Downtown Berkeley, May 2014. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Downtown Berkeley, May 2014. Photo: Emilie Raguso

The majority of the Berkeley City Council exerted its political muscle Tuesday night by voting for a ballot description for the downtown initiative drawn up by Mayor Tom Bates that is less flattering than the ones offered by the city attorney and Councilman Jesse Arreguín, the main proponent of the initiative.

Bates’ description of the initiative, which would require all buildings in the downtown area over 60 feet to meet high environmental standards that are now voluntary, uses terms like “impose significant new requirements,” and “restrict” and “reduce.” It also mentions a provision that would “reduce hours of operation for businesses selling or serving alcohol.” In contrast, Arreguín’s proposed ballot language used words like “modify,” “require additional fees and community benefits,” “affordable units” and “increase bicycle, handicapped car share and vehicle parking.”

City Attorney Zach Cowan’s language included “eliminate streamlined permit procedures,” “reduce heights” and “require additional fees and concessions by developers.”

“If the average person reads these they will not believe they are describing the same ballot measure,” said City Councilman Kriss Worthington. “One is describing it as evil incarnate and the other is describing it as the angel of mercy to save Berkeley.”

Since the initiative, which the council voted to put on the November 2014 ballot, is so long and complicated – one observer noted that it ran to 28 pages – many voters will rely on the ballot language to help them make their decision. Arreguín was trying to emphasize what he sees as the merits of the initiative — making downtown greener and more affordable and accessible for families, while Bates was emphasizing his belief that added developer fees will kill many proposed housing projects.

The council voted 6-1-2 to pass Bates’ language. Council members Linda Maio, Daryl Moore, Susan Wengraf, Gordon Wozniak and Laurie Capitelli, along with Bates, voted for the measure. Worthington and Max Anderson voted against it, and Arreguín abstained.

Arreguín said Bates’ language was verging on inaccurate. His own language was more neutral, he said. “What I’m trying to do is present an impartial ballot question to voters,” said Arreguín. Bates’ “language is really borderline as to whether it is factual or not. It is not impartial.”

Bates disagreed with that characterization: “I also thought my language is impartial,” he said.

The downtown initiative was put together by Arreguín, Sophie Hahn, a member of the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board who has run unsuccessfully twice against Capitelli, Austene Hall, the chair of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, and members of Citizens to Save the Berkeley Post Office. They said they decided to circulate it because they felt the community benefits promised in Measure R in 2010 had not been delivered.

Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, District 4, Berkeley City Council, Oct. 16, 2012. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, District 4, Berkeley City Council, Oct. 16, 2012. Photo: Emilie Raguso

One main provision of the initiative concerns Berkeley’s “Green Pathway” proposal, which offers fast track approval of a project if developers agree to higher and greener environmental stands. No developer has yet used the Green Pathway even though three tall buildings are now winding their way through the planning process.

The initiative would make those higher environmental standards mandatory for any building over 60 feet. All buildings over 75 feet high would have to be LEED Platinum (they now have to be LEED Gold); have 30% of the units be affordable (up from 20%); build affordable housing on site rather than paying into a housing fund as an alternative; require apartments big enough for families; and require parking for electric vehicles and the disabled.

The initiative would, like the Green Pathway, also require developers to pay construction workers prevailing wages, make sure that half the workers reside in Berkeley or the East Bay Green Corridor cities (up from 30%), and use 16% apprentice labor, if possible. Moreover, in a move Arreguín termed as “historic,” once the buildings are constructed, all maintenance and security officers, not just hotel employees, must get a prevailing wage as well.

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

Bates and many members of the development community have said the initiative would undo much of what voters adopted in Measure R. An assessment of the financial impact of the initiative presented Tuesday night appeared to support that conclusion.

AECOM, which the city has hired in the past to examine the impact of fees on developers, concluded that “increased requirements in the Downtown Initiative for buildings over 60 feet in height would make construction of buildings over that height financially infeasible.”

AECOM said that, if the initiative passed, as many as 1,300 housing units might not be built. That would mean less money coming into the city’s general fund, and its streets and open space funds (SOSIP fees). The city’s finance department calculated that, combined, the city of Berkeley and the Berkeley Unified School District could lose $2.4 million in expected revenue. The city would also not collect $2.6 million in SOSIP impact fees, according to the report.

Cowan also said the initiative includes fees that aren’t backed by a specific study and thus are contrary to state law.

The stark numbers – and the anti-initiative conclusions included in the report – drew criticism from the initiative’s backers. The report “was produced by a consultant who is not impartial,” said Hahn. “The study makes unfounded assertions and draws conclusions from it.”

The author of the AECOM report, according to Arreguín’s office, is Alexander Quinn, a former board member of Livable Berkeley, an organization that is generally aligned with Bates and the council majority’s viewpoint on development. His wife, Jennifer Phelps-Quinn, currently sits on the Livable Berkeley board. Eric Panzer, the chair of the board, is the treasurer for the group that will be fighting the downtown initiative.

Sharon Maldonado, a former city Rent Stabilization Board member and a member of Citizens to Save the Berkeley Post Office, said she supports the downtown initiative because it will make developers pay the community benefits laid out in Measure R. “We are just looking to have the promises of Measure R filled,” she said.

Wengraf pointed out that it is too soon to see the community benefits outlined in Measure R, as no new tall buildings have yet been approved. “If you want to get good development for this city you need to provide consistency. Flipping this now is bad policy,” she said.

Bates has come out strongly against the downtown initiative and has taken steps to strip it of some of its most potent features. The initiative, for example, includes an overlay of the Civic Center area as a mechanism to protect the main post office on Allston Way. The U.S. Postal Service is trying to sell the building, but Berkeley and others are fighting it. Bates announced recently that he was going to adopt the overlay wording from the initiative and fast track separate council approval of it. Council discussed the overlay Tuesday night. It will return to the council as a measure in September.

Note: This article was modified to remove a sentence that said the initiative would only permit one building to be processed by the Planning Department a year. If it passes, it would only apply to future tall buildings, not ones that have already been proposed, according to Arreguín’s office.

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New 120-foot building proposed for downtown Berkeley (12.09.13)
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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...