A view of Berkeley’s downtown from the Skydeck. Photo: Tracey Taylor
A view of Berkeley’s downtown from the Skydeck. Photo: Tracey Taylor

After hundreds of meetings, seven years of contentious debate, and the sting of a ballot referendum still fresh, the Berkeley City Council on Tuesday night adopted a new plan for its downtown.

The 8 to 1 vote, with Councilmember Kriss Worthington dissenting, may bring as many as seven tall buildings to the area bounded by Hearst Avenue to the north, Dwight Way to the south, MLK on the west, and Fulton on the east. It creates open space requirements, allows a faster approval process for buildings that are extra “green,” encourages LEED Gold construction, and creates a fund to build more affordable housing.

And, according to critics, it might create a cookie-cutter approach to building construction and a density that is out of character with Berkeley.

The plan, which is the result of a compromise between the council’s pro and anti-development factions, seemed to please everyone a bit and no one completely.

“Seven years is a long time,” said Councilmember Jesse Arreguìn. “We do have a plan that is really a compromise. In the end, I think it is a much better plan than what the council had in 2009.”

“This has been a seven-year long, in some respects, ‘ordeal,’ said Councilmember Max Anderson. “In other respects, it has given us the opportunity to weigh in with new ideas.”

“I am also not happy with the plan,” said Councilmember Gordon Wozniak. “I hope a tall building will be built before I die.”

Still, the feeling towards the end of the City Council meeting was one of relief. Members took time to thank city staff for their hard work and one another for input, suggestions, and perseverance.

“I think this council should be congratulated,” said Mayor Tom Bates.

The council will take up the thorny issue of development-related fees in the fall. The plan calls for builders to pay into a fund for affordable housing and open space in the downtown area.

Berkeley will get four 120-foot buildings (two reserved for construction by UC Berkeley), and three 180-foot tall structures when the Downtown Plan is built out. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Details of the Downtown Area Plan (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 That was approved by the City Council, but then rescinded.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.

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 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 council members have said they thought additional revenues should be kept for downtown improvements, rather than the city’s General Fund. Interim City Manager Christine Daniel has 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.

Taller buildings, open spaces on the cards for downtown Berkeley [03.09.12]
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]

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...