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.

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  • Doc

    The Berkeley styled progressive, who have blessed us with People’s Park, Telegraph such as it is, perpetual war with the University and BUSD false registration, see power slipping away. This is another attempt to fight against dreaded prosperity.


    Jesse Arreguin: Anti-development, anti-business, anti-Berkeley.

  • elrod

    People’s Park and the empty lot on Telegraph don’t provide any community benefits either. How come no word from Arreguin regarding those spaces?

  • M.E. Lawrence

    Can we only attain prosperity by building demi-skyscrapers? Is there not a middle road between neglecting/mismanaging Telegraph Avenue and further enriching developers? I’m quite fond of prosperity, for myself and others, but I don’t want to see downtown Berkeley become another concrete canyon.

  • John Freeman

    Berkeleyside (emphasis added):

    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,

    Actual ballot question (formatting and emphasis added):

    Shall the City of Berkeley adopt policies to revitalize the downtown and help make Berkeley one of the greenest cities in the United States by

    meeting our climate action goals;

    concentrating housing, jobs and cultural destinations near transit, shops and amenities;

    preserving historic resources;

    enhancing open space;

    promoting green buildings;

    and calling for 2 residential buildings and 1 hotel no taller than our existing 180 foot buildings and 2 smaller office buildings up to 120 feet?

    It seems to me that the voters sought to limit heights and numbers of tall buildings, not that they “wanted to see” 180-foot or 120-foot high rises.

    That voters voted for preservation.

    That voters voted for open space.

    That voters voted for “green” building standards.

    The voters most decidedly did not vote “oh please, give us high rises.”

  • Fair criticism John. I was trying to avoid the use of “approve or approval” twice in one sentence, which is why I wrote it that way.

  • pstaylor

    Urban density is green, and the bay area isn’t getting any bigger. We have to build up. It’s also not a zero-sum game – if someone wants to build a hotel, that doesn’t mean that someone else can’t build an apartment complex. Also, allowing more units to be built will help make housing more affordable. Part of the reason why it is so expensive is because there is so little inventory.

  • Bill N

    True and though I only live 4 blocks from downtown I am quite happy to see these developments taking place. I want more pedestrian traffic and people downtown. The Height limits are just that limits and I certainly knew what I voted for – buildings similar in height to the two tall building already downtown.

  • EricPanzer

    “Arreguín said he has been pushing the City Council for seven years to
    solidify many community benefits that are now only outlined generally.”

    Developers are already required to do the following when building anything in Downtown Berkeley under the Downtown Area Plan:
    • Meet LEED Gold or equivalent. (§23E.68.085 Green Building Provisions)
    • Provide car sharing opportunities. (§23E.68.080 Parking, Subsect. I)
    • Provide on-site bike parking. (§23E.68.080 Parking, Subsec. C)
    • Provide transit passes for project’s residents and/or employees. (§23E.68.080 Parking, Subsec. H)
    • Make pretax transit commuter benefits available to residents and/or employees. (§23E.68.080 Parking, Subsect. H-2)
    • Pay a fee for Downtown SOSIP improvements. (§23E.68.075 Fee to Implement Streets and Open Space Improvement Plan (SOSIP) – Fee adoped by City in January 2013)
    • Pay an affordable housing mitigation fee and/or provide affordable housing per City policy. (City adopted fee in October 2012)

    The DAP further states:

    Policy LU-2.2: Additional Community Benefits for Buildings Exceeding 75 Feet. Developers of buildings in excess of 75 feet must provide significant community benefits beyond what would otherwise be required. These may include: affordable housing, supportive social services, green features, open space, transportation demand features, job training, and/or employment opportunities. The applicable public benefi t requirements shall be included as conditions of approval and the owner shall enter into a written agreement that shall be binding on all successors in interest.

    This was purposefully intended to be flexible so the Zoning Adjustments Board and the City Council could discretion as individual projects were proposed. As show in the City’s own feasibility studies, taller buildings of the height being permitted in Berkeley are economically tenuous because of their much higher construction costs. Arreguín’s proposal would not only remove this flexibility, but make it impossible to make any changes without time-consuming and expensive subsequent citywide votes.

