There’s no issue more contentious on the November 2 ballot than Measure R, the advisory measure that establishes a new downtown plan.

Measure R, placed on the ballot by the City Council after Berkeley residents collected enough signatures to force a previous downtown plan to a vote, sets new guidelines on growth and development in the downtown area.

With its call to permit five new high rises in an expanded downtown core, Measure R has either been touted as Berkeley’s environmentally-friendly solution to suburban sprawl and urban blight or accused of spurring the Manhattanization of Berkeley. And with the news that a company headed by Chicago developer Sam Zell has made the largest single donation to the Yes on R campaign (his Equity Residential company contributed $25,000) opponents contend they have discovered the smoking gun that proves that bad intentions (read profit) is the motivator behind Measure R.

As in all election measures that prompt an excess of hyperbole, many of these claims go too far. And each also holds a kernel of truth.

Here is Berkeleyside’s attempt to examine the most controversial aspects of Measure R:

What Measure R means: It is important to note that Measure R is an advisory measure meant to provide general guidelines. If it passes, the City Council would then direct staff to draw up a detailed downtown plan, which the City Council would then adopt or reject after a series of public hearings. There would be additional time for residents of Berkeley to express their opinions about the plan.

If Measure R fails, the city can continue to operate under its existing plan, adopted in 1990. Or the council could try and adopt a new plan on its own.

What opponents of Measure R say: They contend that the measure is too vague to adopt.

What supporters of Measure R say: This is a set of policy guidelines meant to give the council direction. The City Council will follow those directions as they move forward to write the actual plan.

Height limits

Under the current downtown plan adopted in 1990, the area defined as “downtown” is centered around the Berkeley Bart station. It permits construction of buildings up to 65 feet. If a developer uses the city’s “cultural bonus” provision and adds a performing space on the ground floor of a building, he or she can build up to 89 feet. If a developer also uses the “state density bonus” by making 35% of its residential units “affordable,” he or she can build up to 117 feet. The Arpeggio building on Center Street is an example of a structure that used both the bonuses.

Downtown expanded under Measure R

Under Measure R, the area defined as “downtown” will be expanded to run from Hearst to Dwight streets and from MLK to Oxford/Fulton streets. Buildings in this core area will generally have a 60-foot height limit, with some exceptions. Developers can apply for a permit to build to 75 feet on Shattuck between Hearst and Haste, and on University from Oxford to Milvia. However, developers building to this height will waive their right to apply for extra height under the “state density bonus,” The cultural bonus will be eliminated.

Under Measure R, the city will also permit the construction of five high rises in the downtown core. Three of these can be 180 feet high (height of the Great Western Building or about 15 stories high) and must be located within a one-block radius of the downtown BART station. Two must be residential towers and one must be a hotel. The city will also permit development of two towers of 120 feet. (These would be about 10 stories high). These could be either residential or office space.

What supporters of Measure R say: Increasing the density of the downtown core is the most environmentally friendly position. It will bring people downtown to live, reduce suburban sprawl, and get them out of their cars. The new condos will attract empty nesters and affluent professionals, which will in turn attract new retail.

Opponents of Measure R say: The new high rises won’t solve Berkeley’s housing supply problems because it only encourages housing for the rich. There is already enough student housing downtown, and a city economic feasibility study suggests that new condos would have to sell in the $700,000 to $1 million range to be economically feasible for developers. This is too expensive for average people.

Supporters of Measure R say: To build the 180-foot buildings, the measure requires developers either to set aside 20% of their units as affordable or pay into a city housing trust.

Opponents of Measure R say: The expanded definition of the downtown core, coupled with the possibility of building five high rises, will push tall buildings into new areas. They won’t be clustered around the downtown BART station. Sam Zell’s Equity Residential, for instance, has applied for a permit to create 200 units of housing in six buildings on University Avenue between Shattuck and Walnut. The project will be known as Acheson Commons.

Currently, the height limit in that area is 60 feet. If Measure R is adopted, Equity Residential could apply to build one of the 120-foot towers, bringing a high rise to a new area of the city, according to Susan Cerny, a board member of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association and an opponent of Measure R. That’s why Sam Zell has donated so generously to the Yes on R campaign, said Cerny. If it passes, the value of his real estate will increase significantly, she said.

