With the struggle to shape the future of downtown Berkeley entering its final months, planning commissioners are moving closer to finalizing their own vision.
Last Wednesday’s meeting brought one benchmark—a hearing on the Downtown Area Plan’s draft environmental impact report (EIR)—and the penultimate stages of two others—honing zoning boundaries and defining what can be built in each, and how high.
Commissioners began with the draft EIR hearing, a legally mandated session to gather public concerns to be addressed in the final version.
While EIR hearings are routine events, last Wednesday’s version ventured beyond the usual confines to feature one angry blast from a commissioner aimed at a member of another commission.
The hearing opened with John Courtney, traffic consultant and senior planner at Lamphier Gregory, the firm hired to produce the EIR. While the plan evaluated the maximum buildout under a development scenario set by planning commissioners in December, Courtney said, “We don’t know what will actually happen.”
While chair James Samuels has said the commission isn’t drafting the final plan, and is only making recommendations to the City Council, it was the commission which defined the scale of growth outlined in the EIR.
And that scale is significantly enlarged from the document drafted by the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC), a 21-member citizen panel which spent nearly two years on its creation.
The commission, with a majority of members drawn from the development community, has been considerably more expansion-friendly in its building allotments than DAPAC.
Both sides have invoked the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions as a justification for their argument, with the development-friendly side invoking the large percentage of greenhouse gases that comes from transportation, and their opponents the even larger percentage that comes from construction.
But on a deeper and older level of Berkeley politics, one side features long-time residents who fight for a cause they call neighborhood preservation, a cause their “Smart Growth” opponents call "nimbyism".
While the neighborhood advocates found consistent though sometimes narrow majorities on DAPAC votes, Smart Growth reigns at the commission.
Smart growth proponents want development concentrated along densely populated transportation corridors, a move they say will halt urban sprawl, get commuters out of the polluting cars, revitalize the streets and reinvigorate commerce.
Neighborhood advocates say the development boomers base their claims on a string of dubious assumptions, ignoring impacts on traffic, noise, and the fragile character of neighborhood communities.
The importance of the EIR is that the document sets the standards for the maximum amount of development that can occur without triggering yet another costly and potentially lengthy individual review.
After setting up one level of development for the EIR, a commission majority has proposed allowing for even more, a move that would trigger another supplemental review later this year.
Courtney said the plan’s review found only four areas where impacts would be legally significant and beyond mitigation.
To approve the plan, the City Council must make an explicit finding that overriding considerations were justification for their approval of the document that will determine what can and can’t be built in the city center through 2030.
The specific impacts included:
• Loss of some neighborhood views of the Berkeley hills due to high-rise construction;
• High-rise shadowing of the university’s crescent at the western entrance to the campus east of Oxford Street;
• Possible encroachment on Climate Action Plan limits;
• Demolition of historic buildings to make way for new structures.
• Traffic noise and congestion, and
• Noise and vibration resulting from new construction.
Comments addressed both what is in the plan and what isn’t.
The leadoff speaker sparked the evening’s sharpest exchange.
Anne Wagley, Daily Planet arts and calendar editor and member of the city Landmarks Preservation Commission, has sued both entities responsible for the plan, the city and UC Berkeley.
Wagley was among the plaintiffs who sued over the Board of Regents approval of the Berkeley campus Long Range Development Plan 2020 and its accompanying EIR. That plan called for 850,000 square feet of new off-campus buildings in downtown Berkeley.
The city of Berkeley, another plaintiff, opted for a settlement which spelled out mitigation payments to the city to help compensate for the impact of development and required the City Council to adopt a plan that allowed for their projects by May 25.
Wagley said the plan—along with the commission’s proposal to extend the core area where buildings of up to 225 feet would be allowed—“would wipe out the buffer zone and any protections for the neighborhoods.”
After criticizing the settlement agreement’s provision giving the university veto power over the plan, Wagley said she was concerned about the impact of “studentification” on nearby neighborhoods.
The hearing’s momentum veered off course when commissioner Patti Dacey asked Wagley what that term meant.
Wagley said the term was used in the planning community to describe negative impacts on property values caused by increased noise, crime and other factors which resulted from the increased presence of students.
That’s when commissioner Harry Pollack erupted.
Pollack, an attorney who often represents developers, asked Wagley (also who holds a law degree), “Do you have a university degree?”
“Yes,” she said, “we were all students once.”
While Pollack lashed out at Wagley for what he called labelling and name-calling, Wagley said she was reflecting complaints from residential neighbors south of campus.
