The West Berkeley Project, which is nearing completion, has provoked heated public comment over a long period. Photo: Tracey Taylor

After five meetings and countless hours of public testimony, the City Council decided on Tuesday to ask the residents of Berkeley to vote on proposed zoning changes to large parcels in West Berkeley.

Councilmember Laurie Capitelli introduced a measure to place the matter on the Nov. 6 ballot and it was adopted in a 6-2-1 vote, with councilmembers Kriss Worthington and Jesse Arreguin dissenting. Max Anderson abstained. City staff will now draw up wording for the measure and the council will take another vote on July 10 on whether to put it on the ballot.

“I really think it’s time for the community to discuss it and make a call,” Capitelli said on Friday. “Of course I believe the community will chose to move forward. I think it is a reasonable plan and will provide economic revitalization.”

The council did adopt a Final Environmental Impact Report for the development of six large areas of at least four acres, known as Master Use Permits (MUPS). But now city residents will be asked to vote up or down on the specifics of the development of those parcels, according to Planning Director Eric Angstadt. These details include height limits, density limits, and which large parcels fit the definition of an MUP, he said.

The council also agreed to not to issue any permits for the MUP sites until the Planning Commission has a chance to further refine the community benefits developers must provide in exchange for building on the large parcels — such as traffic mitigation measures, job training programs, and local hiring plans. The council will only consider MUP permits after they adopt the additional benefits. There will be wording in the ballot measure stating this, said Angstadt.

The council took the additional step of slowing down the development of two of the MUP sites near Aquatic Park: the American Soils site belonging to the Jones family and the site owned by Steven and Michael Goldin. While the West Berkeley Project requires developers to use “birdsafe” building methods, the council has asked the Planning Commission to create even more protections for the wildlife at the park. These could include additional setbacks  from either the water’s edge or Bolivar Drive, said Angstadt. No permits will be issued until the council adopts a new Aquatic Park Preservation Package.

Hundreds of people have stated their opposition to West Berkeley Project in testimony before the City Council. Last week, one opposition group, the Friends of West Berkeley, took papers out from the City Clerk’s office indicating it would gather signatures to put a referendum about the West Berkeley Project on the ballot. That could have delayed the plan for at least a year. Capitelli’s move to put on a ballot measure preempted that action and ensures residents will get to vote on the plan in November.

Dean Metzger, the treasurer of the Friends of West Berkeley, said his group now won’t go forward with a referendum.

However, one lawsuit has been filed against another phase of the West Berkeley Project and it is possible that a lawsuit will be filed against this phase as well.

Criticism of the original West Berkeley Project promoted the council to make a number of adjustments to the plan. The original plan allowed MUP developers with tracts straddling different zoning areas to sort of mix and match where they placed housing and manufacturing. That option was eliminated.

The original plan also allowed developers to build as high as 75 feet in those mix and match areas. That has also been eliminated. Developers will only be able to build to either 40 or 50 feet in areas zoned MUR or CW. They will only be allowed to build to 75 feet in the MULI, or mixed-use light industrial, zoning areas. Under certain circumstances, that could be increased to 100 feet.

Rick Auerbach, head of West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies (WEBAIC), criticized the city for its autocratic approach to the process. When the West Berkeley Plan was adopted in the 1990s, dozens of citizens group weighed in. This time around the city did not even bother to send formal notices to the neighborhood, he said. Auerbach said the city council had a preconceived idea of what it wanted to happen in West Berkeley and manipulated the process to make that happen.

“WEBAIC has accomplished a lot in the process but we still think the process is seriously flawed,” he said. “It didn’t have to be.”

But the West Berkeley Project is better now than when it was originally proposed, he said.

“There were improvements, but unfortunately the really exemplary effort made, specifically by Laurie Capitelli and Linda Maio to make the provisions of the West Berkeley Project better for large segments of the community  — the effort they had to put in was proportional to how poorly planned the process was up to that point.”

West Berkeley project another step closer to being adopted [05.24.12]
West Berkeley Plan held for further council debate [05.16.12]
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]

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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...