University Avenue is the main gateway to Berkeley and its appearance and function set the tone for our city. Currently, the avenue lacks the intensity of retail and pedestrian activities that characterize a vital urban street and support use of public transportation. This under-development creates an opportunity to build new housing, which will help provide housing for people who work here, revitalize existing commercial areas, and provide customers for new retail that can serve all Berkeleyans as well as our visitors.
The Planning Commission is now preparing to amend the zoning on University Avenue to implement the University Avenue Strategic Plan (UASP). The UASP called for a maximum height of four stories on University Avenue. However, the UASP was adopted in 1996, and is now eight years old. What is now clear is that the UASP is out of date, and that a divergence from it would be appropriate in order to enhance University Avenue’s role as a transportation corridor and center for new housing development. University Avenue’s wide right-of-way makes greater heights more appropriate, as lovely older buildings such as University Avenue Homes and the Koerber Building demonstrate admirably.
At the same time, new development along University Avenue raises legitimate concerns for neighborhoods immediately adjacent to it. In this light, the Planning Commission should consider the following issues when revisiting the zoning:
1. Flexibility. As currently drafted, the proposed rezoning does not allow the Planning Commission or the City Council the ability to add density bonuses for particularly strong projects. It makes more sense for any revised zoning to allow either body to increase the allowable height of buildings up to five stories in the nodes designated by the General Plan.
2. Shadow Setbacks. The proposed rezoning includes a significant setback on the north side of projects to prevent shadowing of neighboring properties. While it is important to reduce the impacts from development on University Avenue on adjacent properties, the proposed setback is based on the worst case scenario: the winter solstice at 9 a.m. The resulting rear setback is large enough to make many projects infeasible. A better solution would be for the city to adopt a more reasonable target date for setting rear setbacks: the spring equinox at noon. Furthermore, the city should allow up to 15 feet of shadow on adjacent properties at that time.
3. Mixed Use. At present, the zoning for University Avenue allows an extra floor of height for mixed use projects through consideration of a use permit. Mixed use projects add vitality by bringing more residents, employees, and shoppers to the area, and should be encouraged. To ensure this sense of vitality on University Avenue, the provision that allows mixed use projects an extra floor should be kept with the current discretionary thresholds.
4. Transitional Zoning. Neighborhoods bordering University Avenue have raised legitimate concerns about the impact of new development. Because the high-density corridor is only half a block a wide, unfortunate adjacencies can occur where taller buildings are located next to one-story bungalows. For a bungalow, it makes no significant difference whether a new building is five stories or four stories tall, so the proposed rezoning does not adequately addresses neighborhood concerns. It would be preferred for the city to instead study rezoning the blocks north and south of University Avenue to allow slightly higher densities. This would create a more gradual transition from University Avenue to the residential neighborhoods adjacent to it, and minimize the impact from the current stark transitions.
The current rezoning process offers the possibility of enhancing University Avenue’s role as a center for new housing development and a transportation corridor. As one of the city’s main gateways, the character of University Avenue is of vital importance to the Berkeley community, and deserves the city’s focused attention.
Towards a More Livable University Avenue
By David Early, Chair, Board of Directors – Livable Berkeley