Berkeley could see taller high-rise buildings downtown if the city changes its zoning to remove caps on the height and number of those structures. Credit: Marriott

Berkeley could lift its limits on high-rises downtown and make the permitting process for a four-unit apartment building in most neighborhoods as simple as the one for a backyard cottage under a slate of zoning changes meant to spur new housing construction.

Those looser regulations are still a long way from being adopted. But several members of the City Council voiced their support for the ideas this week, indicating Berkeley — the birthplace of single-family zoning and a city that for decades tightly limited apartment construction in the name of neighborhood preservation — is moving in that direction.

Some are bristling at the proposals, which would end downtown development caps that were endorsed by voters in 2010, and give property owners a fast track to building duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes in neighborhoods that have long been made up of single-family homes. Backers of the changes contend, however, that they are steps the city needs to take if it wants to resolve a housing crisis that has left college students, young families and others wondering whether they can afford a future in Berkeley.

“I understand that change can be hard for some folks,” Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani said at a meeting Tuesday. “But California has no choice but to change, because the single-family home, two-car lifestyle is simply no longer sustainable.”

Taller buildings downtown, and more of them

Berkeley is considering the zoning changes as part of work on its Housing Element, the plan that will guide the city’s growth from 2023 to 2031. State mandates require Berkeley to grant approval for nearly 9,000 new housing units during those eight years, and to take steps now to ensure factors such as its zoning code and permitting process make it feasible to build that many homes. A draft of the Housing Element is set to be released this summer, and state housing officials must sign off on Berkeley’s plan by the end of January.

City planning staff say the current zoning code already provides enough capacity to meet the state allocation — but several of Berkeley’s elected officials say easing the city’s shortage of homes will require building well beyond that requirement.

One way some want to do that is by eliminating limits set in the Downtown Area Plan, which allows for three buildings that are up to 180 feet tall and another four that are up to 120 feet tall, in the city’s core. Berkeley spent seven years deliberating over those rules, with voters signing off on its key provisions in an advisory ballot measure, before the plan was adopted in 2012.

A decade later, only one building in the 180-foot range has been built — a Marriott hotel that opened in January — while two proposed high-rise apartment projects floundered after a multi-year approval process.

Councilmember Rigel Robinson said he would support eliminating the Downtown Area Plan’s height cap, as well as its limits on how many tall buildings can be built.

“We have not seen a single unit of housing” in an 18-story building, Robinson said, “and that, I hope, should be upsetting to all of us.”

A majority of the council, as well as Mayor Jesse Arreguín, expressed support at Tuesday’s meeting for reconsidering limits on development in downtown Berkeley.

“I really feel like I have come full circle on this,” said Arreguín, who as a council member worked on the Downtown Plan and later led an unsuccessful campaign for a ballot measure that critics said would have blocked high-rise construction in the area. Arreguín tempered his support for reconsidering the plan with a warning that city zoning is not the only reason taller housing projects haven’t been built downtown, noting high construction costs and the area’s small lots, among other factors.

Berkeley could also raise height limits in the Southside neighborhood near UC Berkeley, where several members said they would support changes that could allow buildings to stand 12 stories or taller. Proponents say such a change would mean fewer Cal students would have to seek housing in neighborhoods farther from campus.

“My district is the one that bears the brunt of displacement due to the lack of housing for students,” South Berkeley Councilmember Ben Bartlett said. “My district will thank you for lifting the cap all around the campus – do that yesterday, please.”

But the council also heard from residents who were wary of lifting the limits on development in the heart of the city, which has been the subject of some of Berkeley’s most contentious housing debates. Berkeley Neighborhood Council executive Janis Ching said that since provisions of the current Downtown Plan were put before voters in 2010, “It should take another vote of the people to undo the cap.”

Planning and Development Director Jordan Klein said that while residents weighed in on the prior plan, “That doesn’t necessarily mean that future modifications to zoning are automatically subject to voter approval.”

Councilmember Kate Harrison, who represents downtown, said she would be open to lifting the limits if the city can also reap some of the added property value that doing so would create since parcels in the area would become more valuable if they could be developed with taller buildings.

“We have to look at what the costs are and then try to figure out the balance of community benefits,” Harrison said in an interview.