Steve Wollmer, who followed Wagley to the microphone, said he was concerned that the settlement agreement had expanded the downtown plan’s boundaries without public discussion.
“When the settlement agreement was promulgated, neighbors were quite surprised to learn they had moved downtown without ever leaving their houses,” Wollmer said. “Now we’re talking about 85-foot buildings right across the street.”
Either city staff had an agenda all along, he said, or the plan “has been hijacked by development interests on the commission.”
“It’s very important that you consider why the plan’s area was expanded,” said Wollmer. “It was so the transition (to neighborhoods) could be managed and wouldn’t be abrupt.”
He also called on the commission to reverse its proposal to reject DAPAC’s call to downzone some of the downtown residential neighborhoods—a move commissioners followed after the hearing, with qualifications.
Daniel Caraco, an Oxford Street resident who said he holds several advanced degrees including one in health policy administration, faulted the plan and planning staff for ignoring what he said were plans to close both Alta Bates Summit Medical Center and Herrick Hospital in the city.
In preparing the plan and the EIR, he said, “staff has specifically refused to acknowledge what it will mean for there to be no emergency facilities in a town of a 100,000 people.”
Planners must consider the additional deaths that would result, he said, “and you or one of your family could be among them.”
Carl Friberg, a co-plaintiff with Wagley in the UC Berkeley LRDP suit, charged that the settlement agreement violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by giving the university veto power over the plan.
CEQA is the same law which mandates the EIR process.
Jim Rusin, an architect and member of the pro-densification Downtown Berkeley Association, said he didn’t believe the EIR adequately addresses impacts of transforming Center Street between Shattuck Avenue and Oxford Street into a pedestrian mall.
While the DAPAC plan calls for the closure, the planning commission revisions leave the issue open.
Rusin said the EIR also paid short shrift to the impacts of the loss of parking spaces embodied in some of the plan’s proposals, including the possible replacement of the city-owned Berkeley Way lot by housing.
This time it was the commission chair who questioned a speaker, asking Rusin what businesses would be impacted by closure of Center. In addition to new housing planned for the block, Rusin said some businesses on the block relied on 18-wheel trucks for supplies.
John English, a retired planner and a preservationist, said the EIR contained “no shortage of mistakes and inconsistencies,” enough so that a detailed written response would be forthcoming.
He said the commission’s efforts to extend the numbers, heights and potential sites for high-rises could prompt a lawsuit or even a referendum on the plan.
Dean Metzger, another neighborhood activist, said the increased density and resulting traffic congestion mean that the planners “are making three Berkeleys here,” north, downtown and south.
With car traffic increasing while AC Transit is cutting service and boosting rates, Metzger asked, “How are you going to make all of Berkeley want to go downtown?”
Nischit Hedge, representing Local 2859 of the hotel and restaurant workers union, said she was speaking for hotel and laundry workers.
“We can really appreciate hotel growth in downtown Berkeley,” she said, “but we’re just not convinced skyscrapers are the way to do it.”
Just take away those two giant hotels, she said.
The skyscrapers she mentioned are the pair of 225-foot hotels included in the EIR, which would include the proposed but currently stalled hotel and condo tower proposed by Carpenter & Co., the Massachusetts hotelier picked by the university to developer the complex at the northeast corner of the Shattuck and Center Street intersection.
When it came time for commissioners to make their own comments, members had little to add—though Gene Poschman, the commission’s resident policy wonk, said he would have plenty, to be presented later in writing.
Pollack said he’d only read the document’s executive summary, then questioned the EIR’s figures on current parking in the city’s Center Street garage.
He said the plan’s assumptions about available parking in 2030 were based on current parking regulations and said a reduction of parking requirements for new construction might lead to inaccurate results.
Smart growth advocates call for a reduction in parking at new projects as a stimulus to nudge occupants out of their cars and onto public transit.
Samuels questioned whether shadowing of the university’s entry crescent was really a significant adverse impact, but Courtney said it had been included because the crescent was “one of a limited number of publicly accessible open spaces available” in downtown Berkeley.
Samuels gently but firmly nudged the consultant to conceding his point, that “it doesn’t seem unusual to you that we have these kinds of impact in a city the size of Berkeley.”
While last Wednesday’s session was the only time for spoken comment, downtown planner Matt Taecker said written comments could be submitted through March 13.
The draft EIR is available online at www.ci.berkeley,ca.us/ContentDisplay.aspx?id+33630.
Written comments may be submitted in person at the city’s Permit Services Center, 2120 Milvia St., or by e-mail to Taecker at firstname.lastname@example.org