The View from Berkeley 

In the fight over density in downtown, both sides are claiming to be "more green" than the other.

The Berkeley City Council has cleared the way for developers to build more, taller buildings in the center of the city. But some traditional opponents of big development, who helped draft an earlier of version of the downtown plan, are gearing up to derail the council's decision, gathering signatures to put a referendum on the 2010 ballot.

Calling themselves "Alliance for a Green and Livable Downtown," the opponents of the plan adopted by the city council last week have roughly one month to gather about 5,500 signatures — 10 percent of the number of votes in Berkeley's 2008 mayor's race. The opponents are starting the process of recruiting volunteers and have a web site — GreenDowntownBerkeley.org. Council members Kriss Worthington and Jesse Arreguín, who voted against the council majority's plan for downtown, have already indicated that they support the referendum.

In their drive to overturn the downtown plan, opponents will be going up against local smart growth and environmental groups as well as Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates. "We hope there is not a referendum, but if there is we'll fight it vigorously," Bates said.

The group supporting the referendum is motivated in part by what is in the plan, but even more so by anger at how the process for creating it unfolded. The first draft of Berkeley's new downtown plan was crafted during two years of meetings and negotiations by a 21-member commission put together by the city council in 2005. The majority of this group agreed on a much denser downtown with a handful of towers, but they also sought to make developers pay extra for the right to build in the city's center. "We had required green infrastructure improvements," explained Patti Dacey, who participated in drafting both versions of the downtown plan, but is a fierce advocate for the original. "New Parks, green storm water, new green roofs, and fees to support it. Transit improvements and pedestrian improvements with fees to support them. ... Really good protection of historic resources and landmarks. Mandatory green building standards way beyond just LEED standards. Zero waste. Aggressive water conservation. Solar Panels."

But developers complained that the strict requirements would have made it too costly to build downtown, and smart-growth advocates warned that Berkeley needed to encourage a denser urban core to help slow suburban sprawl and address global warming. Eventually, the more developer-friendly city planning commission significantly revised the plan, and removed most of the original requirements. The head of the revision process, Berkeley Planning Commission Chairman David Stoloff, said the commission created the new downtown plan to be a guide for development instead of a roadblock.

Under the city's plan, downtown runs along Shattuck Avenue between Dwight Way and Hearst Avenue, west of the UC Berkeley campus and east of Martin Luther King Jr. Way. City Planner Matt Taecker said the original commission thought that Berkeley should have a "mid-rise" downtown consisting of mostly 65-foot- to 85-foot-tall buildings with a few "100- to 120-foot-tall buildings, roughly nine to eleven stories." Those who controlled the revision, on the other hand, preferred more 120- and 180-foot tall buildings.

But supporters of the original plan were upset about more than just the change in building heights. They were also frustrated that the planning commission had removed the green-building standards and other "public benefits" requirements. In a letter to the council and the mayor, the Sierra Club complained about the changes: "It eliminates any requirements for green building and site design, open space, transit improvements, and affordable housing in exchange for increased density."

Last week, as the four-year-long process was reaching a conclusion and momentum was building for a signature drive to oppose the plan, there was a whirlwind of negotiations to reconcile the two camps. The negotiations resulted in some compromises including more protections for existing neighborhoods, but Dacey indicated that it was too little too late, or rather too much too quickly, characterizing the last-minute talks as "chaotic."

In the final version of the plan approved by the council, the new tall buildings come in three sizes: small, medium, and large. An unlimited number of "small" 65-foot- to 85-foot-tall buildings could be built throughout most of the downtown. The plan also allows for construction of six new mid-rise buildings, four at 120 feet tall and two at 100 feet. Finally, two high-rises, 180- to 225-foot-tall structures — probably hotels — can be built in the roughly eight blocks closest to Downtown Berkeley BART.

Under direction from the city council and the mayor, Berkeley planning staff also restored some of the "public benefits" requirements. According to Dan Marks, head of Planning in Berkeley, any new building over 85 feet will have to be constructed using green standards, provide for open space, include affordable housing, and implement strategies to reduce automobile use.

Despite the compromises, opponents of the final plan like Dacey have expressed cynicism and mistrust that developers of tall buildings will be held to such a high standard. To make her point, Dacey reminded the city council that one of the downtown's newer, bigger structures, the Gaia Building, was allowed to exceed height limits by promising "cultural uses" (like a bookstore) that in the end never materialized.

Meanwhile, the 800-million-pound gorilla in the room is the University of California, which plans to grow and expand by up to 2.2 million square feet in the next ten years. Some portion of that growth will be "off campus" in the traditional sense, with at least two of its own 120-foot-tall buildings expected in downtown under the plan that the city council adopted. UC officials have indicated to the city that they intend to abide by Berkeley's new downtown zoning, but under state law the UC regents don't have to abide by anything City Hall puts in front of them.

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