Berkeley residents may not know it, but over the next several weeks, the Berkeley City Council is poised to vote on competing visions and plans for Berkeley’s downtown. One is the compromise vision adopted by a community-based, multi-stakeholder committee, the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC). This vision was crafted over an intensive two-year process, and included extensive expert testimony and presentations, constant public comment, numerous public hearings, ongoing subcommittee workgroups, and continual iterations and modifications to the final plan, to develop a thoughtful, careful compromise that could be acceptable to a wide range of citizen and community interests.
This compromise plan— endorsed by the Sierra Club and a diverse set of Berkeley constituencies—promotes a green, vital, livable, and appropriately-scaled downtown. The plan provides a downtown vision and “package” that includes higher—but not unlimited—densities, stringent (required!) green building and site features for any new developments, green stormwater and flood control mechanisms, green streets, new urban open space, extensive pedestrian and biking enhancements, affordable housing requirements, a sane parking scheme, protection of historic resources, and a beautiful, pedestrian-only plaza for one block of Center Street. It is a plan which addresses climate change concerns in an elegant, yet aggressive manner, and helps the City to actively attain Measure G goals. Central to this vision and plan is the idea that any increased density or height only comes in exchange for up-front, tangible, contributions to a range of environmental, transit, and affordable housing improvements, thus ensuring that the robust “package” of improvements are actually implemented in the short-term—not in some possible, distant future.
Ultimately, it is a community-driven vision which balances business interests, revitalization, and new development with Berkeley’s communities, history and environmental advocacy, to allow a future that is both progressive and livable. As true to all good compromises, not everyone got exactly what they wanted (and DAPAC members often had to give in on areas they didn’t agree with), but as a result, the final plan is one that a broad range of groups and interests promote and support, rather than opposing (no small feat in Berkeley!)—and where downtown revitalization will bring benefits to businesses and the community at large.
The competing vision, favored by developers and business interests, is the downtown plan version just adopted by the Berkeley Planning Commission. In contrast to the DAPAC compromise plan, the Planning Commission version represents only several months of comments and meetings, during which the Commission was also looking at a whole host of broader Berkeley planning issues; this item was often one among four or five complex agenda items on any given night. Moreover, the Planning Commission members are a much smaller and more restricted set of appointees, and simply do not include the level of diversity that DAPAC appointees represented. The outcome of this constricted time frame and process—with limited public input and testimony—is a plan that guts the community-based vision and key elements of the DAPAC compromise, and instead, lets a much narrower constituency of developer and business interests drive our city vision.
The Planning Commission version caters to developer demands and desires, recommending vast height increases in buildings, massive density increases, and no stringent requirements for any return features such as green building and site design, open space, affordable housing, and the like. It is a vision and plan driven by developer claims about “necessary profit thresholds” and “economic feasibility,” when in fact, inherent uncertainties and variability in the construction arena simply make these claims untenable, and in some cases, grossly overstated.
The Planning Commission version rationalizes the need for multiple 14 to 18-story buildings (and higher!)—and almost unlimited densities—under the umbrella of “climate change mitigation,” yet it fails to include mandatory requirements that would implement stringent green building requirements for new developments, fund green streets, more open space, transit enhancements, and true pedestrianization. These features and contributions are simply “encouraged” or “for consideration,” not required—and in some cases, they are fully optional elements.
As the City Council prepares to make its decision about Berkeley’s downtown, residents need to understand that the choice of plans is a critical one in terms of the environmental outcome for Berkeley, as well as its future livability and aesthetics. Will the Council support a comprehensive, citizen-based vision, crafted through a transparent and extensive process of compromise and careful discussion? Or will councilmembers cater to the wishes of a narrow set of stakeholders, and let those desires outweigh Berkeley’s broader, diverse constituencies? Will the City Council adopt a plan that resonates with diverse interest groups, and allows us to move in coordinated, and community-supported steps towards a livable, green city core? Or will the City Council vote for a plan that forces polarization and opposition, not the compromise that DAPAC worked so hard to achieve?
This choice now rests in the City Council’s hands—and all Berkeley residents have a voice in this decision. Come out and speak up at City Council meetings over the next several weeks. The first one is this Tuesday, May 19, at 5 p.m. Urge counclimembers to approve the compromise DAPAC downtown plan—not the Planning Commission version. And e-mail, write, and phone your councilmembers as well—they need to hear your voices. This is our downtown, and our future. Now is the time to weigh in.
Juliet Lamont is an environmental consultant and Mayor Bates’ appointee to DAPAC.