Measure R does not specify where any of the 120-foot high rises can and should be built, according to Matt Taecker, a principal planner for the city. If passed by the voters, that detail will be determined by the City Council. However, the EIR prepared for the May 2010 version of the downtown area plan does extend the possible location of 120-foot high rises to Hearst Street, so Cerny appears to be correct in stating that Equity Residential could probably try to build a tower, said Taecker. But it wouldn’t be the first high rise north of University. UC Berkeley is already building the 100-foot Helios Building nearby on Berkeley Way. The 180-foot high rises would be restricted to within a one-block area around BART.

The “greenness” of Measure R

Measure R would modify current building codes to require environmentally sustainable buildings. The new rules would apply to all buildings, except historic rehabilitations or adaptive reuse of existing buildings.

Among other measures, all buildings would have to:

Meet LEED gold or equivalent standards

Provide car sharing, bike parking, and transit passes

Provide open space or pay into a fund

Developers could get their permits “streamlined” in a program called “Green Pathway.” But they must agree to additional concessions which Measure R defines as  “extraordinary public benefits that could not otherwise be obtained.”

For a building lower than 75 feet, these concessions include:

Making 20% of the residential units affordable or creating comparable number in another downtown building, or donating to city housing fund.

Waiving right to density housing bonus

Making sure 30% of workers on a project are from Berkeley or the Green Corridor.

For a building above 75 feet, these additional measures are required for a streamlined “Green Pathway” permit:

Paying prevailing wages for building higher than 100 feet.

Opponents of Measure R say: The recent flyer mailed out to Berkeley voters – and funded by the Yes on Measure R campaign – uses the word green 23 times. They have expressed concern that Measure R has no enforcement mechanism to ensure developers comply with these rules. “No – it is not a green vision – it is a green mirage,” Gene Poschman wrote in an article titled for the BAHA website titled “Ten Excellent Reasons to Vote No or R.”

Supporters of Measure R say: The council distilled the major components of the downtown plan put together over the last five years by a broad-based citizens’ advisory group. The council took a 150-page plan and reduced it to a 5-page plan. It is no surprise that Measure R doesn’t have “teeth” since it is an advisory measure, according to supporters. It lays out broad policy issues and mentions that the developers will be monitored to make sure they are complying with the law. The exact details of how compliance would work will be worked out when the City Council adopts a new downtown plan.

Landmarking buildings

Measure R states that one of its goals is to “preserve historic buildings and provide where appropriate for their rehabilitation, adaptive reuse and/or intensification.” The measure sets firm timetables for how long someone may petition to have a building given landmark status. If a developer takes the streamlined “Green Pathway” route, the Landmarks Commission has 90 days to rule whether it is a landmark.

Supporters of Measure R say: This is ample time. Too often, according to Councilman Gordon Wozniak, a project is well underway when someone comes in at the last moment and petitions for landmark status. A developer may have spent more than $1 million on architectural drawings and spent months in the design process and have the project stopped for landmark review, he said. This is one reason why Berkeley has developed a reputation for having a lot of red tape.

Wozniak would like Berkeley to follow Oakland’s lead and survey all the city’s 30,000 buildings to determine which of its 350 older buildings might be eligible for landmark status. He says the preservationists do not want to do this. He also believes 90 days is sufficient time to determine whether a building might have historic value. Measure R will not start the clock ticking until the Landmarks Preservation Commission has all the information it needs to make a decision, said Wozniak.

Opponents of Measure R say: Part of Measure R is Measure LL in disguise. The voters in 2008 rejected that revision of the city’s 1974 Landmark Preservation Ordinance. Ninety days is not always enough time to do all the research needed on the history of a building, according to Cerny.  “Having the process difficult often means you get a better project,” said Cerny. “The developer goes a step further to create something that is acceptable. If it’s really easy to build they don’t have to take the extra step.”

Supporters of Measure R: the Sierra Club, The League of Women Voters, the Downtown Berkeley Association, the Greenbelt Alliance, Livable Berkeley, the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce, all the members of the City Council except Kriss Worthington and Jesse Arreguin, and more.

Opponents of Measure R: The Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, the Contra Costa Times, BUSD board member John Selawsky, Council members Kriss Worthington and Jesse Arreguin, The Daily Planet.

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...