Public Comment

letter to Berkeley City Council
Significant Community Benefits for Buildings Over 75 Feet in Berkeley

Olga Bolotina,Chair,Sierra Club Northern Alameda County Group
Saturday April 25, 2015 - 10:26:00 AM

We appreciate the opportunity to comment on Significant Community Benefits for Buildings Over 75 Feet in Berkeley.

The Sierra Club has supported the City of Berkeley’s efforts to up-zone the Downtown to allow for more Transit Oriented Development. We have also consistently and enthusiastically advocated for new projects to provide Community Benefits that improve environmental sustainability and livability for all residents.

At this time, as the City Council and Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) are establishing a framework for determining the quantity, quality, and nature of Significant Community Benefits required of the five allowed high-rise buildings in Berkeley’s Downtown, we wish to express our support for the following framework and benefits.

Levy Benefits “Beyond What Would Otherwise be Required”  

The finding required in Section 23E.68.090E of the Berkeley Municipal Code (BMC) clearly states that the Significant Community Benefits required of the five buildings over 75 feet must be “beyond what would otherwise be required by the City.” We urge the City Council and ZAB to clarify that these Significant Benefits must be above and beyond the inherent benefits of new development and housing and beyond: 

- The benefits already required by the Berkeley Municipal Code, either within the C-DMU provisions, or in provisions that apply City-wide, including the existing “fee-or-10% build” Affordable Housing requirement; 

- Benefits which may arise from other applicable laws and statutes, such as the Statewide Density Bonus laws; and 

- Benefits which are customarily required of new developments, either by the Planning Department or ZAB, such as electric vehicle charging stations, transit passes, car-share, bicycle parking, and other routinely required benefits. 

With regard to construction workers, the Sierra Club does not believe that payment of prevailing wages should be considered in and of itself a “significant community benefit,” as payment of such wages reflects community standards, values, and expectations. A project labor agreement in combination with local hire and apprentice labor programs could be considered a significant benefit

Define and Measure “Significant” Community Benefits  

In addition to ensuring that inherent, already required, standard, and customary benefits of developments not be counted towards the Significant Community Benefits requirement of Berkeley Municipal Code Section 23E.68.090E, we urge the Council and ZAB to adopt the most comprehensive measures of what constitutes “significant” community benefits, both in monetary terms, and in their size, permanence/longevity, and positive impact to the Berkeley community and to the environment. 

When the City of Berkeley enabled the building of five high-rises in the Downtown, the parcels selected for this increased development were endowed with significantly increased potential for profits. In addition, limiting the number of high-rises to a total of five in the entire Downtown area provides each development with a virtually exclusive right to the views and other significant monetary benefits of being one of only a handful of high-rises in a low-to-mid-rise built environment. Finally, in the Bay Area’s hot real estate market, new (and sometimes merely “newly permitted”) developments are sold to investors at huge premiums. These and other measures of value should be considered by the Council and ZAB when determining the capacity of the five high-rise developments to deliver Significant Community Benefits, such that the community recaptures its fair share of the value the property owners were given in the form of increased and exclusive development potential, and the benefits of high market demand. 

When considering what will constitute “significant” community benefits, in addition to adopting a broad measure of a project’s monetary capacity to fund benefits while still remaining viable, the Council and ZAB should also consider the long-term value and impact of each benefit to the local community. To facilitate this determination, the Sierra Club urges the Council and ZAB to engage in outreach to citizens and to community, social services and neighborhood organizations, and provide multiple forums for community and stakeholder input. With that input, categories and qualities of desired benefits can be identified, providing the necessary framework for the City to draw from in tailoring appropriate packages of significant community benefits for each high-rise project. To that end, we hope that the April 7 Council discussion marks the beginning of a more robust community and stakeholder input process. 

Consider Sierra Club Significant Community Benefit Priorities  

The Sierra Club would like to express strong support for the following environmental and transit benefits, which we believe will confer measurable and long-term benefits to the environment and the community: 

- A robust Transportation Services Fee (the Sierra Club has previously gone on record in support of this fee, and for all programs supported by this fee to benefit alternatives to single-occupant vehicles). 

- Additional fees to fund the Streets and Open Space Improvement Plan (SOSIP), for which the Sierra Club has also previously expressed support. Unfortunately, the SOSIP does not have an adequate financing plan, and existing impact fees are insufficiently set far below the nexus study’s recommended levels. The City may find that SOSIP implementation will have extraordinary benefit for these five downtown buildings, each with the most proximate access to BART and the downtown Core, and potentially higher demands for pedestrian and open space. 

- State-of-the-art sustainable building practices, including but not limited to Zero Net Energy, LEED Platinum, and/or other markers of the most progressive sustainable building practices available, to establish and demonstrate the lowest environmental impact that is feasible for buildings. 

In addition to these environmental benefits, the Sierra Club is extremely supportive of including additional affordable housing in high-rise developments, beyond what is already required by the BMC. The Sierra Club maintains a longstanding policy in support of a minimum of 20% affordable housing, with a significant amount built on-site or within the Downtown Area. This policy was articulated during the formation of the Berkeley Downtown Area Plan and was central to the Sierra Club’s support for 2010 Measure R. Achievement of the goal of 20% Affordable Housing is one of the Sierra Club’s top priorities for Significant Community Benefits. Locating affordable housing in the Downtown Area is of environmental concern to ensure a balanced jobs-housing fit in a high-quality transit area. 

Finally, the Sierra Club is also supportive of other Significant Community Benefits including, but not limited to (not in order of preference): 

- Services/facilities for the homeless, disabled, elderly, youth and/or other vulnerable populations 

- Enhanced parks and streetscapes/public spaces (via SOSIP or other efforts), such as funding for the pedestrianization of Center Street 

- Historic preservation 

- Project labor agreements in combination with local hire and apprentice labor programs 

- Universal access units and family-sized housing 

- Funds and facilities for arts and culture 

- Community meeting spaces 

- Public restrooms 

- Secure bicycle parking for public use 

- Funding or building green infrastructure projects 

We look forward to continuing to work closely with you to establish a framework and categories for Significant Community Benefits that reflect community and Sierra Club priorities.