    Worse yet, because Arreguín’s proposal changes the height cutoff from 75 to 60 feet, even six-story buildings would be rendered infeasible. This measure masquerades as community benefits and “green” practice but is actually just a thinly veiled attempt to cap building heights at five stories in the Downtown.

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

    Yes, Councilmember Arreguín, it is amazing how much community support you can get by misleading the community about the content and consequences of your measure.

  • guest

    Why do you hate developers so much?

    More housing in downtown = more people in downtown.
    More people in downtown = a more prosperous downtown.

    Time to stop pretending we’re a sleepy suburb like Orinda and start acting like members of the greater Bay Area.

  • John Freeman

    Yeah yeah yeah… it’s the divergence between what measure R made it sound like we were getting and where things are now going that is at issue. Does it slow down future flexibility if revising the code further would take another ballot? Yes. Is that a reasonable consequence when voters don’t see their votes respected? Damn straight.

  • John Freeman

    My guess is that in the future people will see the two current tall towers plus any new ones as white elephants, about as tragic and stupid as people today regard the history of ripping up light rail. One has to be amazingly inattentive to think this kind of development downtown is some kind of win for the environment or local economy. Meanwhile, it promises to trash the character of a mostly-truly-human-scale built-environment that differentiates tiny little Berkeley among inner Bay Area cities.

  • Gus

    I’m a voter who was pretty happy with the way my Yes vote on Measure R was being respected. Now I’m pretty unhappy with the way CM Arreguin is flouting the wishes of 26,000 voters just to stir up a little election-year controversy.

    You voted no on Measure R anyway, so your attempt to represent the wishes of those you disagreed with in the first place is pretty transparent.

  • Gus

    Again, John, I voted for Measure R specifically because it increased density in the downtown core by allowing taller buildings.

    You were not a supporter of Measure R and the DAP in the first place, so your post hoc rationalizations are, predictably, wildly off base.

  • Marcia Poole

    People’s Park is the property of the University of California, not the city of Berkeley. UC is responsible for the condition of the park and, because of the park, the nearby neighborhood.

  • John Freeman

    I certainly didn’t mean to deny the existence of some voters who feel as you do, Gus.

  • M.E. Lawrence

    Again, there’s a middle road–in this case, between sleepy little Orinda and the Financial District, 17-story buildings and no development at all.

    (“Hate”? I can disagree with someone without hating that person.)

  • guest

    What we’ve been getting is exactly what I expected when I voted for Measure R.

    Do you have any evidence that a significant number of the 2/3 of Berkeley voters who voted in favor of that measure are unhappy with its results so far?

  • Hyper_lexic

    John, anyone who was even vaguely paying attention to Measure R knew that it was explicitly going to allow taller buildings downtown. That was the entire debate around it. So I think it’s accurate to say that those of us who voted for Measure R generally ‘wanted to see’ 180/120′ buildings.

    Perhaps there were a few people that thought they were voting for ‘green’ standards, and were shocked, shocked when they found out that taller buildings would be built downtown; but I suspect they were in the minority.

    I don’t disagree with you on everything, but arguments like this really lower your credibility.

  • Markos Moulitsas Zuniga

    Recall? Eh. Nothing he has done rises to that level.

    But a spirited and aggressive challenge when he is up for re-election? I’d love to help a credible alternative.

  • Markos Moulitsas Zuniga

    Enriching developers, lol. Who built the current downtown the preservationists want to keep? I’ll go out on a limb, but I’m guessing … developers?

    You know what else is terrible? All those stores downtown, with people getting enriched and stuff. That’s bad, apparently. And the banks? Actually, those are genuinely bad. But we’re kinda stuck with them.

    I was psyched when the voters signed off on allowing more density downtown. It’s the sustainable, environmental way forward, and will give us the kind of vibrant downtown Berkeley deserves. For a town that prides itself in its progressivism, it sure is held captive to the worst conservative tendencies. Not in the political sense, but in the “I hate change please don’t make me experience change” sense.

