For years now, people at various levels of Berkeley’s city government have been wrestling with questions that feel almost philosophical: When does a shadow count as a shadow? What does it mean to mar a view? How do you measure the character of a neighborhood?
When a developer wants to build new housing in Berkeley, questions like those can lead to contentious hearings and lengthy battles over whether the project should be approved.
Berkeley leaders now want to boil down those typically subjective debates into something that can be quantified, spurred by new state laws that aim to speed housing production by preventing jurisdictions from blocking growth arbitrarily. The city’s goal is to craft a set of “objective standards” for some of the thorniest aspects of new development, setting new ground rules for evaluating future projects that would spell out in granular detail everything from how much of a shadow a new building is allowed to cast on its neighbors to where architects should place windows to ensure privacy.
The city already has some objective standards on the books. But, Mayor Jesse Arreguín said, “Issues that are often the crux of what is controversial around development in Berkeley, and many cities, are not really clearly defined in the zoning ordinance.”
Arreguín is working with three City Council members to start a new process for setting objective standards this fall.
“There is a real need for certainty around these issues,” Arreguín said, which “hopefully will reduce some of the acrimony that we often see.”
Depending on how they are written, though, objective standards could determine how easy it is to get new developments approved in Berkeley — and how much power opponents will have if they want to block projects. As a result, the process of setting the standards is likely to prove acrimonious in its own way.
Berkeley’s effort to formalize a set of rules got going in 2017. That was the year a pro-development group successfully sued the city for blocking a southwest Berkeley development, and state legislators passed SB 35, the first of two new laws that significantly reduced local jurisdictions’ power to reject projects unless they could point to an objective standard in their zoning code that the proposal violated. Those laws have prompted cities throughout California to craft new objective standards.
Daniel Saver, assistant director for housing and local planning at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, said lawmakers wanted to prevent cities from blocking development by citing vague and subjective concepts such as “neighborhood character,” which could “depend on the whim of any particular planning commission member or city council member.”
“The state’s concern is that (subjective standards) create an environment where there is an opportunity for abuse, particularly by people who want to deny housing,” Saver said.
Saver, Arreguín and others contend a set of well-articulated, objective rules makes the development process work better for everyone. Current residents know what kind of buildings can go in their neighborhoods. Developers have a clearer sense of what they are allowed to propose and can avoid long approval battles by complying with the rules. And cities, some of which have watched in alarm as lawmakers sought to reduce their authority in housing decisions, can decide on their own standards.
“If you’re a jurisdiction, and you’re trying to preserve your local control, objective design standards are now a really important way you still have control over development,” Saver said.
But as you might expect in a city often riven by debates over new housing, Berkeley has struggled to reach a consensus on its objective standards. After more than two years of meetings, a city subcommittee tasked with writing a set of standards disbanded in 2020 having failed to agree on several key items, such as a definition of “density” and rules for shadows or views.
Now Arreguín and others are giving it another shot. Along with City Councilmembers Sophie Hahn, Kate Harrison and Susan Wengraf, Arreguín is drafting a referral to staff that will come before the City Council at its Sept. 14 meeting, which will recommend contracting with consultant Ben Noble to draft a set of standards — including rules for shadows, views, design and privacy.
Those standards will go before the Planning Commission before eventually coming back to the City Council for final approval, a process Arreguín said he wants to wrap up by the end of next year.
Although she is working to draft the referral, Hahn said she is skeptical of the need for objective standards. Berkeley’s current approval process appropriately mixes existing standards with the discretion of its zoning board, Hahn contends, and “has generally made good decisions that allow developments to go forward.”
“I hope that the rules we come up with reflect some of that nuance and thoughtfulness,” she said.
Councilmember Lori Droste, meanwhile, said she was concerned to see the city wants to make shadows one of its standards.
Neighbors often cite shadows in calling for proposed projects to be rejected, saying new buildings worsen quality of life when they block out the sunlight that would otherwise stream into their homes, backyards or rooftop solar panels. Those who believe Bay Area cities need to move with more urgency to build housing typically respond that worries about shadows caused by new buildings are not a legitimate reason to reject projects in the midst of a housing crisis.
Droste said complaints about shadows in most cases are really about neighbors’ concerns over the size of new buildings, which can be addressed in other objective standards.
“I don’t see the benefit of trying to measure shadows,” Droste said. “I just don’t want to have obstructionism cloaked in a disguise of objectivity.”
On shadows and other contentious standards, Arreguín says Berkeley can strike a balance. He points to existing standards for development along University Avenue, which require developers to put the tallest parts of their buildings along the busy corridor, then step the structure down to meet the lower-slung neighborhoods nearby, reducing shading on surrounding homes.
Pointing to regional requirements that Berkeley build 9,000 new housing units over the next decade, Arreguín said this is the city’s chance to accomplish that goal in a way that residents can support.
“I don’t want objective standards to be a tool that stops development,” he said. “We can’t be putting roadblocks in the way of building new housing.
“But at the same time, we must balance that with allowing development to happen in a way that respects our community and fits into our community.”