Sierra Club sponsors forum on idea of building up, not out
From his home in Berkeley, Howie Muir can see the headlands of Marin on a clear day. In the winter, he can see the sun setting over the water. Soon, though, he says his view may be replaced by a four-story wall – the cold back of a recently-approved commercial building on San Pablo Avenue.
On Saturday, Muir was a panelist at the north Alameda chapter of the Sierra Club's discussion on urban density and namely the Berkeley Height Initiative that he and fellow activist Martha Nicoloff created two years ago. The initiative has since been submitted to the city for placement on the November ballot.
But as the discussion revealed, not everyone supports Muir’s height initiative, and everyone seems to have a different idea of how Berkeley can accommodate expected population growth.
"The more efficient we build our cities the more efficient we will be," said Rachel Peterson, executive director of urban ecology for the Sierra Club chapter and a panelist.
Peterson takes an anti-height initiative stance, claiming that such a measure would force the city, as population grows, to spread outward and create unchecked sprawl.
The creators of the initiative argue that Berkeley has a greater density than Los Angeles and is close to that of Emeryville, known for its high density zoning with an average of 108 units per acre. Opponents say the statistics should not be compared and that measuring units per acre does not lead to an accurate assessment of density.
"Census data includes population and total acres... It doesn't include areas like commercial shopping," said John Holtzclaw, an urban planner who spoke at the meeting. "Density is not zoned the same over any given part of the city, but there are... different kinds of housing for different kinds of places."
Rob Wrenn, a member of Berkeley’s Planning Commission, said that he does not think density has even become a problem in Berkeley, with the population dropping in the last 20 years and the average family size dropping from 2.2 to 2.16 people.
"The question is how to accommodate housing without negatively impacting the quality of life in Berkeley," Wrenn said. "More people means more cars, higher traffic and more pollution."
Richard Register, an opponent of the Height Initiative, said that the way to keep a city healthy is to have as much open space as possible, while keeping housing and commercial areas near transit so there is little need for cars. But that would take building up, not out, and the Height Initiative would make that very difficult.
"Taller buildings can be beautiful in their own right," Register said.
The Height Initiative would require new buildings in most areas to be at least one story lower than is currently required. It also would restrict developers from their current right to add on extra stories when they make 25 percent of their housing affordable and when they provide space for the arts.
Commercial areas, such as along Telegraph, University and San Pablo avenues and in the downtown area would also be more limited in their height allowances, in some areas dropping from seven stories to four. Most residential height limits would remain the same as stated in the city’s Master Plan at about three stories or 28 feet. A special city permit would be needed if the building were to reach 35 feet or higher.
In multi-family and high-density residential areas where buildings are currently allowed to be as high as six stories, or 65 feet, the Height Initiative would limit the development to three or four stories.
Muir said that a special clause in his initiative allows for developers to increase the height of a building as long as they get input from the neighbors and a two-thirds vote from the City Council.
But Andy Katz, a zoning board member, said that this is this kind of rule that will require more "red tape" for developers as well as home-owners trying to add on to their property.
"It would force a lot of singe family homes to come in front of the board and go to a public hearing," he said.
Another major concern at the discussion was about affordable housing: If fewer housing units are built on an already limited amount of land, how can anyone continue to afford to live in Berkeley?
Muir, in defense of his initiative, said that the answer lies in using empty land between the houses while being sensitive to housing demands. He said that a danger in building more units in taller structures is that each unit will become smaller, though affordable, and leave out middle class buyers.
Register, on the other hand, wants the city to acquire empty land and create affordable housing by building upwards, in the center of the city.