Faster permit process for small apartments

Elsewhere in Berkeley, the proposed zoning changes would create a faster “ministerial” approval process for two-, three- and four-unit housing proposals in most of the city, including neighborhoods that once only permitted single-family homes. So long as those projects comply with city standards, they could get approval in as little as three weeks under the process, similar to the one Berkeley recently adopted for in-law units and cottages.

Projects would not need to have a public hearing or go through other aspects of the slower conventional permitting process, which Councilmember Lori Droste said allows opponents to challenge proposals with lengthy appeals, adding time and expense to new housing that will ultimately be passed along to residents. A goal of faster permitting, Droste said, would be to ensure “that not every single project is subjected to a drawn-out process.”

But Tuesday’s meeting previewed key debates about the effort, including whether wildfire risk means some parts of the city should be off-limits to greater density.

Early proposals shared by city planning staff would exempt neighborhoods in the Berkeley Hills from the quicker approval process for small apartment projects. Fire officials and many hills residents say the area will already be challenging to evacuate if it is threatened by a fast-moving wildfire, and worry that adding more people and cars will only make those problems worse. The City Council voted to limit fast approvals for accessory dwelling units in the hills earlier this year, citing those concerns.

Some council members contend the prohibition is too broad, however. It would apply throughout an area the city calls the Hillside Overlay, which covers higher-elevation neighborhoods that have tight, winding roads, as well as lower areas with wider streets — such as blocks around Solano Avenue or Fraternity Row near UC Berkeley.

That means the proposal would make it harder to build new housing in many of Berkeley’s wealthiest neighborhoods, Kesarwani said, which is “in direct contradiction to the council’s stated goal to end exclusionary zoning,” and violates California fair housing mandates that require new development to be spread throughout the city. If higher-risk parts of the Berkeley Hills aren’t asked to take on more homes, Kesarwani said, the city should consider rezoning College and Solano avenues to allow more dense construction and make up for the units that can’t be built elsewhere.

“I cannot tell my constituents in West Berkeley, who are subjected to higher levels of air pollution because of historic redlining,” she said, “that we are not going to ask the historically higher-income neighborhoods with cleaner air to also do their part.”

Rules could revive shadow debate

Along with questions about the approval process, there’s also a debate over what rules property owners should have to follow to build two- to four-unit projects.

City staff and committees have spent years debating a set of new “objective standards” for development, prompted by state law barring local governments from using subjective criteria to block housing. One of the most contentious questions in that process is whether Berkeley should set rules for shadows created by proposed new buildings, which could mean projects that cast too much shade on neighboring properties would be denied or forced to scale back.

Several solar power advocates have mobilized a campaign for standards to prohibit projects that would block sunlight from nearby rooftop panels, which they view as a threat to a carbon-free source of electricity that can help make the city less dependent on Northern California’s beleaguered utility, PG&E. Former Planning Commission member Rob Wrenn said people will be less likely to install solar and make other expensive upgrades to reduce carbon emissions — such as buying an electric car — if they’re worried the utility savings from their rooftop panels might disappear because a taller new building goes up next door.

City planning staff are now working to study whether the kinds of buildings allowed under the proposed zoning changes would significantly limit solar power. It will eventually be up to the council to decide whether to adopt a standard for shadows.

“People have made an investment,” Wrenn said, “and the city shouldn’t turn around, after encouraging people to put up solar panels … and say, ‘We don’t really care about your panels anymore, so if someone wants to shadow them they can.'”

But some advocates see in the concern about solar panels a familiar attempt to block new housing because it would cast shadows, which they contend is not a valid reason to deny projects.

They note Berkeley homes get their electricity from wind and solar sources by default, and say calls to prioritize solar panels over new housing misunderstand how the city can best fight climate change. Home electricity makes up just 2% of the city’s carbon emissions, with residential natural gas accounting for another 17%, according to a 2019 study, while transportation — mainly from private automobiles — is responsible for 60%.

Robinson, the Southside councilmember, said building more homes in Berkeley, rather than limiting construction and pushing people to farther-flung Bay Area suburbs, will do more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than ensuring solar panels aren’t blocked.

“Every bed that we don’t build here is a super-commuter,” he said. “Designing walkable neighborhoods, helping residents live near their job and their grocery store – that’s how we tackle the housing crisis and the climate crisis.”

Nico Savidge joined Berkeleyside in 2021 as a senior reporter covering city hall. Born and raised in Berkeley, he got his start in journalism at Youth Radio as a high-schooler in the mid-2000s. Since then,...