Would new green initiative kill 2 downtown high rises?

Caption here

Downtown Berkeley as seen in 2012 from the top of the Chase building on Shattuck Avenue. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Update, June 14: The initiative has qualified for the November 2014 ballot.

Original story: As volunteers man the entrances to Berkeley Bowl, wander the farmers markets, and stop people on the street to collect signatures for what is called the “Green Downtown & Public Commons Initiative,” the various sides disagree on the impact the initiative may have on development in Berkeley.

City Councilman Jesse Arreguín, who is a main backer of the drive, says the initiative is merely aimed at making major developers contribute more community benefits.

“This measure is not intended to stop development at all,” said Arreguín. “Its purpose is to codify some of the community benefits that were not only made in the Downtown Plan, but in Measure R.”

But many in the development community disagree. They believe the initiative, with its higher green standards and less flexible design guidelines, could stop two current projects — the proposed 180-foot hotel at the intersection of Shattuck Avenue and Center Street, and the 17-story residential apartment tower behind the Shattuck Cinemas building. At the very least, if the initiative passes, it will make it harder to build taller structures downtown.

“There is no question — it’s certainly making it more difficult to do development of higher buildings in the core,” said Eric S. Robinson, a Berkeley resident and a principal architect at Paulett Taggart Architects in San Francisco. Berkeleyside asked him to review the initiative to get an independent opinion. “If you ask me, if this will deter development, I would generally say yes.”

Read more about the specifics of the downtown initiative.

The economics of a high-rise hotel in Berkeley are already “fragile,” and the new initiative would require additional setbacks and restrictions that would make it impossible to have a sufficient number of hotel rooms on each floor to pay for development, according to Matthew Taecker, who is helping the developer, Jim Didion and LLC Center St. Partners, get entitlements for the hotel.

“The project is vulnerable economically,” said Taecker. “Reducing the project size and increasing the project’s cost will only make it more vulnerable.”

The hotel project, as currently designed, does not conform to current code. The developer is asking to construct a tower that is 220 feet wide above the 12th floor. The code currently requires it to be a maximum of 120 feet wide. (A provision put in, ironically, by Taecker when he was a Berkeley city planner.) The developer also only wants to provide a 10-foot setback on the floors facing Center Street rather than the 15-foot setback currently required.

Center Street Partners wants to construct a 16-story, 293 room hotel complex at Shattuck and Center. Photo: Center Street Partners

Center Street Partners wants to construct a 16-story, 293-room hotel complex at Shattuck and Center. As currently designed, the tower would be 220 feet wide, which is 100 feet wider than allowed by current code. Image: Center Street Partners

Taecker said the architect designed the building this way to fit in 25 rooms per floor. If the developer complied with the current code, which would make the hotel resemble a wedding cake with stepped-back tiers rather than a tower, the hotel could only have 15 hotel rooms per floor, he said. That is not enough to make the project work economically.

The developer planned to ask the Zoning Adjustments Board for a use permit to build the hotel with those variations from the code. (The developer is offering greater-than-required setbacks in other portions of the property.) But the proposed initiative removes discretion now given to ZAB. The board could not offer a use permit. The developer could not ask for any leeway, and that could kill the project, said Taecker.

Read more background about the specifics of the hotel plans.

If the initiative is adopted, the zoning laws can’t be changed without another vote of the people, said Taecker. “The devil is in the details,” he said. “People should pay close attention to the details, because the details in zoning will be set in stone.”

Arreguín pointed out that the developer has designed a building that already didn’t comply with the current code, which means its approval has never been assured. The developer can still apply for a variance — a much harder approval to get than a use permit — if the initiative passes and he still wants to keep his original design proposal, said Arreguín.

“To say this initiative will kill the project isn’t true because the project couldn’t be built under code as it currently exists,” said Arreguín. “This measure is in no way designed to stop any particular project. When I met with the developer of the hotel I was excited they were planning to invest in downtown Berkeley.”

At the heart of the initiative is the question of how much developers should give back to the community in exchange for building taller buildings.

After voters approved Measure R in 2010, signaling that they wanted to see three 180-foot, and two 120-foot, high rises in downtown Berkeley, city officials hired a firm called AECOM to help them determine what would be appropriate to charge developers for community benefits. Officials also wanted to see how different pricing levels for those benefits would affect revenues. AECOM officials acknowledged that the city’s goal was to maximize public benefits, but cautioned that the fees placed on developers could not be so high that they deterred development in the first place. “The benefits can only be realized through development and therefore the fees cannot place such a burden that projects will not move forward,” read the AECOM report.

When the Berkeley City Council adopted the Downtown Area Plan in 2012, it set many fees, including how many affordable housing units developers must include in each project, how many parking spaces they must build, the amount of open space they must include, and other fees. In some cases, developers were given the option of paying into a fund in lieu of building on site.

The “Green Pathway” provision of the Downtown Area Plan gave developers the option of providing a higher level of community benefits in exchange for a fast-track approval process that included an expedited review by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

No developer of a high rise has applied for the Green Pathways process. Three developers have opted instead to go through the normal development process.

“People haven’t found the cost of the Green Pathway to outweigh the benefits,” said Robinson.

Arreguín, and others backing the new initiative, which include Sophie Hahn, a member of the Zoning Adjustments Board, Austene Green, the chair of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, and former Mayor Shirley Dean, as well as environmental and labor groups, have expressed frustration that the higher buildings haven’t yet produced better community benefits for Berkeley. Their initiative would make it mandatory for all developers building structures higher than 60 feet to use the Green Pathway.

This would mean developers would have to make structures LEED Platinum rather than LEED Gold, build more parking, including spaces for bicycles, electric cars and the handicapped, pay prevailing wages to construction and hotel workers, and make sure that half of a project’s construction workers are Berkeley residents. Developers would also have to build more affordable housing on site rather than pay into a fund, and make sure there are more two- and three-bedroom apartments for families.

The initiative would offer an extra incentive to developers. They could build an additional “penthouse” story that goes higher than 120 or 180 feet if they agree to build all the parking spaces required by code and add an additional 10 parking spaces that would be available to the public.

A rendering of how the Residences at Berkeley Plaza, 2211 Harold Way, would fit into the Berkeley skyline. Photo: HSR Berkeley Investments

A rendering of how the Residences at Berkeley Plaza, 2211 Harold Way, would fit into the Berkeley skyline. Photo: HSR Berkeley Investments

Mark Rhoades, who is leading the entitlement process for The Residences at Berkeley Plaza, the residential tower behind the Shattuck Cinemas building, says the initiative would impose “an extensive array of requirements,” that are “unparalleled” elsewhere. The delicate balance the City Council tried to achieve between asking developers to pay enough, but not assessing them so much that they would decide not to proceed, will be destroyed with the initiative, he said. The new requirements would upset the financials of his project, he said.

Rhoades also said the initiative is an attempt by preservationists and slow-growth advocates to ensure than no buildings higher than 50 feet are constructed downtown.

“What this initiative will do is kill the development that produces the community benefits,” said Rhoades. “If the initiative goes through, the development in downtown Berkeley will stop. We will have 50-foot high development. It means the downtown we had 10 years ago is cast in stone.”

Jim Didion, the developer behind the hotel, said he wished Arreguín had decided to pursue his goals through the City Council. If volunteers collect enough signatures to qualify the initiative for the ballot, there will be a six-month period of uncertainty before the November election, he said. Didion is still trying to finalize a deal with a hotel chain, and the uncertainty will make that more difficult. He is also not sure if Bank of America, which owns the land, will want to stay with the project.

Arreguín said he has been pushing the City Council for seven years to solidify many community benefits that are now only outlined generally. But he has not been successful, and his frustration is a driver behind the initiative drive. He said Wednesday that he is open to the idea of not putting the initiative on the November ballot if the council commits to strengthening some of the community benefits it requires from developers.

“If council were willing to do these things we wouldn’t have to go to the ballot box,” he said. “If this initiative is the catalyst to make it happen, I am open to it.”

Around 90 volunteers have been working for two weeks to collect the 2,680 signatures needed to place the initiative on the November ballot, said Arreguín. He and his coalition had hoped to turn in the petitions to the Berkeley city clerk by May 8, but they are now looking to do so early next week.

“The response we have gotten from the community these last few weeks has been amazing,” he said.

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

Initiative aims to tighten “green” parts of downtown plan (05.05.14)
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 »
  • Hildah

    Find your own proof. Go to the City Clerk’s office and see if anyone has bothered to remove their signature.

  • Kirk E. Peterson

    Proposed projects often go through a few iterations before their form gels. The Gaia Building, which I designed, is the result of such a process. My understanding of the proposed intitiative suggests that the tall buildings would be less tall, hence the developers would have to redesign their projects, and probably have to renegotiate their deals to buy the land. The currently proposed projects might indeed be scapped. It could well be that a ten story building will pencil out where a seventeen story building is now proposed. A ten story building is still a tall building. I doubt that Berkeley needs the extra upper floors of a few buildings to have a successful well-peopled downtown. I don’t personally object to tall buildings. I do care a lot what they look like, since seeing them is the only ‘use’ most of us will ever get out of them. The owners and occupants get most the benefits.

    Regarding ‘improving’ Berkeley, I’d like to say that it actually seems to be working pretty well right now. I like it. The downtown is much more lively and interesting than is common for a small city. Telegraph Avenue has a many triving businesses, and there lots of people there most times I go there. I suspect that the problem some people have is that much of Berkeley has a tattered, very lived in feeling. It’s a funky environment. As things change, and they will, it will be interesting to see if densification is also largely gentrification, and whether Berkeley will retain it’s particular flavor.

  • guest

    There is always a certain amount of vacant housing in any city. Berkeley’s housing vacancy rate is roughly 7%.


  • John Freeman

    I would challenge you find clear language to this effect:

    vote for R if you want more tall buildings downtown;

    in the city attorney’s analysis, the argument in favor, or the rebuttal to the argument against. (Are these latter two not important parts of “the entire campaign”?)

    In fact, I find it really striking that even the city attorney’s analysis does not describe the measure as raising height limits. The closest he came was to say the measure would “advise the Council with respect to building heights”

    In those same materials you’ll find plenty about green pathway’s alleged benefits, which have not been working. You’ll find plenty of clear language about limits, preservation, and protecting historic character.

  • Diane

    As a LEED-certified architect and PM who spends a LOT of my time on budget analysis, I would strongly disagree with this. If the budget doesn’t work there are always other places to build. Always other projects that can be considered. Nothing is worth the cachet (and I would argue, Berkeley doesn’t have that much to begin with as we are notorious for being a difficult place to build) to go along with a project that doesn’t pencil out. I’ve had many projects get cancelled over the years.

    Do you even know what is involved with LEED Platinum? It’s not some vague idea of “energy efficiency or Green design. ” LEED Platinum is a really, really difficult standard to meet. LEED Gold was an admirable threshold. Raising the bar will serve only to cause developers to reject projects.

  • KathyHarr

    I was in error in not identifying the Windfall Profits Tax On High Rents and the Affordable Housing Initiative in my post on NextDoor, although I did link to the Robin Hood website FundAffordableHousing.org in the post.

    Yes these are different initiatives. One would raise the business license tax on some properties – those where owners don’t live in their building or own more than 10 units – those that are not Section 8 or long-term rent controlled – those that are not single family homes or duplexes – and the second would put most of that money in the Housing Trust Fund.

    The “Robin Hood” initiatives exempt buildings for the first 20 years after they are built because we wanted to encourage new housing.

    In my NextDoor post, I was speaking about the initiative process, and reacting to my personal experience when I campaign door-to-door. I am sad that people don’t welcome face-to-face, polite dialog.

    Of course, when face-to-face, people don’t usually call me a Liar.

    I think the downtown initiative is mostly good, but I am not working on it, because of a provision that would require new bars and nightclubs to close at midnight. It’s just one small point in an otherwise well thought out plan, but something I feel strongly about because I really want a mid-sized, affordable music venue that I can walk to.

  • guest

    If they are occupied mostly by students, it is not surprising that they have higher vacancy after the end of the academic year, when many students graduate, and that they try to lure new tenants in August, when the new crop of students that will arrive.

    There is no doubt that developers look at the vacancy rates in existing buildings downtown (including seasonal vacancies) before they decide whether it is economically feasible to build more.

  • Jesse Townley

    The other commenters are correct. This is a completely separate campaign than the Downtown Plan initiative. Neither Kathy nor myself are involved with the Downtown Plan signature-gathering.

  • Jesse Townley

    Hi Gus, you can still wander over and sign. Also, we’ll have more petitions at the Tenant Convention on July 13th!

    Since I was called out by name, let me set the record straight.

    I (and Kathy) were both bummed out that both the Mayor and Councilmember Capitelli wrote opinion pieces dissuading us voters from signing *any* petitions.

    Personally, I don’t think discouraging people from exercising their democratic rights is a good idea, period. Capitelli at least couched his message as “know what you’re signing even though paid petition-gatherers sometimes lie or don’t know what they’re talking about.” The Mayor’s message basically said that no petitions should be signed, though he *did* mention the downtown petition specifically.

    Kathy and I (and the other members of the Berkeley Tenants Union who were collecting signatures for the Robin Hood initiatives) definitely ran into a LOT more voters who said, “I don’t sign petitions” then ever before.

    That makes me sad, because while no petition is OWED a signature, I think us voters should at least find out what a petition is about and then make an educated decision about whether to sign it or not. Take information home and read up about it and then come back and sign? Sure. Sign right then and there? Definitely! Blow off participating in our local democratic process? No.

    Our pair of initiatives, which would raise the 1% fee on rents to 2.9% on larger landlords and dedicate at least $3 million a year to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund for the next 25 years, was collateral damage of this pair of messages from 2 of our elected leaders. (I heard that the Mayor was actually in favor of the Robin Hood initiatives, but I haven’t confirmed that with him)

    We’re still collecting signatures but will probably end up having these initiatives up for the voters’ decision on the election after November 2014. (That may be June 2016 unless there’s a special election in 2015, I believe)

  • KathyHarr

    Gus did not quote my POST (“Confessions of a Signature Gatherer”, on NextDoor), Gus quoted my REPLY to a comment on my post – out of context.

    My post was about the initiative process and campaigns that use people power instead of big money and linked to the Robin Hood initiatives I am circulating – not the downtown initiative. (FundAffordableHousing.org has the full-text of the proposed laws.)

    My reply that was quoted addressed a comment on my post which asked, “Just wondering who gave the green light to all of the development while little is done for affordable housing.”

  • Jesse Townley

    To be 100% clear, the “they” in this post is NOT Kathy Harr, myself, or other Robin Hood initiative petitioners.

  • guest

    >This is an outrage and subversion of our very democracy.

    In the case of Measure S it was a new ordinance being proposed.

    In this case Arreguin is using the petition process and misleading statements by signature gatherers as an attempt at crippling a measure that passed with a strong majority support.

    So yes, the way that Arreguin is misleading voters and trying to gut a popular measure through crippling requirements is an outrage and a subversion of democracy.

  • John Freeman

    The City Attorney’s “impartial” analysis did not explain that the measure advised raising some height limits. It emphasized height limits. The “impartial” analysis managed to compare Green Pathways to existing code at the time. But somehow the “impartial” analysis didn’t manage to compare the new height limits to existing code.

    Also, now you are spreading misinformation about Green Pathways. The issue is that developers are not opting-in to Green Pathways — it has nothing to do with whether or not buildings have yet been built. In this regard, the city’s implementation of Measure R’s recommendations is not working.

  • Building Heights

    Q: Does the height of the built environment in Berkeley differentiate it from inner Bay Area cities?

    A: No.

    The tallest building in Berkeley is 12 stories tall.
    The tallest building in Albany is 6 stories tall.
    The tallest building in El Cerrito is 4 stories tall.
    The tallest building in San Pablo is 6 stories tall.
    The tallest building in Alameda is 15 stories tall.
    The tallest building in Millbrae is 4 stories tall.
    The tallest building in San Bruno is 12 stories tall.


  • guest

    Berkeley’s loss is El Cerrito’s gain?

  • guest

    So Arreguin’s wrong-headed initiative trying to overturn Measure R is hurting Affordable Housing? Wow, what irony.

  • guest

    “What does a 1bdr unit designed to “accommodate families” look like?”

    1 bedroom units are not allowed by this language. It says that at least 50% must include two or more bedrooms and the remaining 50% must include three or more bedrooms.

    The arithmetic is a bit shaky. “At least 50% must include two or more bedrooms” implies that more than 50% may include two bedrooms – which would not leave a “remaining 50%”

  • Guest

    The proposed initiative deals with a lot more than just height. And we’ve already had an initiative about height, and the will of the people was clear. The purpose of this initiative is to make building anything over 60 feet economically infeasible. It is incredibly cynical that the obstructionism is cloaked in “green” and “progressive” values, particularly since the result will be lower density near transit, fewer jobs for skilled tradesmen (union and non-union alike will lose out with this initiative), less affordable housing, and fewer new taxes generated for the City.

    While I agree the Downtown has improved for the better as of late, I cannot agree with you about Telegraph. It is well beyond “lived in” and “funky.” It is certainly “tattered.” Filthy might be another way to describe it. There is a real problem there with all the homeless kids and other denizens of People’s Park. But that’s really a different discussion.

    I strongly disagree that densification will be the driver for gentrification. Quite the opposite, in fact. By continuing to constrain the supply of housing, we will simply increase the value of the finite existing stock. The only people who will be able to move to Berkeley will be the wealthy. You will be disappointed if you support Jesse’s ass backwards initiative because you think it will avoid gentrification. Also, your wistful nostalgia for Berkeley’s “particular flavor” is of a piece with the same bullshit ethos of the “me” generation who think any changes to Berkeley will be for the worse. I’d hope as the primary architect of the only buildings that have been built in Berkeley in recent memory you’d be a little more open to change.

  • Night Owl

    Holy Shit! The initiative also requires new bars and restaurants to close at midnight! What the hell is this awful initiative!? The more I hear about it, the worse it gets! That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard. I’m starting to think we’ve got a budding dictator on our hands here. Jesus. It’s bad enough Jesse and the authors of this initiative want to kill all development in downtown. It’s bad enough they are going about it in asinine, bad-government fashion by writing it into an initiative where it can only be amended by a subsequent initiative. Now they are going to tell us the downtown has to shut down at midnight?!! THE DOWNTOWN OF A MAJOR COLLEGE TOWN?!!! Makes. No. Sense. Ugh…

  • Charles_Siegel

    It is possible to be open to change and also want to preserve Berkeley’s historic character. It is possible to design new buildings that are in keeping with the city’s character, as Kirk Peterson has done.

    It makes no sense to say that Kirk Peterson is not open to change, considering that he designed the Gaia building, the Trader Joe’s building and many others. These are all buildings that change our city in a way that preserves and enhances its character.

    Contrast, for example, the Golden Bear building, which changed the city in a way that detracts from its character.

    The discussion of downtown is generating more heat than light, when accuses an architect who has, in fact, changed Berkeley of sharing “the same bullshit ethos of the ‘me’ generation who think any changes to Berkeley will be for the worse.”

    Maybe the problem is with those who believe that any change if for the better, so we don’t have to think about good design.

  • Guest

    You’re right, Charles, that’s just the problem here. Change just for the sake of change is pointless.

  • guest

    Fair criticism. I apologize for the harsh words — I like most of Mr. Peterson’s work and recognize the positive impact they have had on the downtown. That said, I don’t think pseudo-historic buildings should be the only architectural style allowed in our downtown. Variety is nice, including some *gasp* contemporary design! But my point is that it isn’t healthy or productive for Berkeley to continually re-hash this debate about downtown out of fear of ruining something precious. Yes, it’s important to be thoughtful, but c’mon! We’ve had the debate many times over now — the public expression of endorsement of taller buildings has not been reached in haste! Apologies to Mr. Peterson: I don’t genuinely think your comments puts you in the same category as those with the bullshit nostalgic “me” generation ethos. I’m just frustrated.

  • Charles_Siegel

    Thanks for this comment. I appreciate your honesty.

  • guest

    >It is possible to design new buildings that are in keeping with the city’s character,

    So would you suggest sticking with the 12-story height limit, based on current building heights in Berkeley?

  • guest

    >Change just for the sake of change is pointless.

    So then that’s not the problem here, since in this case we’re talking about change that 2/3 of Berkeley voters agreed to that is resulting in projects that would help revive downtown by increasing density and help relieve pressure on the rental market by increasing the number of available units in Berkeley.

  • since1927

    If a large part of the argument for passing measure R was: “urban density is good for the environment”, then Berkeley setting green-construction standards high enough that developers choose to move their high-density construction to places like El Cerrito next to BART (which, by the way, has a population density of 6,400/sq mi compared to Berkeley’s 10,752/sq mi), then Berkeley still wins something. Berkeley should not be the only east bay city to consider increased urban density, if what we are really concerned with is the environment.

  • bfg

    Ask some baby boomers whose kids have graduated into an economy with few decent paying jobs if their nest are empty.

  • Headout

    There is a recent study that showed that LEED buildings in dc are actually less efficient than non LEED buildings.


    The reality is that no one has a greater incentive to reduce energy usage in commercial buildings than the developer, as these real estate assets are valued based largely on their ability to create NET income. That is income – expenses, (for all you academics that don’t need to know that to make a living). So keeping expenses low by reducing energy usage increases NET income and asset value. If we eliminate all these ridiculous requirements that seemingly don’t actually produce any benefit developers could redeploy all the money they now spend on fancy consultants and lawyers to navigate the morass of rules and regulations on actually constructing more energy efficient buildings, and creating housing that pencils at less than super premium rents.

    Why can’t we build affordable housing you ask? Look in the mirror.

  • guest

    A little bit of searching revealed that leedexposed.com is a project of the Environmental Policy Alliance, which has four projects:

    Big Green Radicals, which bashes Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, and Food and Water Watch.

    Green Decoys, which targets hunting and fishing groups that certain powers think are too environmentalist;

    LEED Exposed, which goes after sustainable certification in buildings;

    EPA Facts, which targets the actual Environmental Protection Agency.

    The leedexposed page contains some good points, such as criticism of the LEED point system, but it contains much more standard right-wing rhetoric.

    Leed Exposed is one of several front groups funded by large corporations and run by Richard Berman. For more information, see http://bermanexposed.org/

  • guest

    Since some people need a citation to prove the obvious, here it is:

    The number of people living alone in America rose from 17% in 1970 to 27% in 2007, and the average household size declined from 3.1 people in 1970 to 2.6, according the latest 2007 figures recently released by the US Census Bureau.

    You can see that people living alone is the household type that has increased most rapidly by looking at the graph on http://www.marketingcharts.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2009/10/census-bureau-households-by-size-1970-2007.jpg

  • guest

    Change for the sake of fulfilling thoughtful public expression reached after lengthy deliberation! I’m cool with that.

  • guest

    I don’t know enough to have an opinion about most of those groups, but the in the last decade the Sierra Club has stopped being an environmental watchdog group and morphed into a NIMBY-pandering donation mill and deserves a fair amount of bashing.

  • Jesse Townley

    No, the responses of the Mayor and one Councilmember to his initiative are hurting our initiatives.

  • guest

    If you will still be collecting in July, then you are not planning to get this on the 2014 ballot.