Berkeley's New Plan for Downtown 

Mayor Tom Bates has come up with a compromise proposal to avoid a nasty election fight with NIMBYs and anti-density groups.

The City of Berkeley last year adopted a landmark plan for its downtown area that promised to spur urban growth and help lessen the impacts of climate change. But then a coalition of NIMBYs and anti-density activists mounted a campaign against the plan, arguing that it wasn't "green" enough. Ultimately, the opposition was able to convince enough voters to sign a referendum to put the issue on the ballot. But next week, Mayor Tom Bates, a proponent of last year's plan, will unveil a new compromise proposal designed to eliminate the need for an ugly election battle.

Bates' plan is a carrot-and-stick approach. It would allow downtown developers to cut through the city's infamously Byzantine permitting process if they build greener projects. The developments also would have social equity components more stringent than current city law requires. Bates calls the tradeoff the "Voluntary Green Pathway Development."

New downtown buildings, for example, would not only have to be LEED Gold certified, but they would have to provide open space and their tenants would not be eligible for residential parking permits in an effort to curb auto use. "We think it could be a real winner," Bates said of the plan.

The mayor's proposal, which will be reviewed by the City Council next week, also would require that 20 percent of housing developments be affordable units. That used to be the standard in Berkeley until an appellate court struck down so-called inclusionary zoning laws last year. Bates' plan also requires developers to pay prevailing wages and to employ 30 percent of their workforce from Berkeley or other cities in the East Bay Green Corridor, including Oakland and Richmond.

In exchange, developers would get a streamlined city-approval process. But if developers decline to abide by the "green pathway," they would be subjected to the current system which often scares off potential development or results in huge delays that derail projects.

In addition, all new downtown buildings would be required to achieve a tougher green standard than is currently required, regardless of whether they choose the "green pathway" or not. For example, buildings would have to provide car-sharing opportunities, AC Transit passes, and on-site bike parking, while guaranteeing that parking spaces are rented separately from apartments or condos. They would have to meet stricter energy-efficiency standards and ensure no new water runoff.

Even with these new green standards, it's unclear how opponents will react to Bates' proposal. Councilmen Jesse Arreguin and Kriss Worthington, who led the fight against last year's plan, did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story. Bates said that if they choose not to support it, then he may push to put it on the ballot anyway. Such a move could force Arreguin and Worthington into a tough position, because both are running for reelection this year and it may not look good if they're campaigning against a plan to green the downtown at the same time.

The city's development community, meanwhile, may not be completely happy with Bates' proposal either. Mark Rhoades, former manager of Berkeley city planning who is now a developer, said that while he likes portions of the mayor's plan, he objects to the limits on taller buildings. Last year's plan, for example, would have allowed three buildings taller than 180 feet. The new proposal allows three at 140 feet and three at 160 feet, but none higher.

Moreover, Rhoades argued that Bates' plan, in reality, will allow for no new tall buildings at all. The 140-foot buildings, he said, don't pencil out for developers because of the huge costs of constructing taller buildings to meet fire safety codes. To earn a profit, developers need to build much higher — at least 160 feet or 180 feet — in order to construct more units and increase revenues. "It has to be a minimum of 160 feet to even think about working," he said. "Those 140-foot buildings won't get built."

Greening the Milk

The Obama administration introduced new standards for the dairy industry late last week that could restore the term "organic" it to its proper meaning. The new regulations also could be a significant blow to two giant dairy companies that raise cows on factory farms under a loophole in the old rules.

The new regulations from the United States Department of Agriculture require that cows graze on pastureland for at least 120 days a year. The new rules also require that at least 30 percent of an organic cow's diet comes from pasture. In other words, cows must be grazing on the land in order to be considered organic and can't be crowded into large feedlots year-round. "These minimum benchmarks will assure consumers that industrial-scale dairies don't just create the illusion of grazing," said Mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute, a group that has fought hard to expose the green washing of milk.

The old rules had only required that cows had "access" to pasture. Critics said that factory farms exploited that rule by putting their cows on giant feedlots in deplorable conditions and then only sent the cows to pasture to rest or walk around. The cows wouldn't actually graze on the pastureland because they weren't hungry. The loophole gave the factory farms a huge competitive advantage, because they could squeeze thousands of cows onto a relatively small area of land and wouldn't have to worry about overgrazing.

Critics contended that two large companies, Dean Foods, which owns the Horizon brand, and Aurora Organic Dairy, which makes the house-brand milk for Safeway, Trader Joe's, Wal-Mart, and Costco, were able to drive smaller organic farmers out of business using these tactics (see "Green Washing the Milk," 11/25/09).

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