In two dramatic votes Wednesday, members of Berkeley’s Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC) adopted a preservation-oriented platform and called for transforming a block of Center Street into a pedestrian plaza.
The two votes, both opposed by DAPAC Chair Will Travis and one of them by downtown business interests, largely followed lines drawn in earlier meetings.
Travis, retired UC Berkeley administrator Dorothy Walker, former city councilmembers Mim Hawley and Carole Kennerly, Planning Commissioner James Samuels and Jenny Wenk were among the most outspoken members of the opposition.
Travis and Juliet Lamont, the mayor’s two appointees, typically take opposite sides on make-or-break issues.
On the winning side of the votes was a coalition of environmentalists including Planning Commission chair and Sierra Club activists Helen Burke and creeks advocate Juliet Lamont, preservationists like Patti Dacey, neighborhood activists such as Wendy Alfsen and Lisa Stephens and transportation advocates exemplified by Rob Wrenn.
DAPAC didn’t hand preservationists an unconditional endorsement, approving seven of the ten recommendations of a subcommittee formed from members of DAPAC and the LPC.
The majority sent three policies back to the subcommittee with a call to prepare a final report on:
• the role of historic districts in downtown districts where historic buildings are concentrated;
• continuation of design guidelines from the previous 1990 Downtown Plan, and
• a call to reject “façadism,” a development style in which high-rise are clad in only the street facades of historic buildings demolished to make way for the taller structures.
The same motion by Transportation Commissioner Rob Wrenn called for adoption of seven other recommendations as background and policy directions for the plan, which must be completed by the end of the year. The vote endorsed policies to:
• establish and adopt a definitive survey of historic buildings in the downtown planning area;
• enhance cultural tourism by celebrating the downtown’s historic character through planning, civic improvements and ongoing activities and programs;
• consider use of wide-ranging policy tools including tax credits, streamlined permits, historic districts, design guidelines, transfer of development rights, grants and loans to restore facades and special easements for conservation.
• enhance awareness of downtown’s historic character, especially as a unique, progressive university town with a pedestrian-oriented downtown transit hub.
• acknowledge that downtown retail space tends toward high ceilings and rents affordable to small business;
• acknowledge that development can occur at many downtown parcels that have no historic structures, and
• recognize that historic preservation and rehabilitation of older buildings uses less resources and creates less waste for landfills.
Following the 12-7 vote in favor of the truncated recommendations, LPC members left and DAPAC turned its attention to another controversial issue.
Travis began the discussion with an acknowledgment that he had opposed creation of the DAPAC committee which was about to make its recommendations, then praised its chair, Rob Wrenn.
“I opposed it because I thought it would be a waste of our time,” he said.
In the end, he also opposed adoption of its recommendations, which passed by a margin of 11 to 8.
Public opposition came from two downtown restaurateurs, Mark McLeod of the Downtown Restaurant, 2102 Shattuck Ave., and Hope Alper of Ristorante Raphael, 2132 Center St.
“An attempt to adopt one alternative without a full public hearing will seriously compromise DAPAC in the eyes of the community,” McLeod said.
Also speaking in opposition was Deborah Badhia, executive director of the Downtown Berkeley Association (DBA), a city-sponsored group that advocates for downtown interests.
McLeod, who serves as president of the DBA, called for more meetings including representatives from all stakeholders, but Wrenn and Planning Commission Chair Helen Burke, who made the original motion to create the subcommittee, noted that the issues had been discussed at length during the months of meeting of another city task force.
DBA representatives and others had been present not only for the DAPAC subcommittee meetings but for the months of meetings conducted by a Planning Commission task force appointed to make recommendations following the announcement by UC Berkeley of its intent to sponsor development of a high-rise hotel at the northeast corner of the intersection of Center Street and Shattuck Avenue.
The UC Hotel Task Force originated most of the ideas adopted by DAPAC Wednesday, including the closure of Center Street between Oxford Street and Shattuck.
Two major UC-related developments will rise on the block’s southern edge, the 22-story hotel, condo and conference complex to the west and the new building now being designed by Japanese architect Toyo Ito at the eastern end to house the university’s Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA).
Some of Wednesday’s questions came from BAM/PFA Executive Director Kevin Consey, just appointed by the university as one of that institution’s non-voting representatives after Assistant Vice Chancellor Steve Lustig resigned from a DAPAC seat.
As a UC representative, Consey serves in an ex officio capacity and cannot vote.
The subcommittee report was divided into two key parts—two pages of recommendations that all of its members could accept and another page spelling out three alternative scenarios for full or partial street closure.
A move by Dorothy Walker to table any decision until DAPAC’s next meeting failed 8-9, as did a substitute motion from Victoria Eisen that would have allowed an eastbound traffic lane for drop-off of passengers.
One of those who sided with the majority was architect Jim Novosel, the committee’s newest member, replacing Raudel Wilson, who moved from the city after losing his race for Dona Spring’s City Council seat in November.
Novosel, who has designed three major downtown projects, cast his vote with the majority, and moments before the vote, Consey said the museum also supported the street closure option favored by the majority.
As adopted, DAPAC’s first critical planning decision calls for the maximum possible restrictions on vehicle access to Center Street, largely limited to after-hours deliveries and emergency vehicle access, while incorporating the largest possible “water feature.”
While subcommittee members had ultimately rejected creation of a full-scale channel and rerouting of the now-buried Strawberry Creek—which flows in an underground culvert a block to the south—the measure approved calls for the option dubbed “Maximum Possible Creek.”
That plan calls for a channel that would be about eight feet deep and 25 to 30 feet wide.
The resolution specifically endorses the 22-story hotel project and the BAM/PFA building, while calling on architects to adapt their designs to the existing streetscape.
Other features of the adopted report include:
• retention of Center Street as the primary pedestrian corridor between downtown and the university;
• creation of some significant water feature in the event a more extensive creek channel should prove impractical;
• a call for architects to include modulated edges and open space pockets in the museum and hotel designs;
• the use of permeable ground coverings to accommodate storms and natural water filtration;
• adoption of policies favoring housing on the block with ground floor commercial uses on both sides of the plaza;
• modification of the existing plan’s height limits to allow the hotel tower to rise;
• adoption of an 80-foot preference as the maximum height of walls along the immediate street frontage, with a slender hotel tower offset from the frontage height constraints on buildings on the southern street edge to preserve solar access for sidewalks and the plaza;
• support for shared use parking at the museum and hotel underground lot, and
• access from Shattuck Avenue to the hotel/museum underground parking lot.
“For 20 years I’ve dream of a public space in downtown Berkeley that really would be the center of our public life,” said Novosel shortly before the vote. “I told my wife I was not going to say anything, but here I am.”
Photograph by Richard Brenneman
James Samuels, center, chats with Landmarks Preservation Commission Chair Steven Winkel, left, and Will Travis, chair of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee before Wednesday night’s joint meeting of two bodies. Samuels, a former landmarks commissioner, now sits on DAPAC and the Planning Commission.