Four years after voters adopted a new vision for downtown, they may be asked to refine it. Photo: Tracey Taylor
Four years after voters adopted a new vision for downtown Berkeley, they may be asked to refine it. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Update: 6//14: The initiative has qualified for the November 2014 ballot.

Original story: City Councilman Jesse Arreguín, some members of the environmental community, the labor community, and preservationists are circulating a ballot initiative that would drastically overhaul elements of the Berkeley Downtown Area Plan endorsed by voters in 2010 and codified by the city council in 2012.

The initiative would restore the “green” in the “Green Vision” part of the plan, according to Arreguín.

It would essentially mandate that all buildings in the downtown core taller than 60 feet high follow the more stringent “Green Pathways” provision of the Downtown Area Plan, rather than making that an optional track for developers.

The initiative would require all buildings over 75 feet high to be LEED Platinum (they now have to be LEED Gold), to have 30% of the units be affordable (up from 20% 10% in some cases), would remove the possibility of paying into an housing fund as an alternative to building the affordable housing, would require there be apartments big enough for families, and require there be parking for electric vehicles and the disabled. Buildings over 60 feet would have proportionally similar requirements.

“If you want to go higher and make an incredible amount of profit by going higher, you should give more,” said Arreguín.

The initiative would also require developers to pay construction workers prevailing wages, make sure that half the workers reside in Berkeley or in the East Bay Green Corridor cities (up from 30%), and use 16% apprentice labor, if possible.

Moreover, in a move that Arreguín termed as “historic,” once the buildings are constructed, all maintenance, security officers, and hotel employees must get a prevailing wage as well.

Tall buildings would also have to have restrooms available to the public.

It would also remove the expedited review of potentially historic structures by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

The initiative would also create a historic overlay over the Civic Center area. That would make it impossible, for example, for a private developer to take over Berkeley’s Main Post Office and convert it to a private commercial use.

An initiative now circulating would apply an "historic overlay" in the Civic Center. Photo: Daniel Parks
An initiative now circulating would apply an “historic overlay” in the Civic Center that might impact the future of the downtown Berkeley Post Office. Photo: Daniel Parks
An initiative now circulating would apply an “historic overlay” in the Civic Center that might impact the future of the downtown Berkeley Post Office. Photo: Daniel Parks

The backers of the initiative started collecting signatures on May 2. If they want to be guaranteed a place on the Nov. 2014 ballot, they must turn in 2,638 signatures by May 8. The groups involved with collecting signatures include Save Our Post Office, which is trying to stop the U.S. Postal Service from selling the Main Post Office on Allston Way, and the Council of Neighborhood Associations, which unsuccessfully sued Berkeley over the environmental impact of the Downtown Area Plan, among other groups, said Arreguín. Austene Hall, the chair of Berkeley’s Landmark Preservation Commission, as well as Sophie Hahn, a Zoning Adjustments Board commissioner, have also been involved in creating the initiative, he said.

Arreguín said he decided to push for the ballot initiative because he is frustrated with Berkeley’s inaction on demanding well-articulated community benefits from developers. One intention of the Downtown Area Plan (which was endorsed by voters as Measure R in 2010) was to give developers the opportunity to build taller structures in exchange for “substantial environmental and community benefits.” If developers chose to go through the expedited “Green Pathways” review process they would have to provide “extraordinary public benefits that could not otherwise be obtained,” according to Measure R. No developer has yet pursued this option.

While developers are offering some benefits, in Arreguín’s opinion they are not substantial enough.

Members of the development community disagree with Arreguín’s point of view. They say the initiative, if adopted by voters, could slow down or even stop what they see as the revitalization of the downtown core. Measure R allowed for the construction of three 180-feet buildings, about 15 stories tall, within one block of the downtown BART station and the construction of two 120-foot buildings, about 10 stories high, elsewhere in the downtown.

Currently, developers have plans to build three high-rise structures, one aimed at apartments for urban professionals, one aimed at families and empty nesters, and one hotel.

“It’s a series of poison pills,” said architect Jim Novosel, who is designing a 120-foot building on Shattuck Avenue and Berkeley Way for the Nasser family. He is also a member of the Planning Commission and ran for council against Arreguín in 2010.

“Minority politics is trying to control majority politics. It sends out a message to people who want to come into Berkeley that… it’s going to be friggin hard. You are going to have to work much harder.”

A 16-story hotel has been proposed on Center Street at Shattuck Avenue.  Image: JRDV Urban International
A 16-story hotel has been proposed on Center Street at Shattuck Avenue. Image: JRDV Urban International

The initiative “will set into stone” the community benefits, said Matthew Taecker, a former Berkeley city planner who is now helping Jim Didion and Center Street Partners LLC get entitlements for a 16-story hotel at the intersection of Shattuck Avenue and Center Street. Right now, the shape and scope of each project determines what the community benefits look like, he said. That flexibility is critical.

“Just the prospect of the initiative throws a chill on things,” said Taecker. “It will test the commitment of developers who haven’t yet received their entitlement.”

Steven Donaldson, a member of the Zoning Adjustments Board, said that the community benefits process is working. For example, the developer of The Residences at Berkeley Plaza, a 180-foot, 17-story tower with 298 residences slated for Harold Way, originally planned to eliminate the Shattuck Theaters. The ZAB board thought that was a bad idea and got the developer to agree to retain them, said Donaldson. That shows the current development process and review are working, he said.

Arreguín said he anticipates a lot of developer pushback.

“It’s great we have people wanting to invest in our community and build housing, but obviously they want to maximize their investment, their profits,” he said. “So of course they are going to say things aren’t feasible because they are trying to increase the amount of their rate of return.”

Read how the initiative would revise Berkeley’s municipal code.
Read a summary of provisions of the initiative.

New 16-story hotel proposed for downtown Berkeley (12.19.13)
New 120-foot building proposed for downtown Berkeley (12.09.13)
First high-rise in 40 years planned for downtown Berkeley (12.21.12)
Lawsuit challenges Berkeley’s new downtown plan (06.06.12)
After seven years, Berkeley gets a new downtown plan 

For details and images of many of the new building projects underway in Berkeley, check out Berkeleyside’s recent real estate articles.

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...