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Study Reveals Impacts of New Downtown Plan

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday February 05, 2009 - 03:07:00 PM

The plan for Berkeley’s downtown results from the conjunction of two powerful sources arising outside the city itself. 

First is the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), one of the first of what are now 14 regional planning areas in the state which both conduct coordinated planning and administer certain state funds to their constituent city and county governments. 

The second force shaping the plan, autonomous even from ABAG, is the University of California, by far Berkeley’s biggest developer. 

The downtown plan’s draft environmental impact report (DEIR) also includes another plan and EIR “by reference”—UC Berkeley’s Long Range Development Plan 2020 and its accompanying EIR—and refers readers to the university’s website at 

That plan calls for 850,000 square feet of university-only new construction, none of it residential.  

The city’s plan provides for construction of up to 3,100 new dwelling units downtown plus another one million square feet of non-residential space. 

The development in the Downtown Area Plan (DAP) would have significant, unavoidable impacts—the highest level of detriment spelled out under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), in these areas: 

• Reduction of views of the Berkeley hills from the downtown area. 

• Increased levels of air pollution above those spelled out in the regional 1991 Clean Air Plan. 

• Exposure of sensitive residents to higher levels of toxic air contaminants and odors. 

• Demolition of historic resources. 

• Increased traffic noise, both generally and related to specific sites, and 

• Construction noise. 

The analysis of the loss of views of the hills in the EIR only considers the impact from within the downtown, even though many speakers throughout the planning process said they were concerned about the loss of views from the residences in adjacent neighborhoods. 

The single reference to impacts on views from outside the downtown planning district is a mention that development might “obstruct existing views of Downtown Area from other areas.” 

The DEIR evaluates a skyline that would include two new 220-foot hotels in the downtown inner core area and four additional buildings at 180 feet, with an outer core that includes six new 120-foot buildings, two of which would belong to the university. 

By way of comparison, the existing downtown skyline’s lone high-rises at the Great Western building at 173 feet and the Well Fargo tower, which houses 13 floors in 180 feet. 

The hotel buildings would include both guest rooms and private condos for permanent residents. 



As for historic resources, the touchstones of many political battles in Berkeley in recent years, the DEIR concludes that the only impacts which couldn’t be mitigated would be demolitions of historic buildings to meet the plan’s development quotas. 

While Berkeley has a Landmarks Preservation Ordinance, recently reaffirmed in a municipal referendum that turned down a City Council-backed revision, the law isn’t binding on property owned by the university. 

UC, as the DEIR notes, typically presents its projects to the city Landmarks Preservation Commission for review, but the city has no legal say over university projects. 

As the DEIR notes, UC can override historic and archaeological concerns “[u]nder certain circumstances warranted by public benefits in furtherance of the University’s educational mission.” 

Another possible concern raised in the DEIR is the possible impact of new construction on potential historic districts within the downtown. 

Berkeley has two National Historic Districts downtown, one encompassing the civic center complex of buildings and the second being the historic buildings of the Berkeley High School complex. 

While development could significantly alter areas with potential for historic district designation, the impacts could be reduced by updated design guidelines for so-called infill development, the DEIR declares, spelling out a page of specifics. 



ABAG sets the regional housing needs assessments, quotas for each local government mandating the amount of residential growth they must allow if they are to receive critical state infrastructure funding. 

Regional government doesn’t mandate construction of all the assigned housing units; only that the local agencies don’t act to block construction of housing up to the number of units prescribed. 

In Berkeley, Planning and Development Director Dan Marks told DAPAC members early in the planning process, city officials had picked downtown Berkeley because it was the only area where significant growth could occur without provoking a strong reaction from neighborhoods. 

The DEIR estimates the population within the downtown plan’s boundaries at 3,000 as of 2007. The new plan would allow for up to 3,252 new residents within the plan’s lifespan in 3,100 new housing units. 

Just how likely the housing will actually be built is another question, given the state of the economy. But if built out to the extent allowed by the proposed plan, the DEIR states, downtown Berkeley could have a population of 9,780 by 2030. 

The draft also estimates that 2,200 Berkeley residents work downtown, but makes no estimates of how many people who work downtown live there, or vice versa—an interesting question given the high percentage of students residing downtown. 

The DEIR also predicts the plan would add 3,333 new jobs to the city’s payrolls. 



All EIRs must include an analysis of alternative developments, and the DEIR considered two: 

First, the document examined development under the current city general and downtown plans along with the development projections included in the university’s LRDP. And for a second alternative, the reviewers took DAPAC’s original draft of the new downtown plan, minus planning commission revisions. 

The main differences between the DAPAC and commission versions are in the maximum allowable building heights and numbers of high-rises allowed. 

“Since development under the DAPAC alternative would result in less residential development and shorter buildings than would be permitted in the Downtown Area under the DAP, in absence of the No Project alternative, the DAPAC Alternative would be considered the environmentally superior alternative,” the study declares. 

DAPAC’s draft, the DEIR authors conclude, would result in 1,300 fewer residences in Berkeley and lower vehicular pollution, but in turn might lead to greater impacts on traffic and climate change by forcing growth elsewhere in the region. 

The DEIR endorses the planning commission version, declaring that it “provides a path to meet economic development goals while revitalizing retail and providing fiscal benefits, promotes affordable housing and housing diversity, and would result in a stronger center for the community.” 


Traffic impacts 

The review’s longest sections, covering 87 pages of the main body of the report plus a study running to about 300 pages, covers the plan’s impacts on downtown traffic. Without specific mitigations, 13 traffic intersections “are forecast to operate at a deficient level of service” at afternoon commute times by 2030, up from nine without the additional construction, while morning commute traffic would cause deficient service at four intersections, compared with two without the additional growth. 

Many of the impacts would come from reconfiguration of the two one-way sections of Shattuck Avenue between Center Street and University Avenue into two-way traffic on the western side of the split, making Shattuck straight through the University intersection in both directions—a move favored by both DAPAC and, so far, by the planning commission. 

The most adversely impacted intersection would be Martin Luther King Jr. Way at Hearst Avenue, right outside the entrance to the North Berkeley Senior Center where the planning commission meets. 

During the afternoon commute peak, it could take 261.1 seconds to transit the intersection by 2030, a full minute longer than if development continued under the current plans, including the university’s LRDP. 

The DEIR states that the delay could be reduced to 131.2 seconds by the addition of a left-turn lane on westbound Hearst.  

The resulting time savings would reduce the impact to a “less than significant” level, according to the DEIR, as would similar reconfigurations of the other intersections. 

Other intersections needing reconfiguration at evening commute hours are MLK at Allston Way; Milvia Street at University Avenue, Center Street and Allston; Shattuck Avenue at University, Center, Allston, Bancroft Way and Durant Avenue and Oxford Street at Hearst and Allston. 

While the MLK intersections at University and Center would be unacceptably degraded during peak morning hours under existing plan conditions, the new DAP would shift the traffic tangle to four intersections: Milvia and University, Shattuck and Durant and Oxford at Hearst and again at University. 

But turn lanes and traffic calming would reduce all the problems to an insignificant level, according to the DEIR. 


Available online 

The entire report is available online at 

A viewing copy is available at the main public library in the heart of the downtown planning district, and copies are available at the city’s Permit Service Center, 2120 Milvia St. 

Planning commissioners will host a public hearing to take comments for consideration in the final version of the EIR during the regular Feb. 18 meeting at the North Berkeley Senior Center, 1901 Hearst Ave. at MLK..