  • gues

    Do you have any clue how tall the buildings in the Financial District are?

    17 stories is the middle road.

  • guest

    Or build dorms on it. Or turn it into a parking lot. Or build luxury condos on it to sell at the peak of a market surge.

    There are about a million things the University would rather do with that property than maintain a campground for drug addicts and the mentally ill.

  • Chris J

    I kinda like tall buildings, and I wouldn’t mind seeing a few more in downtown Berkeley. We need more housing, as there are more people. If Arreguin’s amendments to the DAP result in the developers realizing that it’s not worth their time to jump through all the extra hoops, then I guess we will see who’s right.

    For me, its a moot issue. My retirement plans don’t include Berkeley for financial reasons–they don’t even include the state of California or these US of A. Like many retirees or pre-retirees, they’re looking for one last adventure (or series) retiring overseas where, at least, they can wrestle with new and different problems instead of the same ol’ stalemates in this PC burg.

  • Carlos “even more” Danger

    Well said!

  • Hildah

    Many of the signatures were collected under false pretense. People are being told that the only way to save the downtown post office is by signing the initiative and that is totally false. Dirty politics by this group of downers. I used to support the move to save the post office, now I am not so sure they deserve my support.

  • Albanyan

    Presumably you’ve read this article, and this far through the comments, yet still you ask?
    It’s Berkeley, Jake.

  • guest

    Jesse Arreguin & his associates are lying to Berkeley voters.

  • guest

    Jesse Arreguin & his associates are lying to voters. Arreguin’s anti-development campaign is an insult to Berkeley voters.

  • guest

    Anyone with even half a brain should be able to understand that votes for INCREASED height limits are the same thing as votes for taller buildings.

  • guest

    There are protests every time they try to clean up the park a little bit.
    Those who support the park do so using counter-factual arguments and anti-logic.


  • Enemy is the state

    Interesting. I’d ordinarily say build away, but I love the Kharrmic justice of a former rule making parasite having his policy bite him in the behind. Lesson to developers – NEVER align yourself with the enemies of freedom. They’re blood sucking scum and kharma is a mfer. Any state employee deserves to be shamed on principle.

  • Just a thought…

    >”Look it up, if you know how.”

    Or, if you want to be helpful and have a productive discussion, you could provide that information.

  • M.E. Lawrence

    Yes, sir or madam, I do know how tall the building in the Financial District are; I used to work there, on the 32nd floor at 44 Montgomery. (Note that for all its development, San Francisco is unaffordable for most families these days, but that’s a different story.)

    I am not against development. I would love to see Shattuck and Center transformed into a beautiful pedestrian precinct full of fountains, art, sidewalk cafes, and, yes, tall buildings. But could the tall buildings be, say, six stories high? Seven stories? Eight stories? I don’t recall that Measure R mandated 17-story buildings.

  • Done with Arreguin

    Jesse lives in a rental because he has mistaken his city council job for full employment.

  • samothrellim

    It would be helpful to see the math that supports developers’ conclusion that the petition’s requirements are untenable.

  • Guest

    I walk downtown every day. It’s a pleasant place on a very human scale. An especially appealing little street is Harold Way between Allston and Kittredge where the Tibetan Buddhists have their college and store.

    Every time I go there, I shudder at the idea of a 17-story building in the heart of the downtown, right across the street from the Buddhists. It will block out the sky and make traffic and parking even more difficult than it already is. Construction will take years and during the snarl that will create, I wonder how many small, locally-owned businesses in the area will perish.

    I would like to know how many vacant apartments there are right now in all these downtown complexes. From the omnipresent vacancy signs, I suspect there are many, and –if this is true– why do we need 17 more floors of apartments?

    If to build up is green, okay. But why in the world do the developers not move a few blocks south, just past Dwight, to areas that are underutilized. There aren’t so many businesses to destroy in the process of construction, and new apartment buildings would still be within easy walking distance of BART (Ashby or Center).

