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Council Moves Forward With Bates-Maio Downtown Plan Proposals

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday June 11, 2009 - 07:53:00 PM

The Berkeley City Council moved several steps closer to a finished Downtown Area Plan late Tuesday night, approving on a 6-2-1 vote a proposal by Mayor Tom Bates and Councilmember Linda Maio to modify the Planning Commission’s version of the plan and bringing in elements from the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Commission (DAPAC) version. But rather than building a full council consensus on the final plan, a majority-minority council split appeared to be widening, and at least one councilmember—a visibly agitated Jesse Arreguín—pounded his palm on the podium and said that the method in which the plan deliberations were being handled might force him to vote against the Downtown Area Plan in the end. 

The council is currently deliberating between the two versions of the plan—DAPAC’s and the Planning Commission’s—which set somewhat different visions and guidelines for the economic and environmental development of Berkeley’s downtown core. The council has scheduled a July 7 final vote on adoption of the plan. 

Tuesday night’s deliberations were planned for the council to give direction to city staff members so that the staff can come back with a detailed, modified final draft version of the plan on July 7. 

On Tuesday, Bates and Maio introduced a three-page proposal calling for the final Downtown Area Plan to use the Planning Commission version as its base, but, according to the proposal’s framework language, “incorporate stronger language into the Planning Commission version along the lines that DAPAC suggested on several critical topics.” 

Among the “stronger [DAPAC] language” suggested by Bates and Maio were the inclusion of DAPAC’s “green building” standards requirements and the establishment of a portion of Center Street as a car-free, pedestrian-friendly plaza. 

But in the area of downtown-building-height limits—one of the strongest areas of disagreement between the DAPAC and Planning Commission versions—it was difficult to tell which plan the Bates-Maio proposal was leaning towards. Bates and Maio proposed allowing three downtown buildings at least 180 feet high, two of them hotels that could go as high as 225 feet if they “deliver[ed] significant public benefits” as defined by a city-written scoring system. The Bates-Maio proposal said that this suggestion “replaces the two hotels at 225 feet as proposed by both the Planning Commission and DAPAC,” but made no other comparison between the two original plan versions. 

Maio read the proposal to councilmembers without comment. She said she drew up the final version of the modified proposal in consultation with several councilmembers, including Arreguín, who represents the downtown area. Arreguín disputed that, saying that, while Maio had talked with him about some of the issues in the downtown plan, “not a lot of what I had suggested” had been incorporated into the Bates-Maio proposal, and he only got a final copy of it four hours before the council meeting began. 

Maio declined to incorporate several of Arreguín’s suggestions into her motion to have staff move forward with the Bates-Maio proposals, including charging an open space fee, banning 120-foot buildings west of Milvia, and requiring setbacks for buildings as low as 65 feet, as DAPAC had recommended. A frustrated Arreguín said that “it seems all the things I want to be put in are going to be rejected, so why even bring them up?” 

Arreguín also appeared frustrated by Mayor Bates’ ruling limiting his time to discuss the issue. At first, Bates said he would give Arreguín two minutes to raise his points, but when the councilmember protested that this was not enough, Bates agreed to allow him five minutes. When Arreguín continued to protest the time limit, Bates asked him “Do you want five minutes or not?” and then, appearing to grow testy himself, the mayor said finally, “I’ll give you five minutes. Go.” 

Councilmember Max Anderson later told the council that “I’ve been a bit uncomfortable about the [deliberation] process [to modify the Downtown Area Plan]. I became even more uncomfortable when Councilmember Arreguín said he’d been shut out of the compromise process.” 

Anderson abstained on the vote to move forward with the Bates-Maio proposals, while Arreguín and Councilmember Kriss Worthington voted against it. While Tuesday’s vote does not automatically mean final council passage of the proposals when they come back on July 7, the large majority for the proposals appeared to indicate that they will remain in the final package. It also means that the Planning Commission version, rather than the DAPAC version, will almost certainly be the foundation version from which council modifications are made.  

Tuesday’s deliberations also included the first presentation to the council by members of the DAPAC majority that supported the final DAPAC Downtown Area Plan proposal.  

Following the meeting, Anderson, Worthington, and Councilmember Laurie Capitelli—who seconded Maio’s proposal motion and was part of the deliberations to draw it up—engaged in a spirited discussion of the matter at the council dais, with Anderson overheard telling Capitelli that “I’m tired of having these things rushed through like this.” Meanwhile Arreguín, who usually stays after council meetings to chat with constituents, left the council chambers immediately without speaking. 

In other action Tuesday night, the council postponed discussions over a proposed new city telecommunications ordinance to govern cellphone tower regulations and placement.