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Downtown Berkeley as seen in 2012 from the top of the Chase building on Shattuck Avenue. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Update, June 14: The initiative has qualified for the November 2014 ballot.

Original story: As volunteers man the entrances to Berkeley Bowl, wander the farmers markets, and stop people on the street to collect signatures for what is called the “Green Downtown & Public Commons Initiative,” the various sides disagree on the impact the initiative may have on development in Berkeley.

City Councilman Jesse Arreguín, who is a main backer of the drive, says the initiative is merely aimed at making major developers contribute more community benefits.

“This measure is not intended to stop development at all,” said Arreguín. “Its purpose is to codify some of the community benefits that were not only made in the Downtown Plan, but in Measure R.”

But many in the development community disagree. They believe the initiative, with its higher green standards and less flexible design guidelines, could stop two current projects — the proposed 180-foot hotel at the intersection of Shattuck Avenue and Center Street, and the 17-story residential apartment tower behind the Shattuck Cinemas building. At the very least, if the initiative passes, it will make it harder to build taller structures downtown.

“There is no question — it’s certainly making it more difficult to do development of higher buildings in the core,” said Eric S. Robinson, a Berkeley resident and a principal architect at Paulett Taggart Architects in San Francisco. Berkeleyside asked him to review the initiative to get an independent opinion. “If you ask me, if this will deter development, I would generally say yes.”

Read more about the specifics of the downtown initiative.

The economics of a high-rise hotel in Berkeley are already “fragile,” and the new initiative would require additional setbacks and restrictions that would make it impossible to have a sufficient number of hotel rooms on each floor to pay for development, according to Matthew Taecker, who is helping the developer, Jim Didion and LLC Center St. Partners, get entitlements for the hotel.

“The project is vulnerable economically,” said Taecker. “Reducing the project size and increasing the project’s cost will only make it more vulnerable.”

The hotel project, as currently designed, does not conform to current code. The developer is asking to construct a tower that is 220 feet wide above the 12th floor. The code currently requires it to be a maximum of 120 feet wide. (A provision put in, ironically, by Taecker when he was a Berkeley city planner.) The developer also only wants to provide a 10-foot setback on the floors facing Center Street rather than the 15-foot setback currently required.

Center Street Partners wants to construct a 16-story, 293 room hotel complex at Shattuck and Center. Photo: Center Street Partners
Center Street Partners wants to construct a 16-story, 293-room hotel complex at Shattuck and Center. As currently designed, the tower would be 220 feet wide, which is 100 feet wider than allowed by current code. Image: Center Street Partners

Taecker said the architect designed the building this way to fit in 25 rooms per floor. If the developer complied with the current code, which would make the hotel resemble a wedding cake with stepped-back tiers rather than a tower, the hotel could only have 15 hotel rooms per floor, he said. That is not enough to make the project work economically.

The developer planned to ask the Zoning Adjustments Board for a use permit to build the hotel with those variations from the code. (The developer is offering greater-than-required setbacks in other portions of the property.) But the proposed initiative removes discretion now given to ZAB. The board could not offer a use permit. The developer could not ask for any leeway, and that could kill the project, said Taecker.

Read more background about the specifics of the hotel plans.

If the initiative is adopted, the zoning laws can’t be changed without another vote of the people, said Taecker. “The devil is in the details,” he said. “People should pay close attention to the details, because the details in zoning will be set in stone.”

Arreguín pointed out that the developer has designed a building that already didn’t comply with the current code, which means its approval has never been assured. The developer can still apply for a variance — a much harder approval to get than a use permit — if the initiative passes and he still wants to keep his original design proposal, said Arreguín.

“To say this initiative will kill the project isn’t true because the project couldn’t be built under code as it currently exists,” said Arreguín. “This measure is in no way designed to stop any particular project. When I met with the developer of the hotel I was excited they were planning to invest in downtown Berkeley.”

At the heart of the initiative is the question of how much developers should give back to the community in exchange for building taller buildings.

