The downtown plan establishes a new Commerical-Downtown Mixed Use zoning district, which permits a number of taller buildings

After seven years of trying, including an approved plan that was then rescinded in 2009, a Downtown Area Plan for Berkeley (DAP) looks close to passage.

At the City Council meeting on Tuesday night, the plan was open for public comment. The council will hold a special meeting next at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday with the plan the only item of business, and, from the tenor of both public comment and councilmember remarks this week, it looks likely to pass.

The plan brought to the council (alert: the plan packet is a massive 1,204-page, 173MB PDF) follows the 64% approval by voters of the advisory Measure R in November, 2010. It includes up to seven tall buildings, open space and green building requirements, and a so-called “green pathway” to streamline the permit process (details are at the foot of this story). What the plan does not yet include are details on the Streets and Open Space Improvement Plan (SOSIP) and related impact and in-lieu fees that will be part of the DAP implementation. According to the presentation on Tuesday, those elements will come to council this spring.

A clear majority of the several dozen people who spoke on Tuesday night supported the plan. But there were a number of dissenting voices who criticized the tall buildings, the streamlined green pathway, and the absence of detail on SOSIP and fees, among other things.

Up to seven tall buildings could come to downtown if the Downtown Area Plan for Berkeley is passed

“I want to thank the Berkeley public who overwhelmingly voted for Measure R and set us down the road for real change,” said Mark Rhoades, former city planning head and now a developer. “With this plan we have at least the promise of more environmental sustainability, more equity and more economic vitality.”

John Caner, Executive Director of the Downtown Berkeley Association, called for supporters of the plan to stand before his remarks. Several dozen people stood, holding green signs urging approval of the plan.

A focus on gum stains

“We’re focused on gum stains and graffiti and hanging flower baskets. We are creating that baseline pedestrian experience, that’s going to make downtown welcoming and vibrant,” Caner said, speaking of the ongoing $1.2 million clean up that is going on downtown after local property owners voted for a Property Based Business Improvement District (PBID) last June.

“But the other part of this is the land use environment,” Caner continued. “We’ve got to get that opportunity to bring in new investors to bring people to live, work and play down here. The downtown area plan is absolutely critical for that.”

“The chamber is so proud to be part of this time in Berkeley, where the university, and the city and the Lab and the downtown and the chamber and all these people who back in my time were at each other’s throats, are after the same thing, which is an exciting, healthy, vibrant, interesting downtown,” said Polly Armstrong, co-CEO of the Chamber of Commerce, and a former councilmember. “This plan is not perfect, but it’s so much closer than we’ve ever been able to get.”

In contrast, a number of speakers condemned the plan. Zelda Bronstein took the microphone wearing an outsized pair of green-tinted spectacles, recalling that the great and powerful Oz had forced his citizens to wear such glasses, which was the only reason why the Emerald City was that color.

A clean-up operation is already under way downtown

“It’s a trick, it was a trick in Emerald City, and it’s a trick here,” Bronstein said. “Unlike the people of Emerald City, I’m hoping the people of Berkeley can see through the green-colored glasses. It wasn’t the case in Measure R — money talks. I’m hoping it will be the case in the future.”

Gene Poschman said the council had passed plans for five areas of the city over the years, but none of them had really been implemented. There was neither the staff nor the financial resources to do so, he said.

“We have now had five marriages between council and area plans, each one a triumph of hope over experience. This one is a triumph of cynicism over honesty, certainly over experience,” Poschman said.

Details of the DAP

The DAP originates from work by the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee and the Planning Commission, which worked from 2005 to 2009 on a plan. That was approved by the City Council, but then rescinded. Measure R in 2010 was the response: the advisory measure passed in all the city’s precincts, and provided direction for the new DAP. Last year, the Planning Commission approved the DAP. It will be examined by the City Council in its special meeting next week.

The plan calls for a new C-DMU zoning district, which replaces the current C-2 district (see map at the top of the story. A larger version of the map can be seen here). The C-DMU district sets development standards, specifies upper story setbacks, has open space and green development requirements, and a special process for taller buildings.

Perhaps the most contentious parts of the DAP are the provisions for tall buildings. Four buildings up to 120-feet (two reserved for UC Berkeley) are allowed, and three buildings up to 180-feet are permitted. The seven permitted tall buildings compares to the 12 allowed in the 2009 DAP (including two up to 225-feet), which was rescinded.

To receive approval, the five non-university taller buildings must show “significant community benefits beyond what is otherwise required”, and provide affordable housing, social services, green features, open space, transportation demand management, job training and employment opportunities. The plan also requires upper story setbacks for the buildings and width restrictions for buildings over 120-feet tall.

Setbacks for smaller buildings

Setbacks are also required for smaller buildings. For buildings over 45-feet tall, a 20-foot setback is required when abutting side or rear residential lot line. A 10-foot front setback is required when confronting a residential lot. Along Shattuck south of Durant, a 15-foot front setback is required where the building exceeds 65-feet tall.

The plan requires upper story setbacks and width restrictions for buildings that are over 120-feet tall

The basic open space requirement is 80 sq ft per dwelling. The DAP also specifies standards for Privately Owned Public Open Space (POPOS): 1 sq ft per 50 sq ft of commercial floor area. POPOS can be used to reduce the residential requirement, and an in-lieu fee for SOSIP can reduce open space requirements.

The green building requirements of the DAP state that new construction of more than 20,000 sq ft be LEED Gold or equivalent. The green building standards are not required for renovations. The other main green requirement is for parking transportation demand management, which includes bus passes for employees and residential units, car-share parking spaces, and parking spaces leased or sold separate from the unit.

A green pathway

The green pathway establishes a streamlined permit process for projects that exceed the green building requirements and that include “extraordinary public benefits”. Buildings that meet this standard that are 75-feet tall or less would have no public hearing, additional specified upper story setbacks, and Landmarks Preservation Commission and Design Review Committee review within time limits. Buildings over 75-feet are offered Zoning Adjustments Board approval within time limits.

The green pathway is not available to properties that the LPC determines are a historic resource. If a project is adjacent to a historic resource, the applicant must analyze conformance with standards for review by the LPC and DRC.

One area to be decided is the distribution of potential increased revenues generated by future development. Several councilmembers on Tuesday night said they thought additional revenues should be kept for downtown improvements, rather than the city’s General Fund. Interim City Manager Christine Daniel said on Tuesday that the council should consider carefully whether all revenue — including potential new property taxes — should be earmarked for downtown, or just the fees associated with the DAP.

The big clean up of downtown Berkeley begins [01.10.12]
Downtown PBID passes overwhelmingly [06.29.11]
Council tackles housing development downtown [10.12.11]
Measure R: Future direction of Berkeley’s downtown? [10.20.10]

Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...