For Planning Commissioner Gene Poschman, University Avenue represents more than an unfulfilled vision.
“I think that this becomes a symbol—things are not getting done right in Berkeley,” Poschman said. “And it’s brought up now because things have gone wrong.”
Aside from some completed landscaping projects, the University Avenue Strategic Plan has languished since the Berkeley City Council adopted it in 1996.
Instead of offering pedestrian-friendly sidewalks and businesses that merge harmoniously into the surrounding neighborhoods, University Avenue continues to be dominated by cars and dotted with empty storefronts. Instead of building developments that complement the community, the city has had to accept intrusive structures like Acton Court, Poschman said.
Acton Court “is the poster child for what the avenue can become under current zoning,” he said. “The University Avenue Strategic plan was supposed to prevent that kind of gargantuan mess.”
City staffers blame a slumping economy and in-house turnover, while many residents blame the city’s interpretation of a state affordable housing law that allows developers to avoid height limits, parking mandates and other design features.
But residents and many city officials—including Councilmember Linda Maio and Mayor Tom Bates—agree that rezoning the two-mile stretch is imperative.
Now, with proposals on the table for at least two five-story building developments in the University Avenue Corridor, the strategic plan is starting to get attention again.
Poschman acknowledged that there’s often a time lag on city projects like the University Avenue Strategic Plan. He said he believes the Planning Department has its own agenda for the corridor—which runs west from Oxford Street to Interstate 80 and is bounded by Delaware Street to the north and Allston Way to the south—and elsewhere.
“There’s a philosophical and ideological debate behind this. There’s a battle going on,” Poschman said. “In terms of the basic bottom line, the most powerful force in Berkeley is the staff. There are about 1,600 of them, and some of them are great. But under the city manager system and a council which is sometimes quite divided, there is a lot of autonomy [for the staff].”
The central conflict is between the Planning Department’s belief in Smart Growth and neighbors’ opposition to denser housing, Poschman said. He says intentional inactivity is a corollary of the lack of coordination.
“I found in the past, when the University Avenue plan goes counter to growth orientation, there’s no incentive on the part of staff to cause things for less growth,” he said. “It’s a committed agenda. I think it’s an autonomous agenda.”
He referred to a Smart Growth award the city won for Acton Court, the kind of project some on the City Council say they don’t ever want to happen again.
Interim Berkeley Planning Director Dan Marks, who has held his position for five months, said that perceptions notwithstanding, the department doesn’t chart its own course.
“We are servants of the community,” he said. “Our job is to provide Council with information and choices.”
He pointed out projects like Acton Court were ultimately decided by City Council, and he said the state housing density bonus mandate—a one-size-fits-all law—makes his department’s job more difficult.
“We feel very constrained by the law,” he said. However, “we need to implement the strategic plan.”
One proposed site is Tune-Up Masters, an auto maintenance and repair shop at 1698 University Ave. Developers are working on two designs—one four stories, the other five—after being asked to come up with new plans by the Design Review Committee in August, said project planner Aaron Sage.
“This project is significant because it’s one in a series,” said Robin Kibby, a University Avenue corridor resident. “It is more dense than Acton Court, and the next project will be more dense than this one. The rules that are being broken in our area can be broken in the rest of Berkeley, despite more stringent zoning.”
To examine this and other issues, City Council requested a plan update report this past summer. Various departments are now preparing and submitting their portions of the report to Tom Myers, the city’s acting manager of the Office of Economic Development, who will compile the final report.
The mayor’s Task Force on Permitting and Development is supposed to release its findings shortly, and Poschman expects to see the matter on the Planning Commission agenda in December.
“We need it codified and we need it now,” Maio said. “The managers understand it—this time we’re not taking ‘Wait’ for an answer.”
Louise Francis, 46, lives on Berkeley Way, two lots from Tune-Up Masters. Francis agrees with Maio and Bates that one immediate concern is enforcing building standards that haven’t been applied since the plan was adopted. But she wants more than enforced standards.
“My main desire, what I believe the city needs to do, is to have a vision broader than just housing, so we will not have groups divided on the Avenue,” she said. “The Planning Department contends there’s a disconnect between the strategic plan and reality.”
In Francis’ opinion, the quest for denser housing drives the planning department—and that’s not what’s best for the neighborhood, she said. Part of the problem is interpretation of state law that requires cities to have enough affordable housing, she said. To do this, the state requires the city to make exceptions to zoning regulations—including height restrictions—Francis said.
Planning Commissioner Rob Wrenn said there’s a potential conflict between the state requirements and the original plan were it to be implemented—specifically with the decreasing density between the high concentration “nodes” which the plan mandates. But Maio says it’s now time for the city to finally move forward on the plan.
“It takes a champion and a persistent champion, and certain amounts of energy from merchants, and we have that now,” Maio said.