After 7 years, Berkeley gets a new downtown plan

A view of Berkeley’s downtown from the Skydeck. Photo: Tracey Taylor

After hundreds of meetings, seven years of contentious debate, and the sting of a ballot referendum still fresh, the Berkeley City Council on Tuesday night adopted a new plan for its downtown.

The 8 to 1 vote, with Councilmember Kriss Worthington dissenting, may bring as many as seven tall buildings to the area bounded by Hearst Avenue to the north, Dwight Way to the south, MLK on the west, and Fulton on the east. It creates open space requirements, allows a faster approval process for buildings that are extra “green,” encourages LEED Gold construction, and creates a fund to build more affordable housing.

And, according to critics, it might create a cookie-cutter approach to building construction and a density that is out of character with Berkeley.

The plan, which is the result of a compromise between the council’s pro and anti-development factions, seemed to please everyone a bit and no one completely.

“Seven years is a long time,” said Councilmember Jesse Arreguìn. “We do have a plan that is really a compromise. In the end, I think it is a much better plan than what the council had in 2009.”

“This has been a seven-year long, in some respects, ‘ordeal,’ said Councilmember Max Anderson. “In other respects, it has given us the opportunity to weigh in with new ideas.”

“I am also not happy with the plan,” said Councilmember Gordon Wozniak. “I hope a tall building will be built before I die.”

Still, the feeling towards the end of the City Council meeting was one of relief. Members took time to thank city staff for their hard work and one another for input, suggestions, and perseverance.

“I think this council should be congratulated,” said Mayor Tom Bates.

The council will take up the thorny issue of development-related fees in the fall. The plan calls for builders to pay into a fund for affordable housing and open space in the downtown area.

Berkeley will get four 120-foot buildings (two reserved for construction by UC Berkeley), and three 180-foot tall structures when the Downtown Plan is built out. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Details of the Downtown Area Plan (DAP)

The DAP originates from work by the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee and the Planning Commission, which worked from 2005 to 2009 on a plan. That was approved by the City Council, but then rescinded. Measure R in 2010 was the response: the advisory measure passed in all the city’s precincts, and provided direction for the new DAP. Last year, the Planning Commission approved the DAP.

The plan calls for a new C-DMU zoning district, which replaces the current C-2 district (see map at the top of the story. A larger version of the map can be seen here). The C-DMU district sets development standards, specifies upper story setbacks, has open space and green development requirements, and a special process for taller buildings.

Perhaps the most contentious parts of the DAP are the provisions for tall buildings. Four buildings up to 120-feet (two reserved for UC Berkeley) are allowed, and three buildings up to 180-feet are permitted. The seven permitted tall buildings compares to the 12 allowed in the 2009 DAP (including two up to 225-feet), which was rescinded.

To receive approval, the five non-university taller buildings must show “significant community benefits beyond what is otherwise required”, and provide affordable housing, social services, green features, open space, transportation demand management, job training and employment opportunities. The plan also requires upper story setbacks for the buildings and width restrictions for buildings over 120-feet tall.

Setbacks for smaller buildings

Setbacks are also required for smaller buildings. For buildings over 45-feet tall, a 20-foot setback is required when abutting side or rear residential lot line. A 10-foot front setback is required when confronting a residential lot. Along Shattuck south of Durant, a 15-foot front setback is required where the building exceeds 65-feet tall.

The basic open space requirement is 80 sq ft per dwelling. The DAP also specifies standards for Privately Owned Public Open Space (POPOS): 1 sq ft per 50 sq ft of commercial floor area. POPOS can be used to reduce the residential requirement, and an in-lieu fee for SOSIP can reduce open space requirements.

The green building requirements of the DAP state that new construction of more than 20,000 sq ft be LEED Gold or equivalent. The green building standards are not required for renovations. The other main green requirement is for parking transportation demand management, which includes bus passes for employees and residential units, car-share parking spaces, and parking spaces leased or sold separate from the unit.

A green pathway

The green pathway establishes a streamlined permit process for projects that exceed the green building requirements and that include “extraordinary public benefits”. Buildings that meet this standard that are 75-feet tall or less would have no public hearing, additional specified upper story setbacks, and Landmarks Preservation Commission and Design Review Committee review within time limits. Buildings over 75-feet are offered Zoning Adjustments Board approval within time limits.

The green pathway is not available to properties that the LPC determines are a historic resource. If a project is adjacent to a historic resource, the applicant must analyze conformance with standards for review by the LPC and DRC.

One area to be decided is the distribution of potential increased revenues generated by future development. Several council members have said they thought additional revenues should be kept for downtown improvements, rather than the city’s General Fund. Interim City Manager Christine Daniel has that the council should consider carefully whether all revenue — including potential new property taxes — should be earmarked for downtown, or just the fees associated with the DAP.

Taller buildings, open spaces on the cards for downtown Berkeley [03.09.12]
The big clean up of downtown Berkeley begins [01.10.12]
Downtown PBID passes overwhelmingly [06.29.11]
Council tackles housing development downtown [10.12.11]
Measure R: Future direction of Berkeley’s downtown? [10.20.10]

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  • Stefan Lasiewski

    > (see map at the top of the story. A larger version of the map can be seen here).
    That link points to , which does not exist.

  • Thanks Stefan: we’ve fixed the broken link.

  • Hyper_lexic

    So is this it? No more votes (aside from the question on the fees)?

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Does anyone know what sort of development we can expect to see outside of the university buildings?  Are there developers who are lining up to get permits going and if so, for what kind of buildings?  Residences?  Offices?  Other venues?

  • EricPanzer

    The largest, and perhaps only major residential development proposal currently in the works Downtown is the Acheson Commons project. This project is being proposed by Equity Residential, the company that bought out Patrick Kennedy’s Panoramic Management. Acheson Commons was actually proposed prior to the adoption of the new DAP, which means it will not necessarily subject to the new DAP’s requirements. This entitlement process for this project is further complicated by the fact that the project would require several different discretionary approvals.

    My impression is the the planned renovation of the old UC Theater into a jazz/dinner venue is still slowly inching forward in some fashion. Additionally, the UC is getting closer to having enough money to begin construction of the new Berkeley Art Museum.

    Other than that, I am not aware of anyone champin’ at the bit to build anything big Downtown. However, given the still less-than-stellar state of the economy, the newness of the DAP, and the fact that some of the implementation measures (read, fee levels) have yet to be adopted, I don’t think we should fret (yet) over a dearth of development proposals.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Thank you Eric, this is very informative.

  • District4Resident

     If the past is any indication of the future, we will see more student residences.

  • David D.

    The final downtown plan isn’t perfect, but it does provide a reasonably satisfying closure to the extended planning process. Luckily we probably won’t be flooded with a bunch of new high rises. The new Trader Joe’s building is pretty nice; let’s hope we get more quality buildings like it and less of those stucco abominations further along University.

  • joshua a

    Is this a copy and paste error, ”
     It will be examined by the City Council in its special meeting next week.”

  • Marie Louise

    Provide presumed community services and some affordable housing and you can have your way in Berkeley.