Berkeley ZAB Pauses for a Moment to Reflect on the Environment

Becky O'Malley
Friday April 24, 2015 - 02:24:00 PM

This is getting to be annoying, to me and I’m sure to the good chunk of Planet readers who live outside of Berkeley. Dreadful things are happening all over the world these days, and though Bob Burnett and Conn Hallinan do their best to keep us informed, I seem to be using this space all too much to report on local land use. And even worse, it’s about local land use battles that I’m inserting myself into the middle of.

But there really is a bigger picture emerging from what’s happening here.

First, the update, for all you people who have been calling and emailing to ask what happened last night at ZAB (the city of Berkeley’s Zoning Adjustment Board, for those of you who haven’t tuned in yet.)

The Board displayed a rare (around here) amount of common sense. They declined to certify the manifestly inadequate Environment Impact Report on the 18-story “Residences at Berkeley Plaza” (2211 Harold Way) thrust onto their agenda by an over-eager city staff.

Certifying an EIR amounts to declaring that they’ve been told everything they need to know about possible negative impacts on the environment of a proposed project. And if they had been tempted to believe that myth in this instance, fifty citizens showed up last night to explain it all to them. 

An especially cogent argument was advanced by Kate Harrison and James Hendry, with echos from others: with the definition of “significant community benefits” currently left hanging, at least until the May 5 special City Council meeting and probably longer, what project exactly is the EIR supposed to be covering? 

A communication from Tim Hansen gave some specifics. He pointed out, for example, that various figures for the number of seats and square footage in any successor movie theaters were provided in various parts of the document. And the proposal to include instead a general purpose performing arts space, which was suggested the last time ZAB discussed the project, would require still another analysis. 

About that performing arts center: Both Tree Fitzpatrick and Don Goldmacher of Save Shattuck Cinemas asked Commissioner Denise Pinkston to recuse herself from voting on the project, since she’s a board member of the youth theater group which has been spearheading a consortium formed to advocate including the performing space in the building as a significant benefit. There was no response to his request from Board or staff. 

(Here I have a personal interjection: when I was on the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the question of whether Temple Beth El should be allowed to build on a historic site in North Berkeley came before us. At the insistence of well-wired project advocates, the city attorney at the time bounced from the LPC the three commissioners who were also members and/or on the board of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, including me. 

A pro bono attorney began a lawsuit on our behalf, but we abandoned it after deciding that the precedents were iffy. Needless to say, without us the commission voted to support Temple Beth El, and the building stands today. Ironically, I was leaning toward voting their way all along, but frankly I was delighted to be off the hook. ) 

Will the challenge to Commissioner Pinkston be upheld by city staff? Hard to tell. 

This year’s bounced LPC commissioner, Rose Marie Pietras (axed by Mayor Tom Bates for questioning the effect of the Harold Way project on the view from the Campanile) managed to breathlessly squeeze her 30 years as a planner in Contra Costa County into her allotted two minute review of the EIR in Public Comment. Not to mince words, she thought it was terrible. Among other things, she said, in Contra Costa County they were not allowed to rely on data more than two years old, whereas this EIR referenced information that went back five or more years. 

Other speakers said that the dire water situation in Northern California was not adequately accounted for in what’s supposed to be the Final Environment Impact Report. Energy consumption was questioned, and many more topics. 

Berkeley High parents made an argument that seemed especially persuasive to ZAB members, several of whom are past or present BHS parents themselves. The report is virtually silent on the many problems of noise, traffic and air pollution that a project this big will pose for the high school, which is less than 400 feet from the site. 

It seemed clear to ZAB members that it’s too soon to close off the discussion of possible environmental impacts of this unspecified project. 

It went on like that into the smallish hours, about 11, when the board voted to continue the discussion until their next regular meeting, scheduled for May 14. It’s barely possible that the council will nail the question of significant community benefits on May 5, but it’s most unlikely. 

What’s the big picture here? What seems most striking to me is that the urban legend of the last decade, that building steel frame skyscrapers near BART stations will prevent suburbs, is collapsing. BART is maxed out, with no relief in sight. Almost every car is jammed. 

This building is slated to be luxury apartments, probably to be expensively condo-ized after construction. It taxes the imagination to believe that wealthy residents will forego cars and travel on BART, as EIRs like this try to convince decision-makers. There’s very little recent data to argue otherwise. 

Last night ZAB showed more common sense in their other decision as well. They refused to believe the claim of a guy who owns a historic house on Blake Street that his proposed project was anything except mini-dorms (what we used to call rooming houses) for large groups (of students or others). They denied the permits he sought, though without prejudice, so he could come back with a new and hopefully better design. 

This applicant was supported in his claims by one Mark Rhoades, former employee of the City of Berkeley’s Planning Department, who, when queried by a ZAB member, just couldn't say whether he had any past or present financial relationship with this would-be developer. 

Coincidentally, or not, Rhoades is also the fixer consultant who’s promoting the Harold Way project. And also perhaps coincidentally, when another ZAB member asked him how many film screens would be included in the new building, in order to clarify the contradictions in the EIR, his answer was 6, or 10, or “I dunno, I’m still talking to Landmark Cinemas.” The guy seems incapable of a straightforward answer. 

We’ll see what the ZAB will decide to do when all the facts are finally in and they are able certify the EIR in good conscience. If they should be tempted to shirk this duty, several speakers last night (myself included) reminded them that the decision to certify can be appealed. 

None of this, of course, entertaining though it is, means that the City Council isn’t poised to go ahead and approve the big building at the end of the line, regardless of what ZAB decides and whatever it does to the environment. Last time I looked, Mayor Tom Bates had his council majority locked down tight. 

The council has scheduled its summer recess from July 15 to September 14. That’s the real reason that this not-quite-ready-for-prime-time EIR was thrust forward by the Planning Department staff. The developer-influenced councilpersons want to make sure that their patrons have their entitlements locked down, preferably by June to avoid surprises. Fast-tracking will be the order of the day from now on. 

Thanks to the reader who corrected a vote tally and an attribution in the first draft of this hasty report.