A new lawsuit is challenging the Downtown Area Plan adopted by the City Council in March 2012. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Three neighborhood associations have filed a lawsuit against Berkeley, claiming that the adoption of the Downtown Area Plan in March 2012 did not comply with state environmental laws.

The Council of Neighborhood Associations, which has been operating since 1975 but which gained renewed energy in 2009 when it successfully placed a measure on the ballot to rescind an earlier version of the Downtown Area Plan, is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which was filed in May in Alameda County Superior Court. The other two groups, Friends of Downtown Berkeley and Berkeley Citizens for Responsible Planning, were only formed recently.

The lawsuit alleges that Berkeley erred when it adopted the Downtown Plan because it did not prepare a new EIR, as required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Instead, the city used the EIR that had been prepared in 2009 for one of the plan’s precursors, according to Rachel Mansfield-Howlett, the Sonoma County attorney who is representing the neighborhood groups.

Several elements of the Downtown Area Plan were completely new, including the Green Pathways provision, which allows developers and the city to speed up the permit approval process if the builder agrees to build environmentally sensitive projects that exceed existing requirements, said Mansfield-Howlett. This fast-track could mean the destruction of historic properties in downtown, since the Landmarks Preservation Commission might not have adequate time to review properties proposed for demolition, according to the lawsuit.

“Residents are concerned that the DAP could greatly alter the wonderful historic character of the existing downtown, and turn it into a generic concrete-and-glass urban complex,” the groups said in a press release. …. “Another concern is that the Green Pathway, if not challenged, would give the University carte blanche to build labs in the downtown to expand its research in the area of genetic engineering and synthetic biology.”

The neighborhood groups want Berkeley to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act by doing further analysis in an EIR.

Berkeley City Attorney Zach Cowan said the city believes it is in compliance with CEQA and that no additional environmental review was necessary.

History of the Downtown Plan

Berkeley and a group of citizens started work on a downtown plan in 2005. After years of meetings, the City Council adopted a downtown plan in 2009 that was later rescinded after the Council of Neighborhood Associations and other groups gathered enough signatures to put a referendum challenging the plan on the ballot. The City Council then put the plan before voters, and, in November, 2010, residents of Berkeley voiced their approval for the concepts behind that plan by passing Measure R.

The city then prepared a massive planning document outlining details of the Downtown Area Plan, including the Green Pathways provision. It allows developers to speed up the permitting process under certain circumstances. The plan also aims to protect historic buildings downtown by requiring developers to get a write-off from the Landmarks Preservation Commission before they apply for a Green Pathways permit. The LPC must certify that the proposed development does not alter or destroy any property that is designated as historically significant. But the neighborhood groups who filed the lawsuit do not think this is adequate protection.

The City Council adopted the Downtown Plan in March, on an 8-1 vote, with City Council member Kriss Worthington the only dissenter.

The two sides are scheduled to have a settlement hearing on June 13.

Read the complete lawsuit.

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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...