Public Comment

New: Significant Community Benefits for taller buildings: May 5 special Berkeley City Council meeting
Open Letter to Mayor Bates and members of the Berkeley City Council

Rob Wrenn
Monday April 27, 2015 - 01:18:00 PM

When the City Council adopted the Downtown Area Plan in 2012, it opted for case by case determination of community benefits for buildings over 75 feet in height rather than doing a study to establish specific benefits that would apply to all projects.

For each proposed project exceeding 75 feet, there are two essential steps that the City should require:

  1. the City should require developers to submit financial information about the proposed project. A pro forma with costs and anticipated revenues should be submitted to the City.
  2. The developer’s cost and revenue assumptions, as presented in the pro forma, should be carefully evaluated with the goal of determining the total value of community benefits that the developer can reasonably afford to provide. The goal should be to capture the added value created by the City’s upzoning of Downtown, which greatly increased land value and the value of what can be developed on that land.
My impression is that the City does not have anyone on staff with the requisite expertise to do this kind of an evaluation, so it would be necessary to hire consultants with expertise in real estate economics to do the analysis. The developers can pay for the this analysis, though the group hired to do it must be strictly independent of the developer and must be charged with maximizing benefits for the city while ensuring the viability of the proposed project. 

With respect to the 2211 Harold Way project, City staff were originally planning to have consultants review the community benefits the developers were proposing. What is really needed is review of the project’s financial info to determine the total value of benefits the developer can afford to provide. Then the City Council can decide how that amount should be allocated, how much should go for affordable housing, open space, a more energy efficient building, transportation demand management, etc. 

The only reasonable alternative to a case by case approach with careful independent evaluation of each project’s financials, would be to hire consultants to undertake a full study to establish specific amounts per square foot or per unit that would be required for all projects above 75’. This is the approach the Council rejected when it considered the Downtown Area Plan. Any other approach that is not based on independent analysis of financial information and market conditions would be inherently political and would invariably and justifiably lead to accusations of giveaways to developers. 


While the focus of the May 5 meeting is on community benefits, it is also important to ensure that new taller buildings don’t have detrimental impacts. With respect to 2211 Harold Way, it is essential that the developer be required to reach an agreement with the Landmark Shattuck Cinemas that guarantees that the theaters will be retained in the new building. It is not sufficient for the developers to propose building some movie theater space that it would offer at an unrealistic rent. The idea of building a “community performance space” instead is also unacceptable. There doesn’t appear to be enough space for ten movie theaters and a separate performance space at the 2211 Harold site. Advocates of community performance space should talk to the developers of the proposed hotel, which may include conference space and could be asked to include an auditorium. Community performance space could perhaps be included in the project proposed for Berkeley Way. The movie theaters at Harold Way must be designed and provided on terms that ensure their long term viability at that location. If the developers are not able to reach agreement with Landmark, ZAB and the Council (if the project comes to the Council on appeal) should deny the developers a use permit. 

There are many potential sites for the limited number of exceptional taller buildings allowed downtown. When the developers chose the site with Shattuck Cinemas (and the Habitot Museum), they should have been aware of Downtown Area Plan policies calling for the retention of movie theaters downtown. If they are not willing or able to ensure retention of the theaters, they should find another more suitable site for their planned-18 story building. 

The City’s Downtown Area Plan recognizes the importance of movie theaters in the following policies: 

“Policy LU-1.2 Encourage unique cultural and entertainment uses that serve the city and region, including museums, live theater and cinemas.  


b) retain and support Downtown’s cinemas. Consider incentives for retaining existing movie theaters and upgrading their facilities. 

c) recruit uses that complement Downtown as an evening destination, including new cinemas, restaurants, and art and entertainment venues.” 

(pages LU-7, LU-10 in the Downtown Area Plan) 

“Policy ED-1.7: Entertainment & Culture. Strengthen Downtown as a prime regional destination for alternative and mainstream cinema, and live theater and music. Evaluate and enhance the theater- and cinema-going experience in subareas where they are concentrated. 

  1. Work to retain and expand cinemas, live theaters, and music venues.
  2. Work with cinema, theater, and music venues to upgrade to state of the art facilities.”
Community Benefits 

I have already voiced my opinions in a letter to ZAB dated Feb. 17. I would just reiterate that each project should contribute something, beyond what is otherwise required, to the following: 

  • Affordable housing; The target should be doubling the otherwise required number of below market affordable units (or the fee paid if no units are provided onsite) as recommended by the Housing Advisory Commission.
  • Open space, especially funds to help make the Center Street Plaza a reality
  • Reducing the carbon footprint for the proposed buildings. There should be some renewable energy component to each project. Solar panels to generate enough electricity to at least provide lighting for common areas and run the elevators, etc; solar thermal could provide heat/hot water for the buildings. Energy efficient design should be maximized.
In addition, I agree with the Sierra Club’s support for a Transportation Services Fee (as mentioned in their letter of April 6). The City committed to implementing a transportation services fee (TSF) when it certified the Environmental Impact Report for the City’s General Plan in 2002. A TSF was a mitigation measure for the increased traffic created by the growth anticipated by the General Plan. The Council has so far failed to implement such a fee despite the completion of a nexus study. At a minimum, the City could impose such a fee on these exceptional tall building projects. 

Rob Wrenn is a former member of the Planning Commission and Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee.