Initiative aims to tighten ‘green’ parts of Downtown Plan

Four years after voters adopted a new vision for downtown, they may be asked to refine it. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Four years after voters adopted a new vision for downtown Berkeley, they may be asked to refine it. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Update: 6//14: The initiative has qualified for the November 2014 ballot.

Original story: City Councilman Jesse Arreguín, some members of the environmental community, the labor community, and preservationists are circulating a ballot initiative that would drastically overhaul elements of the Berkeley Downtown Area Plan endorsed by voters in 2010 and codified by the city council in 2012.

The initiative would restore the “green” in the “Green Vision” part of the plan, according to Arreguín.

It would essentially mandate that all buildings in the downtown core taller than 60 feet high follow the more stringent “Green Pathways” provision of the Downtown Area Plan, rather than making that an optional track for developers.

The initiative would require all buildings over 75 feet high to be LEED Platinum (they now have to be LEED Gold), to have 30% of the units be affordable (up from 20% 10% in some cases), would remove the possibility of paying into an housing fund as an alternative to building the affordable housing, would require there be apartments big enough for families, and require there be parking for electric vehicles and the disabled. Buildings over 60 feet would have proportionally similar requirements.

“If you want to go higher and make an incredible amount of profit by going higher, you should give more,” said Arreguín.

The initiative would also require developers to pay construction workers prevailing wages, make sure that half the workers reside in Berkeley or in the East Bay Green Corridor cities (up from 30%), and use 16% apprentice labor, if possible.

Moreover, in a move that Arreguín termed as “historic,” once the buildings are constructed, all maintenance, security officers, and hotel employees must get a prevailing wage as well.

Tall buildings would also have to have restrooms available to the public.

It would also remove the expedited review of potentially historic structures by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

The initiative would also create a historic overlay over the Civic Center area. That would make it impossible, for example, for a private developer to take over Berkeley’s Main Post Office and convert it to a private commercial use.

An initiative now circulating would apply an "historic overlay" in the Civic Center. Photo: Daniel Parks

An initiative now circulating would apply an “historic overlay” in the Civic Center that might impact the future of the downtown Berkeley Post Office. Photo: Daniel Parks

The backers of the initiative started collecting signatures on May 2. If they want to be guaranteed a place on the Nov. 2014 ballot, they must turn in 2,638 signatures by May 8. The groups involved with collecting signatures include Save Our Post Office, which is trying to stop the U.S. Postal Service from selling the Main Post Office on Allston Way, and the Council of Neighborhood Associations, which unsuccessfully sued Berkeley over the environmental impact of the Downtown Area Plan, among other groups, said Arreguín. Austene Hall, the chair of Berkeley’s Landmark Preservation Commission, as well as Sophie Hahn, a Zoning Adjustments Board commissioner, have also been involved in creating the initiative, he said.

Arreguín said he decided to push for the ballot initiative because he is frustrated with Berkeley’s inaction on demanding well-articulated community benefits from developers. One intention of the Downtown Area Plan (which was endorsed by voters as Measure R in 2010) was to give developers the opportunity to build taller structures in exchange for “substantial environmental and community benefits.” If developers chose to go through the expedited “Green Pathways” review process they would have to provide “extraordinary public benefits that could not otherwise be obtained,” according to Measure R. No developer has yet pursued this option.

While developers are offering some benefits, in Arreguín’s opinion they are not substantial enough.

Members of the development community disagree with Arreguín’s point of view. They say the initiative, if adopted by voters, could slow down or even stop what they see as the revitalization of the downtown core. Measure R allowed for the construction of three 180-feet buildings, about 15 stories tall, within one block of the downtown BART station and the construction of two 120-foot buildings, about 10 stories high, elsewhere in the downtown.

Currently, developers have plans to build three high-rise structures, one aimed at apartments for urban professionals, one aimed at families and empty nesters, and one hotel.

“It’s a series of poison pills,” said architect Jim Novosel, who is designing a 120-foot building on Shattuck Avenue and Berkeley Way for the Nasser family. He is also a member of the Planning Commission and ran for council against Arreguín in 2010.

“Minority politics is trying to control majority politics. It sends out a message to people who want to come into Berkeley that… it’s going to be friggin hard. You are going to have to work much harder.”

A 16-story hotel has been proposed on Center Street at Shattuck Avenue.  Image: JRDV Urban International

A 16-story hotel has been proposed on Center Street at Shattuck Avenue. Image: JRDV Urban International

The initiative “will set into stone” the community benefits, said Matthew Taecker, a former Berkeley city planner who is now helping Jim Didion and Center Street Partners LLC get entitlements for a 16-story hotel at the intersection of Shattuck Avenue and Center Street. Right now, the shape and scope of each project determines what the community benefits look like, he said. That flexibility is critical.

“Just the prospect of the initiative throws a chill on things,” said Taecker. “It will test the commitment of developers who haven’t yet received their entitlement.”

Steven Donaldson, a member of the Zoning Adjustments Board, said that the community benefits process is working. For example, the developer of The Residences at Berkeley Plaza, a 180-foot, 17-story tower with 298 residences slated for Harold Way, originally planned to eliminate the Shattuck Theaters. The ZAB board thought that was a bad idea and got the developer to agree to retain them, said Donaldson. That shows the current development process and review are working, he said.

Arreguín said he anticipates a lot of developer pushback.

“It’s great we have people wanting to invest in our community and build housing, but obviously they want to maximize their investment, their profits,” he said. “So of course they are going to say things aren’t feasible because they are trying to increase the amount of their rate of return.”

Read how the initiative would revise Berkeley’s municipal code.
Read a summary of provisions of the initiative.

New 16-story hotel proposed for downtown Berkeley (12.19.13)
New 120-foot building proposed for downtown Berkeley (12.09.13)
First high-rise in 40 years planned for downtown Berkeley (12.21.12)
Lawsuit challenges Berkeley’s new downtown plan (06.06.12)
After seven years, Berkeley gets a new downtown plan 

For details and images of many of the new building projects underway in Berkeley, check out Berkeleyside’s recent real estate articles.

Print Friendly
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Please keep our community civil. Comments should remain on topic and be respectful.
Read our full comments policy »
  • guest

    That’s what they said about the redistricting referendum and that cost us $30k.

  • Sally

    When people become too old to drive they are usually also too old or infirm to walk everywhere. Both my parents in their old age were better able to drive than to walk–that’s why we now see so many disabled stickers now, belonging to elderly people who can still drive but might have creaky knees and hips. The spry old person is mostly a myth– when you’re really infirm you’ll need to be in an assisted living environment, not a downtown flashy condo in a highrise. Also the student noise in downtown Berkeley doesn’t appeal to older people,

  • Jame

    I know a soon to be empty nester who has been plotting her downtown condo or loft for years. She has a few more weeks till her nest is empty!

  • guest

    The objection is that this issue has ALREADY been subject to a referendum, which came after YEARS of seemingly interminable discussion and public meetings. It has been re-hashed so many times in recent history that it makes one question Jesse’s respect for his constituents. He is trying to stop the changes to the Downtown that are finally starting to materialize and that the Berkeley electorate has endorsed over and over. And there is a cost beyond the administrative costs: the cost of the chilling effect the initiate will have (and is INTENDED to have) on all of the projects in the pipeline.

  • Jame

    There are some good ideas in here, but it sets the bar way too high for development and will lead to projects getting cancelled.

  • guest

    That is true of some people, but there are also many people whose vision deteriorates to the point where they can’t drive but who can still get around by walking and public transportation. That can last for many years before assisted living is needed. Those people generally want to live in a neighborhood where they can live independently.

    I had a landlady who lived in a neighborhood where you had to drive to get around and who kept driving as her vision deteriorated – until she crashed into another car. She was still quite able to walk around and did not need assisted living, but she lived in a neighborhood where there was nowhere to walk to.

  • guest

    If you don’t like the law, you can try circulating an initiative to change it.

  • EastBayer

    This is completely wrong. Why not actually require all buildings UNDER 75 feet to be LEED Platinum? That makes far more sense. It should be incredibly difficult and/or expensive to have a low-rise structure within a stone’s throw of a BART station.

  • voter

    Why can’t you, do you think? Is it because Jesse’s other constituents don’t agree with you? You’re welcome to try, but you’re right, you’d probably lose.

  • Sally

    If you can’t see very well walking and taking buses can also be difficult, especially for the person who’s been sighted most of her life. If anyone has any statistics on any of this I’d like to know what they are. How many older people are better able to walk than to drive? How many old people in Berkeley have actually expressed a desire to move to a downtown apartment? I’d like to see real numbers here, not just wishful thinking.

  • Cruzio

    Nothing in this post is true. Santa Cruz is not bankrupt–that’s Vallejo. The state Coastal Commission rejected the convention center plans, not the city council.

  • Arreguin = FLIP FLOPPER

    Exactly. Arreguin is trying to take credit as being “pro development” for voting for Measure R, and now is trying to undo the measure he voted for by including ridiculous and unrealistic demands.

  • Had a very nice person hand me a petition to “Save The Post Office”

    Yep – Laurie Capitelli was right

    Op-Ed: Think, ask questions, before signing a petition



    Wow, 24 hours later and Arreguin’s lackeys are already lying about the content of the petition they’re trying to get signed.

    Jesse Arreguin needs to be recalled.

  • guest

    Signature gatherers for Arreguin’s new anti-development initiative are now lying to Berkeley residents to try to get signatures for this.

    Do you really want to support a politician like Arreguin who would lie to voters to push his agenda?

  • The redistricting referendum cost us nothing. Because Bates and the more conservative councilmembers refused to compromise, and refused to accept that they could not use the referended gerrymanderd map until & unless the voters approved it, they illegally sued themselves. Bates and his cronies are the ones who wasted $30 in public funds. It’s not too late to petition them to stop wasting our taxes and to compromise to avoid an appeal:

  • Please consider signing this petition, a very worthy effort to get it on the ballot so that the voters can decide.

  • the majority of commenters here may be hired by them to comment

  • more lies from “guest.” It was the Mayor and his cronies who wasted $30,000. by illegally suing themselves.

  • who trained you? karl rove? you attribute Bates’ and cronies’ misdeeds to heroes of the people, Arreguin and Worthington who are, in fact, the victims of Bates’ & cronies’ illegal actions.

  • BS = BS

  • guest

    “refused to accept that they could not use the referended gerrymanderd map until & unless the voters approved it,”

    You apparently haven’t heard about the court decision that says they can use it.

  • guest

    They also apparently haven’t noticed that Worthington’s map was the gerrymandered one that split communities of interest in a desperate attempt to create a district he thought would be more likely to support him.

  • Margie

    The voters did not vote on a downtown plan. They voted on a number of goals, but the actual plan to implement these goals was never passed by the city council. This ballot measure just adds enforcement language to the previous measure’s “green” ideals. Those who oppose it are people like Laurie Capitelli who work in the real estate/development industry who never actually wanted what the voters thought they would get when they voted the last time.

  • Green Gal

    Many green activists now think the whole LEED program is a scam. The greenest building is the one that already exists–new construction is almost always wasteful of resources, and any energy saved in LEED buildings takes decades to repay the cost of construction.

  • EBGuy

    He’s up for re-election this year. Someone needs to run against him. If Jim Novosel runs again, I’d vote for him. He may be a bit of a polarizing figure given that he’s designing one of the tall downtown buildings (then again that could work to his advantage).

  • guest

    Those who oppose it are people like Laurie Capitelli who work in the
    real estate/development industry who never actually wanted what the
    voters thought they would get when they voted the last time.

    Those who oppose it are regular Berkeley citizens and taxpayers who are tired of having a run-down, underdeveloped downtown and would like to see Berkeley become a forward-thinking city that makes the most of its major transit hubs and can hopefully become a bay area destination spot once again.

  • Diane

    Probably because we have these ridiculous micro-council-districts in Berkeley, and we can only have a say in our hyper-local area. I also would vote for someone else that Arreguin, but I can’t do that as I’m in another council district. We are only a city of about 100K people. Why we have this kind of political balkanization (that leads to – for example – the months-long redistricting fight) is beyond me. My home town was also a mid-sized university town (80K people), and all we had was a mayor and vice-mayor and way more got done than in this city. Berkeley constantly amazes me…

  • Diane

    LEED certification actually offers points for re-use of materials and structure that count towards cert level. I agree re-use makes sense in many cases, but as an architect I know that remodeling is often far more expensive than new construction. Budget and schedule contingencies need to be a lot higher for remodels as unknowns are more challenging. Both options have their place – I’m a big fan of reuse and remodeling, but it’s facile to say one is better than the other. Any architect worth their salt evaluates each project as an individual situation.

  • guest

    District elections without term limits were passed by the voters in 1986 and deserve to be reversed by charter reform initiative. Districts have been a disaster for Berkeley which has at least $200 million in unfunded infrastructure repairs mostly to parks structures, tree trimming, sewers ,drain pipes, and street repairs that aren’t visible or district specific. Let’s do it, and soon.

  • Country Mouse

    The downtown is the place that everyone who doesn’t live there would be happy to control. It’s where the people who live a suburban lifestyle in the hills would like to dump all their problems.

  • Philly

    Only because the City Council chose to sue instead of just following the law and putting the referendum on the June ballot, or else rescinding the first try and compromising with those who thought it was wrong.

  • Philly

    The city would lose on appeal, but no one can afford to appeal.

  • Green Gal

    Research the data–you’re not right on the facts here. The National Trust for Historic Preservation used to have an excellent study on their website–re-use provides more jobs and uses less energy almost always.

  • Cruzio

    Long, long ago for the Dream, and SC is still not bankrupt-last time I was there it was jumping.

  • Cruzio
  • Diane

    I’ve worked as an architect for over 25 years and am basing my knowledge on my projects I have directly experienced in that time. I agree that reuse has lots of value, but there is more at stake than energy useage though. Overall predictability of schedule and budget is a huge factor for most builders and developers. If you can’t get it to pencil out initially as a capital project, then lifecycle costs don’t matter that much.
    I am not saying one is better than the other. I am saying remodels are inherently harder to predict costs on.

  • Chris J

    Too confusing, too many he-said, she-lied, etc. we have a downtown plan, change is going to come one way or another because the population is going to grow. What’s wrong with tall buildings? I appreciate that there is an effort to provide community benefits from developers, and if no developer chooses to agree that the restrictions are worth the effort to develop here, well, there is always Emeryville or Walnut Creek or wherever. Fine tuning this seems too little, too late, so let’s see which developers come a knocking to build here.

    It’s all moot to me because as for social change, I’m retiring overseas when the time comes. I’m not going to say it will be better than Berkeley, but the weather will be nicer and it will definitely be cheaper than here.

  • guest

    I think reuse is better IF there is a building to reuse.

    The proposed developments downtown are generally replacing one-story buildings that just have commercial space. There is no way to reuse the existing buildings to provide more housing in downtown.