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Contentious plan to revitalize Berkeley's Downtown returns to the City Council

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The Berkeley City Council passed the Downtown Area Plan at its meeting Tuesday night.


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MARCH 07, 2012

After seven years of extensive planning, Berkeley City Council reviewed Tuesday the latest version of its contentious Downtown Area Plan, which aims to provide guidance for revitalizing that part of the city.

The Downtown Area Plan has been in the works since at least 2005 and looks to bring new economic life to Berkeley’s Downtown. However, community members have been arguing about — and thereby stalling progress of — the plan since its inception, and Tuesday’s meeting was no exception.

At the public hearing portion of the meeting, members of the public debated the plan’s allowance for certain tall buildings in the downtown area, as well as the effects of increasing the population density of the area.

The new plan allows for the construction of four buildings that are up to 120 feet tall, two of which are reserved for UC Berkeley, and three other buildings that can be up to 180 feet tall.  It dictates that the city’s tall buildings must provide “significant community benefits,” such as affordable housing, supportive social services, green features and employment opportunities, according to a presentation by the city’s planning commission. They must also meet certain green development requirements.

But some members of the community who spoke at the public hearing said that even this limited number of tall buildings is out of scale with the rest of Berkeley.

Tom Hunt, who spoke at the hearing, described the proposal for tall buildings as “outrageous.” Hunt also expressed his distaste for the high density of people the plan could bring to the Downtown area, which includes the geographic area generally bordered by Hearst Avenue on the north, Fulton Street on the east, Dwight Way on the south and Martin Luther King Jr. Way on the west.

The version of the plan Tuesday actually has fewer tall buildings than previous iterations of the plan, aligning with guidelines from Measure R, which was approved by voters in November 2010. The ballot measure came about after the initial version of the Downtown Area Plan was approved by the council in July 2009, but was rescinded the following year after a referendum campaign against it garnered 9,200 signatures. As an alternative, Measure R put suggestions for how to proceed with the plan up to a vote from the public.

In addition to a limit on the number of tall buildings, Measure R calls for green development standards and parking and transportation management measures.

City planner and Berkeley resident Erin Rhoades said the plan’s alternatives to single-family housing are “good for younger generations who want to live in cities and do not want to drive cars.”

Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates said the council will hear more input from the public next week, , and the council members will vote on whether to approve the plan at their March 20 meeting.

Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, who was against the  initial 2009 plan, said he will not oppose this version of the plan, although he submitted a list of questions and amendments to be addressed, including the prohibition of smoke shops and “adult-oriented businesses,” the provision of bike parking for new buildings and ensuring that tall buildings are held to high environmental standards.

A critical component of the new plan is the implementation of fees from new development to fund affordable housing and the creation of parks and recreation facilities, Arreguin said.

“We want to make sure it’s a neighborhood,” he said of the Downtown. “(But also) make it a place the entire Bay Area wants to come to — the country, the world — and make it a destination.”

Annie Sciacca covers city government.

MARCH 19, 2012

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