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City Council approves Berkeley's Downtown Area Plan

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The downtown area, formerly its own business district, will now become part of the city-wide Berkeley Tourism Business Improvement District.


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MARCH 21, 2012

Today, Downtown Berkeley is an eclectic mix of small businesses in small storefronts, with only a few buildings that jut out above the skyline.

But now, that could all change.

At its meeting Tuesday, Berkeley City Council approved its long-contended Downtown Area Plan, which aims to provide guidance for revitalizing that part of the city.

The plan, which was passed by the council Tuesday with only one — Councilmember Kriss Worthington — opposed, looks to bring new economic life to Berkeley’s Downtown and allows for seven tall buildings, creates green building and open space requirements and outlines a “green pathway” program to streamline the process of obtaining building permits.

But what might sound like a sure bet has been a source of controversy for the city for nearly a decade. The approval of the plan marks the end of seven years of contention over the Downtown Area Plan — years that have involved petitions, a rescission, a ballot measure and endless debate.

Despite numerous community members who have repeatedly spoken out at the last three meetings of City Council against the tall buildings, construction regulations and other elements of the plan, the support for economic revival in the Downtown was enough to prompt its Tuesday approval.

History and details of the plan

The council initially approved the Downtown Area Plan in July 2009, but it was rescinded the following year after a referendum campaign against it garnered 9,200 signatures.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. The plan in its current form aligns with guidelines from Measure R, which was approved by voters in November 2010.

The political struggle over reviving the Downtown can be traced back even further, however, to a lawsuit the city filed in 2002 against the UC Berkeley 2020 Long Range Development Plan due to environmental concerns. In the settlement, the parties agreed to replace the city’s 1990 Downtown Area Plan, and while the agreement was often criticized, city leaders and many community members agree that the Downtown is in dire need of economic uplifting.

The latest form of the plan replaces the current zoning district to allow for open space and environmental development requirements and the processes for erecting taller buildings.

It is the taller building construction that has garnered the most contention for the plan thus far. The plan allows for 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 further that the city’s tall buildings must provide “significant community benefits,” such as affordable housing, supportive social services, transportation demand management, green features and employment opportunities, according to a March 6 presentation by the city’s planning commission.

While the new plan actually has fewer tall buildings than its previous iterations, some members of the community who spoke at the March 6 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 and its new buildings 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.

Building standards

For both the tall buildings and new smaller buildings, the plan requires that upper stories are set back a certain distance from the edge of the buildings, and also that buildings are set back from their lot lines so as not to be imposing. For buildings over 45 feet tall, a 20-foot space is required near a side or rear residential lot line and a 10-foot space in the front of the property is required if the building is facing a residential lot.

The plan also implements green building standards, one of which is a system of transportation demand management that includes employee and resident bus passes, car-share parking spaces and parking spaces that are leased or sold separate from the unit. It ensures that all new construction of more than 20,000 square feet meet LEED Gold or equivalent standards.

The “Green Pathway” — a process that simplifies and streamlines the often complicated permit process — is available for some buildings that exceed the green building requirements and include “extraordinary public benefits.”

Within the green pathway process, construction of buildings 75 feet or less are not subject to a public hearing but are required to have additional upper story setbacks and necessary review from the Landmarks Preservation Commission and Design Review Committee within certain time limits. For buildings over 75 feet, the Zoning Adjustment Board would grant approval within time limits.

Next steps

A critical component of the new plan is the implementation of fees from new development to fund affordable housing, the creation of parks and recreation facilities and other city improvements, said Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, whose district encompasses the Downtown. The actual fees are not included in the plan, but they will come to City Council for discussion in the fall.

While not all revenue will go toward downtown development, the plan requires City Council to commit “a meaningful amount of revenue to Downtown” as part of their annual budget adoption.

According to a presentation by the planning commission at the council’s March 13 special meeting, the city will accept applications for one of five tall buildings on July 1 to give the city the opportunity to compare projects. If applications are not submitted July 1, the next deadline would be every six months thereafter.

If selected, applicants must meet the conditions of approval and start the building process on a strict schedule or face the penalty of having their permits revoked and given to another project.

“A plan is a plan. We’ll have to see if there are any takers,” Bates said at the meeting after the plan had passed.

Annie Sciacca covers city government.

MARCH 25, 2012

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