After voters approved Measure R in 2010, signaling that they wanted to see three 180-foot, and two 120-foot, high rises in downtown Berkeley, city officials hired a firm called AECOM to help them determine what would be appropriate to charge developers for community benefits. Officials also wanted to see how different pricing levels for those benefits would affect revenues. AECOM officials acknowledged that the city’s goal was to maximize public benefits, but cautioned that the fees placed on developers could not be so high that they deterred development in the first place. “The benefits can only be realized through development and therefore the fees cannot place such a burden that projects will not move forward,” read the AECOM report.

When the Berkeley City Council adopted the Downtown Area Plan in 2012, it set many fees, including how many affordable housing units developers must include in each project, how many parking spaces they must build, the amount of open space they must include, and other fees. In some cases, developers were given the option of paying into a fund in lieu of building on site.

The “Green Pathway” provision of the Downtown Area Plan gave developers the option of providing a higher level of community benefits in exchange for a fast-track approval process that included an expedited review by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

No developer of a high rise has applied for the Green Pathways process. Three developers have opted instead to go through the normal development process.

“People haven’t found the cost of the Green Pathway to outweigh the benefits,” said Robinson.

Arreguín, and others backing the new initiative, which include Sophie Hahn, a member of the Zoning Adjustments Board, Austene Green, the chair of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, and former Mayor Shirley Dean, as well as environmental and labor groups, have expressed frustration that the higher buildings haven’t yet produced better community benefits for Berkeley. Their initiative would make it mandatory for all developers building structures higher than 60 feet to use the Green Pathway.

This would mean developers would have to make structures LEED Platinum rather than LEED Gold, build more parking, including spaces for bicycles, electric cars and the handicapped, pay prevailing wages to construction and hotel workers, and make sure that half of a project’s construction workers are Berkeley residents. Developers would also have to build more affordable housing on site rather than pay into a fund, and make sure there are more two- and three-bedroom apartments for families.

The initiative would offer an extra incentive to developers. They could build an additional “penthouse” story that goes higher than 120 or 180 feet if they agree to build all the parking spaces required by code and add an additional 10 parking spaces that would be available to the public.

A rendering of how the Residences at Berkeley Plaza, 2211 Harold Way, would fit into the Berkeley skyline. Photo: HSR Berkeley Investments
A rendering of how the Residences at Berkeley Plaza, 2211 Harold Way, would fit into the Berkeley skyline. Photo: HSR Berkeley Investments

Mark Rhoades, who is leading the entitlement process for The Residences at Berkeley Plaza, the residential tower behind the Shattuck Cinemas building, says the initiative would impose “an extensive array of requirements,” that are “unparalleled” elsewhere. The delicate balance the City Council tried to achieve between asking developers to pay enough, but not assessing them so much that they would decide not to proceed, will be destroyed with the initiative, he said. The new requirements would upset the financials of his project, he said.

Rhoades also said the initiative is an attempt by preservationists and slow-growth advocates to ensure than no buildings higher than 50 feet are constructed downtown.

“What this initiative will do is kill the development that produces the community benefits,” said Rhoades. “If the initiative goes through, the development in downtown Berkeley will stop. We will have 50-foot high development. It means the downtown we had 10 years ago is cast in stone.”

Jim Didion, the developer behind the hotel, said he wished Arreguín had decided to pursue his goals through the City Council. If volunteers collect enough signatures to qualify the initiative for the ballot, there will be a six-month period of uncertainty before the November election, he said. Didion is still trying to finalize a deal with a hotel chain, and the uncertainty will make that more difficult. He is also not sure if Bank of America, which owns the land, will want to stay with the project.

Arreguín said he has been pushing the City Council for seven years to solidify many community benefits that are now only outlined generally. But he has not been successful, and his frustration is a driver behind the initiative drive. He said Wednesday that he is open to the idea of not putting the initiative on the November ballot if the council commits to strengthening some of the community benefits it requires from developers.

“If council were willing to do these things we wouldn’t have to go to the ballot box,” he said. “If this initiative is the catalyst to make it happen, I am open to it.”

Around 90 volunteers have been working for two weeks to collect the 2,680 signatures needed to place the initiative on the November ballot, said Arreguín. He and his coalition had hoped to turn in the petitions to the Berkeley city clerk by May 8, but they are now looking to do so early next week.

“The response we have gotten from the community these last few weeks has been amazing,” he said.

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

Initiative aims to tighten “green” parts of downtown plan (05.05.14)
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 Created California, published in November...