Daily Planet Staff
Varying visions of downtown in the 21st century collided at a Monday night panel discussion on the university’s New Century Plan.
Panelists and some of the 30 community members in attendance at the Alumni House event clashed on questions of parking and an emphasis on building affordable housing downtown.
Panelists and audience members teamed up to challenge UC Berkeley representatives on the issue of the university devouring city property and removing it from the tax roles.
The New Century Plan under discussion is, in fact, not a concrete plan, but a compendium of possibilities for expansion – a spectrum of responses to a growing student population and the university’s expanding opportunities for research and development in the 21st century.
A series of New Century Plan meetings are being held to gather input into the plan. Neighborhood activists pointed out that the university is under no obligation to listen to the community, but Kerry O’Banion, project manager for the New Century Plan, said they are doing so. They are, in fact, reassessing the use of space on the campus proper, he said, in order to limit their need to move outside campus boundaries. They are also looking at development possibilities in Richmond and Oakland, he said.
UC Berkeley Planner Tom Lollini, Berkeley Repertory Theatre Managing Director Susie Medak, Downtown Berkeley Association President Rauly Butler, Civic Arts Commissioner Susan Levine, Oxford Development Group President Soheyl Moderrassi and City Manager Jim Keene sat on the panel.
There was general agreement among panelists, that, as Butler said, “parking, parking, parking” is a top priority for merchants. Lollini talked about the university’s plan to build 200 parking spaces at the Oxford Tract, at Hearst and University. Others talked about the need for parking for performance arts.
Building housing downtown is an issue. The question is whether it is a priority when there are questions of building housing versus parking, for example, and for whom housing should be built.
Medak said there should be less focus on “affordable” housing and more on market rate. Other panelists called for arts venues or retail on the ground floor when housing is built.
Keene said it is important to diversify housing prices. He said he feared rising housing costs are pushing people out of the city.
“When the census results come out, we’ll see if this city is diversifying or not,” he said, asking, “Is there a danger of Berkeley becoming a big Piedmont?”
The audience, impatient with the 90 minutes of the two-hour session devoted to the panel, called for a chance to respond.
When they had their chance, some people castigated the university for its choice of panelists. The university left students and neighborhood activists out of the mix, they said.
“If Cal wants to schmooze with the city and certain downtown interests, developers, merchants, cultural groups, etc., (they should) refrain from doing so in public and on OUR time,” a frustrated community activist wrote the Daily Planet in a Tuesday-morning e-mail. The individual asked to remain anonymous.
There were other audience opinions, however. Councilmember Polly Armstrong called the group a “fabulous panel.”
Councilmember Kriss Worthington addressed the panel, saying he was “really depressed” by the call to add parking.
“No one talks about what the traffic impacts are,” he said.
Planning Commission Chair Rob Wrenn pointed out that the edge of campus is the ideal place for affordable housing.
“It is in between two major job centers – downtown and the university,” he said, adding that the Oxford Street parking lot should be developed as housing.
“The problem is that in Berkeley, the jobs/housing ratio is out of whack,” with more jobs than housing, he said. The imbalance means that people live outside the city and come into the city to work.
Panelists differed on what to do with the UC Berkeley Press shop on Oxford, which Lollini said the university intends to move to a more appropriate industrial area.
“There is a serious need for Class A hotel and conference space,” Lollini said, indicating that the UC Press property might be the right place for a hotel. “It would benefit the city and the university.”
He added, however, that the university is also looking at the area as the new venue for the University Art Museum, housed in a seismically unsafe facility, and Pacific Film Archives, which currently occupies a temporary home.
Medak pushed for the arts venue at the print shop site. “Relocate the campus museums there,” she said, noting the synergy that could be created between the arts district and campus arts.
Keene agreed that the museum would be good, as long as the university didn’t intend to take over any buildings other than those it already owns. The university pays no property taxes and, when it takes over a retail space, deprives the city of sales tax.
Rauly noted that the university already has moved into office space above Eddie Bauer’s. Moreover, he said, there is an elderly person who has a number of properties downtown who has willed his properties to the university.
Lollini said he hopes the city and the university can begin to work better together than they have in the past. Developing the stretch of Oxford Street that runs from Virginia Street to Bancroft Way, furthering the common interests of the city and the university there, could advance the relationship, he said.
But by the tone of the Monday night discussion, the New Century Plan may not be the mechanism through which the partnership will be sealed.