  • Dan Gerous

    I told people it was to stop a nuclear waste dump slated for Provo Park!!! Whoever is making these insulting and untrue statements about VOLUNTEERS like myself who explained EXACTLY what people are were signing and why (AD NAUSEUM I may add.) and even photocopied articles that explained it in less legalese for folks to read…. Are lying their arses off. I feel putting this to the VOTERS deserves my support and expressed my support gathering signatures in 94+ degree weather. What i do not deserve is being portrayed as dishonest when in fact I am trying to keep BIG MONEY and the politicians they buy…Honest.

  • guest

    …says this guy in his book.
    This is called a theory, not a fact.

  • Ohlone Way

    I find it interesting that when Tom Bates, John Caner and the Chamber of Commerce were all hot for Measure S. They stated again and again how harmless and inexpensive it was to “Just put it on the ballot and let the voters decide.” but now that it is on the other foot. This is an outrage and subversion of our very democracy. There are people still able to think for themselves and telling what to, and what not to support. Is an insult coming from someone so obviously intellectually challenged.

  • berkeleyan

    Let the people decide!
    Wasn’t that the rallying call for Measure S supporters?
    Signing the petition isnn’t voting, it’s agreeing that the idea is worth considering.
    One could even, as I have, sign one of these and then vote AGAINST the resultant measure.
    Let’s see: do the people of Berkeley want higher green standards? That is the only question here.
    There are green developers, and they will build higher quality, longer lasting buildings.
    This IS worth consideration.

  • ms.isis

    Right on to the folks fighting these abominations! Berkeley does not need ANY high rise buildings downtown! Who in the world are they building these behemoths for. blocking out the sun and the bay?Center street is already a dark wasteland from the non-set back monstrosities forced on the community by the developers who are in bed with the mayor and the city council.

  • ms.isis

    Oh, the famous density pitch! Has anyone noticed how the rich live in Peidmont far away from density in there mansions surrounded by walled and gated gardens ? Why don’t we provide more OPEN public space ?

  • Hildah

    Many. I encourage anyone that signed the petition and wants their signature removed to call the City Clerk’s office and ask for instructions on how to remove their signature.

  • Bryan Garcia

    Won’t somebody PLEASE think of the Buddhists??

    Do you seriously prefer the almost completely blank building face on the east side of Harold Way (which also extends half a block east on Kitteredge and Allston)??? That’s a very low-traffic area for being right smack in the middle of downtown. I don’t feel comfortable walking down Harold Way alone at night because of how deserted it is.

  • Jc Flores

    Berkeley asks, hoping it happens magically. The university will plan something, protesters will gather like flies and harken back to some time that now only exists in their heads and fight any change to it. The city will then cowardly ‘stand with the people’. The university will then weigh the PR, time, and monetary costs involved with fighting this and will instead choose to focus on other capital projects. Meanwhile nothing gets done at People’s Park.

    If the city isn’t willing to stand tall against the owner of a decades long vacant lot in the middle of telegraph, it’s not going to do anything to help fix ( and would be incapable of anyway) the rat hole that is People’s Park. Basically, there’s a generation of crazies that needs to fade away before change can truly take place.

  • guest

    “Normal” families don’t want to live in the middle of a downtown area so it wouldn’t make sense to build housing for them there.

  • guest

    Who is the “we” that you want to provide more OPEN public space? How are “we” going to pay for it? Which “we” will maintain it? What “we” will shoo away the street people who try to set up campgrounds in it or use it as a toilet?

  • Reality Check

    Berkeley does not need ANY high rise buildings downtown!

    Berkeley already HAS high rise buildings downtown!

  • guest

    Signing the petition isnn’t voting, it’s agreeing that the idea is worth considering.

    The problem is that there are numerous accounts of Mr. Arreguin’s associates lying to Berkeley voters about the content of the petition they are signing.

    People are signing what they are being told is a petition to save the Post Office, not a petition to limit or halt downtown development.