Public hearings on the West Berkeley Project were heated and contentious. Photo: Tracey Taylor

For the third consecutive week, Berkeley City Council heard many passionate arguments against the third phase of the West Berkeley Project and a handful in support. But a vote on amending the West Berkeley Plan, certifying the environmental impact report and adopting CEQA findings and the Mitigation Monitoring Program was held over to yet another special council meeting — scheduled for 8 p.m. on Tuesday, May 22.

Last year, the City Council approved zoning amendments for reusing and expanding existing buildings and businesses and which allowed new uses. The third part of the project deals with a new Master Use Permit (MUP) process which provides for greater flexibility in developing large sites. The project would allow the creation of a maximum of no more than six MUP sites over the next ten years.

At last week’s council meeting, planning director Eric Angstadt suggested a number of modifications to the proposals to mollify critics. Last night, he detailed the changes. First, there will be no Master Use Permit (MUP) approvals until a Community Benefits Agreement is passed. Second, no housing will be permitted in the M, MM and MU-LI areas. Third, density, height and floor area ratios in the MU-R would be maintained. Fourth, in the MUPs there would be a 75-foot height limit, except where industrial processes require up to 100 feet (and those exceptions are restricted to nine potential sites). Finally, protections were added to prevent shadows or degradation of the “existing visual quality or character” of Aquatic Park.

But the alterations did not seem to dim the ardor of opponents. Some speakers in the public hearing did support the plan. A spokesman for Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner read out her statement in support, which noted, “I know change does not come easy for us Berkeleyans, but I think the changes before you tonight will help our community thrive.”

Local artist and resident Deborah Orapallo, who is married to West Berkeley entrepreneur and developer Michael Goldin, gave an account of the many efforts she and Goldin have made to improve community life in West Berkeley. “I just want to know,” she said, “what the people who are opposing this have done personally for West Berkeley.” She received a chorus of boos in response — although many subsequent speakers against the project decried “booing one of our neighbors”.

In contrast, applause and cheers greeted the many opponents. “People all say it’s the same 40 people who are always speaking on these issues, but they’re opposing the same four developers,” said Jacquelyn McCormack. “And now you can see that it’s 400 people.”

Much of the comment was directed to what was claimed as a lack of public involvement in the plan before the council. “The process for community input on these projects is not adequate,” said Barbara Bowman. “The public is invited to respond to a fait accompli in one to three minutes. The setting becomes almost of necessity an adversarial citing of bullet points.”

After the more than one hour of public hearing, councilmembers had less than an hour for their discussion. Max Anderson, Jesse Arreguín and Kriss Worthington all agreed that the process behind the West Berkeley Project lacked sufficient public engagement.

“We’re trying to do this comprehensive thing that affects so many people, so many businesses, so many artisans, so many workers, into a process that hasn’t heard from them in a way that is effective,” Anderson said. “Having one or two or three minutes is not even a poor substitute for the kind of process that any area plan I’ve been involved in has gone through. It hasn’t enjoyed the kind of public process that yields the results that people don’t feel disenfranchised. We have people that can count all the trees, but don’t seem to see the forest.”

“This process was not initiated by the West Berkeley community,” said Arreguín. “It has been a top-down process, it has not been a community-based process. I hope the council listens to the concerns that people have, because they are very real.”

Mayor Bates, however, pointed to three consecutive weeks of public hearings on the measure. To howls of protest, he said, “What we’re actually doing is creating a law in public and discussing it.”

On the specifics of the plan, a number of councilmembers argued for minor modifications. Linda Maio thought the height limits should be revisited. Laurie Capitelli thought that opportunities for creating greater density should be examined. City attorney Zach Cowan told the council that changes that required new input from the Planning Commission would dramatically set back a date for a first reading of the ordinance.

“We’re not going to refer things to the planning commission that would restrict our ability to vote,” said Bates.

Before the discussion ended at 11:45 p.m., Worthington said he thought it would be wrong to vote on the ordinance before the Community Benefits Agreement was completed. “We’re being encouraged to adopt the ordinance and then at some time later, unspecified, some package of benefits, unspecified, will be added,” he said. “It seems far more logical to me that we send this back… and have those fixed before we adopt the ordinance. There is no deadline that god has established that we have to adopt this at this minute.”

The proposals are expected to be moved to a vote at next week’s special meeting.

Debate continues about changes to west Berkeley [05.09.12]
Can area plan retain eclectic West Berkeley mix? [5.08.12]
Dozens speak out about controversial West Berkeley plan [05.02.12]

Want to get news like this on your iPhone? Follow Berkeleyside on Twitter and download the free Berkeleyside iPhone app.

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...