community practice. To be considered a significant community benefit, an item should also not primarily benefit the developer or its tenants. 

Project Labor Agreement 

For example, of the $27 million in community benefits cited by the developer, $11 million are assigned to the Project Labor Agreement (PLA) with the affected unions. This provision should not be considered a “Community Benefit. It is clear that PLAs benefit developers themselves, serving as “a valuable management tool for project planning and labor cost reduction”, according to a 2009 study from Cornell University. Even the project developer, in announcing the PLA, stated that it would result in a higher-quality and more quickly constructed building, likely more than offsetting any additional costs. In addition, despite the developer’s claim in its revised list of community benefits submitted on February 17, 2015, ZAB and community members did not concede that the proposed PLA was a significant community benefit. To the contrary, some members of ZAB and the public directly refuted this point. Many of the other claimed “public benefits” such as bus-passes for building occupants and “park” space at Harold Way primarily benefit the developer and its tenants rather than the public at large. 

Workforce Housing 

Similarly, including workforce units in each of the large-scale downtown projects would help Berkeley meet its already-established targets and conform to the Bay Area’s Sustainable Communities Strategy. The Association of Bay Area Governments has established a target for Berkeley that it build 2,400 units of low through above moderate income “workforce housing” between 2015 and 2023 so that those who work at ordinary and vital jobs have the opportunity to live here and benefit from its major transportation hubs. The City met less than 0.5% of the need for low to moderate income housing in the last reporting period. The Harold Way and other large projects could help the city meet its housing targets. We appreciate that the developer has agreed to include 10% of its units as available to very low-income individuals in the project instead of providing the in-lieu fee. However, this meets only the minimum 10% requirement set by the City. A higher inclusionary standard, in which an additional 10% of the units should be set aside for workforce housing, better meets the standard of a significant community benefit. 

We believe that one of the conditions for approving any large-scale developments and any other developments requesting variances be required to provide “workforce housing” as part of the requirement for residential development in addition to the baseline mandate of 10%.  

Cultural Requirements 

The concept of community benefits should also include a “cultural requirement”. The existing Landmark Theaters are a major cultural and economic attractor in Downtown Berkeley. A significant community benefit would be requiring that this cultural amenity continue to exist, preferably as movie theaters at a lease cost that encourages the current tenant to stay, and in perpetuity as a cultural space with entertainment affordable to moderate income individuals and families. We ask that the benefits package from the developer clarify the rights of the Landmark Cinemas to remain in their current location and provide a codicil protecting the location as a cultural site in perpetuity. Berkeley has repeatedly recognized the importance of movie theaters and cultural spaces in its planning efforts in the requirement for a performance space in some recently-constructed buildings and the City’s support for retaining the Elmwood Theater. 

City-Determined Definition of Community Benefits 

The Wellstone Club is more generally concerned that the city of Berkeley has not yet defined what should be considered a significant community benefit or considered how those benefits match its already adopted priorities. Instead, the current process allows developers to propose a variety of benefits that may not meet city needs. For example, the multi-year Streets and Open Space Improvement Process (SOSIP) process involving numerous stakeholders identified the transformation of Center Street to a pedestrian and bicycle friendly shared street as a high-priority. In addition, for some time, the City has sought to create a downtown shuttle to reduce parking needs and traffic. However, the proposed open-space and transportation mitigations first offered by the developer included mitigations that would have largely benefitted only the developers’ tenants (e.g. additional bus passes for high-income residents and a small open space plaza immediately adjacent to the building) or proven to be small in scope (e.g., the public bike fix stations). 

In response to comments from ZAB and community members, the developer has now removed some of these benefits but has not replaced them with transportation or open space mitigations that would advance significant community goals. In addition, the developer has removed other unique community benefits from the revised package, including proposed water filtration system in the public right-of-way, which would have advanced city priorities and were identified as beneficial in the SOSIP process. This process under which the developer, not the City, defines “community benefits” highlights the need for the City to define, up-front, the community goals it wants to achieve. 


City officials have an opportunity to define community benefits driven by the City’s own priorities and informed by citizen input. We urge the City to sponsor open public forums in which the public is invited to participate in defining community benefits.