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Almost six months after the Downtown Area Plan was referended and almost five years after the process began, the discussion is starting to heat up again regarding the future of Downtown Berkeley.  The referendum gave the council the option to put the plan passed by the City Council on July 14, 2009 on the ballot, or rescind the plan and make significant changes to it.  Mayor Tom Bates is recommending that the council make significant changes to the plan and put it on the ballot. As the petitioners argued last summer, the citizens should have the right to vote on the plan since it could significantly change the downtown.

The mayor’s proposal (which has been revised since the first reports) focuses on the three E’s of Sustainability: Environment, Equity and Economy.  Under the proposal, all buildings are required to incorporate green building components.  Since affordable rental housing (pursuant to the 2009 Palmer case) and prevailing wage jobs cannot be legally required by the city, the mayor has come up with an innovative approach to incentivize these social equity provisions with his proposal for an expedited review process in exchange for providing well paying jobs and affordable housing.

The mayor’s proposal includes many of the ingredients for a package that can simultaneously address climate change and local economic and social issues. Its mandatory green construction policies are the right thing to do, and the incentives to provide more housing choices, transit riders, local economic development and quality jobs could be visionary. The community benefits are primarily realized by the assumption that there will be construction of some larger and taller mixed-use and residential development projects around the BART station “core area”, and that those new buildings will pay high fees, provide the required community benefits and generate new tax revenues.

The concern is that the mayor’s proposal does not provide the level of development that is necessary to provide those benefits. The proposal needs to be modified to achieve the 3 E’s of Sustainability: Environment, Equity and Economy.

Downtown Berkeley has a mixture of shorter and taller buildings in the core closest to the BART station and a buffer of shorter buildings near the surrounding neighborhoods.  This proposal will not result in the historic mix of building types because its provisions will not achieve the taller buildings. It is the larger and taller buildings that provide the greatest environmental and social benefits.  These buildings are steel-frame construction and are more costly to build. This gets a little technical, but whether or not Downtown will be successfully revitalized lies in these details of building construction and financing.

The argument is not over 20 feet or 40 feet of building height, it is about passing a plan that can realistically meet the expectations it sets for revitalization and other community benefits.  This can only happen with buildings that are feasible to construct and that will return the community benefits of affordable housing and good jobs as well as the long-term revenues resulting from new residents and property taxes.

Steel-frame construction buildings provide the following community benefits:

  • They provide the highest fees and tax revenue to pay for Berkeley’s progressive works and generate the most economic revenue for the downtown and the city as a whole.
  • They will contribute most significantly to open space and streetscape improvements in the Downtown.
  • They will provide more and deeper subsidies for affordable housing.
  • They will provide more prevailing wage jobs and career pathways for Berkeley youth.
  • They are critical to the success of the voter-mandated climate action plan by implementing transit-oriented development.
  • They will provide homes for a diverse population that will create a vibrant neighborhood and support the economic activity that will revitalize our Downtown to serve us all.

The mayor’s proposal sets a limit for these steel-frame buildings at 160 feet. That is too tall to permit cheaper wood framing, and too short to make steel-frame construction economical.

In the spring of 2008, the City Council commissioned an economic feasibility study of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC) Plan. The study looked at the feasibility of the building heights recommended by the 21-member DAPAC. The study, conducted by local firm Strategic Economics, stated that 180 foot buildings with ownership housing have “Potential Feasibility Overtime” of “5-10 years”.  The case for 160 foot and 140 foot buildings is even worse: with 160 foot potential feasibility in “10+ years”, and 140 foot “not feasible in the foreseeable future”.   The council should not pass a plan with building heights that it has been told by experts won’t work.

The plan must have at least two 180 foot buildings to have any chance of ownership housing being built in Downtown Berkeley that will support a diverse and vibrant economy and provide the highest levels of financial support for affordable housing and other public benefits. This is the same height as the two existing mid-rises at Center and Shattuck – the Wells Fargo building (1921) and the Great Western building (1960s) and are consistent with the heights passed by the DAPAC, Planning Commission and council. Berkeley’s Downtown has a limited number of potential development sites and the city should use those sites to meet the city’s stated environmental and social equity goals.

Those that are concerned about the feasibility of the mayor’s proposal believe that we need transformational change in our Downtown in order to address the need for revitalization and to address the social and environmental goals of this city. As Berkeley faces a severe budget crisis, it is particularly important that our Downtown become an economic asset to the city, not continue to be an economic liability.

Erin Rhoades is Executive Director of Livable Berkeley

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