Public Comment


Toni Mester
Friday April 28, 2017 - 09:56:00 AM
Daylight plane
Daylight plane

­­­ For the past few months, I’ve been immersed in zoning because the rules that govern building in my West Berkeley neighborhood are under review at the Planning Commission. The continued public hearing on the R-1A will be held on Wednesday May 17 at the North Berkeley Senior Center at Hearst and MLK. We’re hoping for a big turnout, but I’ve learned that zoning does not excite most people until somebody wants to build next door, and then the neighbors scour the code and master plan for some justification to deny the permit.

Appeals by neighbors have become the rule. Dean Metzger, a convener of the Berkeley Neighborhood Council, reviewed City Council minutes since January 2015 and found 26 land-use appeals, some of which have had continued hearings. That’s a huge drain on resources including staff time to process the appeals as well as demands on the Council to review each appeal, hear it, and render a decision. In 2008 the City increased the fee to appeal in the hopes of reducing frivolous claims. There was a time when every fence and hot tub would engender an appeal. Now the appeals are mostly based on the scale of new buildings, and the higher fees have not dissuaded neighbors from protesting the perceived disruption. Since these buildings provide needed housing, more should be done to better harmonize new development with existing neighborhoods. The zoning code should be reformed to create conditions that would make such appeals the exception. 

The War Zone  

This morning I got an email asking me to show up at Civic Center Park to respect Berkeley and then another one telling me that the PD would rather that we stay home. Meanwhile the sound of helicopters has been constant. This is like living in a war zone, but like most other residents, I’m trying to live as normally as possible given the circumstances. It must be worse for parents of students at the high school and nearby Washington Elementary. So I’m going to write about zoning and respect the intelligence of my readers by not pretending that life is normal these days. 

My determination to carry on is complicated by the fact that I just had surgery on my right hand where a hard cast keeps hitting the space bar. The operation is called hand arthroplasty joint reconstruction ligament and trapeziectomy, quite a mouthful. It took almost two hours under general anesthesia, and I was in and out of Kaiser Richmond the same day. I stopped thinking about zoning for three days while weaning myself from Norco, which imposes a fuzzy mental zone that disallows rational thought and writing.  

I understand from drug ads on television, news stories, and friends in the medical professions that some people live on Norco, day in and day out. Norco is a combination of Tylenol and hydrocodone, an opiate. There’s supposed to be an epidemic of opioid drugs, which could explain some social phenomena we’re witnessing, such as mass stupidity. I spent two days on liquids to flush the anesthesia and avoid the notorious side effects of Norco. That worked, and I’m back on ibuprofen and thankful for a clear head again. Nevertheless, this column will be shorter than usual as a result. 

Berkeley can do better 

The Planning Commission discussions on the R-1A and the staff reports have mostly analyzed Berkeley’s own experiences. As a complement, I researched the history of R-1A zoning and created a parcel database from the City’s open data portal. But something was missing, a comparison with the zoning codes of other cities. So I made a list of 20 California cities with comparable populations as well as Oakland, Richmond, Palo Alto, Santa Rosa, and other nearby population centers and began to read their zoning code chapters that dealt with the neighborhoods just above the R-1 in density. Usually that was R-2. From this information, I constructed a simplified grid of their development standards. 

I gleaned much instructive data that can be applied to the R-1A, but the main take-away was that most other cities have more precise and complete zoning codes. Most of them were self-explanatory, explicit, and easy to decipher, and many had features missing from ours. For the sake of brevity and the condition of my right hand, here is a brief outline of what our zoning code lacks. 

Density parameters: Berkeley code describes a zone as “low­-medium density” or “high density” etc. but does not provide numbers in dwelling units per acre. Most codes of comparable California cities include densities for each zone measured in dwelling units per acre. The absence of densities in the Berkeley code makes computation of the density bonus difficult and affects the allowances in all residential districts. 

Lot dimensions: Berkeley’s lot requirements for new structures are given only in the square footage. Most other jurisdictions indicate not only the area required but also the minimum width and depth. This inadequacy creates problems in the older districts where the area may seem adequate, but the lots are too narrow for building two or three stories houses on the rear of the lot without intrusion into adjacent properties. 

FAR: Floor area ratio is only indicated in our commercial/mixed-use zones. Most other cities designate FAR for the residential zones as well, and some correlate the amount of building square footage to the lot area. The floor area ratio is a numerical relationship of the built square footage to the lot area that regulates the amount of floor area and helps to determine the building mass. 

Forms: even if a city has not converted to form-based zoning, the influence of contemporary trends is often shown by an emphasis on desired building types. Berkeley limits the types of dwelling units to single-family, duplex, and multi-family and omits cluster types like bungalow courts, townhouses, courtyard apartments, and live work developments. Our zoning code does not encourage compact infill housing in low and medium density neighborhoods. 

Diagrams: In many other cities, more pictures and graphics are provided of various setbacks and designs. An architect knows how to interpret development standards, but the ordinary prospective buyer or homeowner should be able to read the zoning code and know what is allowed by looking at illustrations. Depictions also show how setbacks and heights are applied. 

Daylight plane: a 45° setback is applied in half the cities studied to ensure adequate sunlight, obviating the need of shadow studies, which have become a cottage industry in Berkeley. The shadow studies are ignored anyway because the impacts are subjectively evaluated according to a meaningless standard of what is “a reasonable obstruction…” 

Design standards: most cities are very picky and specify design elements such as: the style of accessory buildings; preferred roof designs; finish materials, window placement to ensure privacy, % of the lot that must be landscaped, size of the second story by % of the first, solar roof protections, and many other provisions that influence the looks of the built environment. 

The codes of most other cities are more prescriptive and objective than ours. The cities are saying, build this way and you’ll be approved. Berkeley should incorporate some of these beneficial directives to ensure aesthetic and social harmony, prevent neighborhood distress, dragged out appeals, and waste of staff, commission, and Council time. 

Toni Mester is a resident of West Berkeley.