2211 Harold Way is one of several tall building proposals in the pipeline that must offer "significant community benefits" under the Downtown Area Plan. Image: MVEI Architecture and Planning
2211 Harold Way is one of several tall building proposals in the pipeline that must offer “significant community benefits” under the Downtown Area Plan. Image: MVEI Architecture and Planning
2211 Harold Way is one of several tall building proposals in the pipeline that must offer “significant community benefits” under the Downtown Area Plan. Image: MVEI Architecture and Planning

The Berkeley City Council has launched a public discussion on what sort of benefits are required by developers who hope to construct tall buildings downtown, with two meetings focused on the topic in the next few weeks.

The conversation about “significant community benefits” generally comes up before the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board, but that panel has struggled to determine whether tall building proposals it has reviewed meet current city guidelines. That’s because those guidelines, set out within Berkeley’s Downtown Area Plan, are more of a menu of suggestions, rather than concrete items that can be checked off a list.

Crafters of that plan have said the city wanted to offer flexibility to developers to work with the community to come up with the right mix of benefits. But, so far, the lack of specificity has made it difficult for various stakeholders to agree on what developers should bring to the table.

Last week, council took public comment on the topic at its regular Tuesday night meeting, but did not itself much discuss the issue. Mayor Tom Bates — whose office is spearheading the new talks in collaboration with council members Jesse Arreguín, Laurie Capitelli and Darryl Moore — announced a special council meeting May 5 at 7 p.m. for that discussion to take place.

Separately, Councilman Arreguín also has scheduled a workshop on the subject, from 7-9 p.m. this Wednesday, April 15, in Live Oak Park’s Fireside Room. The workshop will focus on the general framework of community benefits, not specific projects, and attendees will be asked to rank the categories of benefits that matter most to them. 

As per last week’s report from the mayor’s office on the subject, “The Downtown Area Plan and the Municipal Code require that buildings over 75 feet provide ‘significant community benefits’ beyond what would otherwise be required by the City. The Municipal Code says the benefits may be provided ‘either directly or by providing funding for such benefits to the satisfaction of the City.’ It says further that the benefits ‘may include, but are not limited to: affordable housing, supportive social services, green features, open space, transportation demand management features, job training, and/or employment opportunities.’”

One issue the city may consider is whether to assign a dollar value to those benefits to help clarify the requirement, according to the report.

The city code allows for the construction of five buildings downtown over 75 feet: two residential structures, with ground-floor retail, up to 180 feet; one hotel up to 180 feet; and two office or residential buildings up to 120 feet. (UC Berkeley is allowed another two buildings downtown up to 120 feet.)

Current projects under consideration in this category include ; a hotel and conference center at ; a condo project at ; and a UC Berkeley high-rise called  (at Shattuck).

In addition to “significant community benefits,” the downtown plan requires developers to meet other public benefits “not required in many other cities,” according to the report from the mayor’s office. Those include the construction of affordable housing units on site (about 10% of the units), or payment into a city fund used to build affordable housing elsewhere; various “green requirements” such as transit passes in perpetuity for tenants, car-share spots, and building to a LEED Gold standard or its equivalent; and paying fees related to open space and street improvements.

Proponents of the plan — approved in 2010 by 64% — say Berkeley gets much more than do other cities as a result of the document. Its detractors argue that the public does not get enough, and that the city is giving away too much to developers in exchange for the extra density. Last year, advocates of stiffer requirements for developers put forward Measure R, but that initiative was rejected by a 74% vote in November.

The zoning board and city Housing Advisory Commission have both weighed in on the topic of community benefits already. The zoning board voted in March to ask council “to create a quantifiable framework … that goes beyond items required with traditional land-use authority and that includes community input,” according to the report. The housing commission has asked the city to require additional affordable housing as part of the benefits package.

Last week, more than 20 people addressed council on the subject. Many spoke in favor of more affordable housing. Some stressed the need for robust labor agreements. Many others testified about the importance of preserving Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas. Those theaters are slated to be rebuilt as part of the Harold Way project and are set to include nine separate theaters — with regular seating, not stadium, unlike a prior plan — that will show the same types of films Landmark currently offers. More than 4,000 people have reportedly signed on in support of a petition to protest the demolition and planned rebuild, according to Save Shattuck Cinemas, a local group organizing that effort.

Others sorts of arts were also a topic of interest, with some advocating for a new percent-for-art proposal under consideration by the city, and others saying they would like to see a performing arts center constructed at Harold Way.

Bates said last week that he hopes proposals from the public will be submitted prior to the May 5 meeting so council has a chance to consider them as part of that discussion. No action was taken on the item last week.

The report from the mayor’s office includes links to a number of supplemental resources and case studies related to how other cities have dealt with the thorny topic of community benefits. Councilman Jesse Arreguín’s office prepared a table (pages 6-7) showing how six cities around the nation have defined the benefits. The mayor’s office also prepared a supplemental report (beginning on page 8) that compares the benefit plans in San Diego, Portland, Austin, Santa Monica and San Francisco.

According to the mayor’s office, the specifics vary widely, but most cities generally take one of two approaches: either “relatively unstructured, case-by-case policies that often involve extensive negotiations on each project and benefit,” or “quantified plans that include formulas and/or set fees.”

“There is no agreed-upon solution to the challenge of how to require extra community or public benefits from projects that seek extra density above a certain baseline,” according to the mayor’s report. Those plans do, however, often rely on “localized calculations” that look at costs, as well as other city fees and requirements “with the aim of equitable sharing between the developer and the public of the increased value to be obtained from the extra density.”

Read more about Berkeley real estate and plans for tall buildings downtown in past Berkeleyside coverage. Watch the video of the community benefits discussion, via Granicus. That discussion picks up at 2 hours and 53 minutes (use the dropdown menu to jump to that item). Learn more on the city website about the Downtown Area Plan, and the 2211 Harold Way proposal.

Berkeley council on community benefits, sewer fees, vaccines, parking permit expansion (04.07.15)
View from UC Berkeley Campanile will not be landmarked (04.06.15)
Developer of downtown Berkeley hotel offers ‘tapered’ tower; hopes for quick design review (02.18.15)
New 16-story downtown condo/hotel project to appeal to empty nesters, visiting professors (02.06.15)
Berkeley Zoning Board considers community benefits of proposed downtown high-rise (01.12.15)
Locals question Berkeley Plaza impact on theater, view (11.18.14)
New hotel project is a go again after defeat of Measure R (11.06.14)
High-rise developer in Berkeley to use 100% union labor (10.31.14)

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist...