Berkeley mayor to push for civic center overlay, also hopes it will reduce support for downtown ‘green’ initiative

Bates wants the city council to adopt a zoning overlay to protect historic buildings in the civic center area, like Veterans' Memorial Hall. He admits he hopes the push will undermine support for a Downtown Green Initiative scheduled for November ballot. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Bates wants the City Council to adopt a zoning overlay to protect historic buildings in the civic center area, like Veterans’ Memorial Hall. He admits he hopes the push will undermine support for a downtown zoning initiative scheduled for November’s ballot. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Mayor Tom Bates has decided to push for a civic center overlay that will protect the Main Post Office, and admits he hopes his support will undermine the downtown zoning initiative scheduled for the November ballot.

Bates wants Berkeley to adopt the exact language of the initiative, which was put forward by City Councilman Jesse Arreguín, in part because of Arreguín’s frustration that council had not adopted the overlay previously. Arreguín first introduced the overlay idea in July 2013. Council sent the item to the city Planning Commission for review and, after discussing it at a September meeting, referred it back to city staff.

Bates now wants council to discuss the overlay at its June 24 meeting, and to consider an ordinance at its Sept. 9 meeting. Bates will suggest that timeline at an Agenda Committee meeting today (Item 21).

“There is general agreement on the council that we would like to save the Post Office, and this is a good way to do it,” said Bates.

Bates said he believes the downtown zoning initiative, formally known as the Green Downtown & Public Commons Initiative, will be defeated in November, so council should take separate action to enact the overlay.

“This way we will protect the post office by taking action in the first part of September,” he said.

Bates also admits that adopting the overlay might undermine one of the most appealing aspects of the initiative. Most of the measure is technical and complicated and addresses height, housing, open space and parking issues in the downtown core. The civic center overlay portion of the initiative, in contrast, can be easily described as “help save the post office.” Opponents are worried that people will vote for the overlay, not fully understanding that the initiative will affect the increased density Berkeley approved when it adopted Measure R in 2010.

Read more about the specifics of the downtown initiative.

Arreguín is pleased that council will push for stronger protection for the post office on Allston Way, which the U.S. Postal Service has put up for sale. But he said the November initiative will still be needed to lock in the protections. Different members of the City Council have expressed differing ideas on what the overlay should do, he said. Some have even advocated that businesses be allowed to establish restaurants there, or pursue other commercial activity.

“We can’t trust the council majority to pass strong zoning,”said Arreguín. “There is nothing stopping the council from rescinding the ordinance or modifying it. There is no guarantee we will have a strong overlay.”

Arreguín said it is clear Bates is pushing the overlay now — after dallying in the past — for political reasons.

“The timing is apparent,” he said. “They are doing this to try and undermine the initiative. But if the initiative is a catalyst to get the council to pass this policy, great.”

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

Community members protest the proposed sale of the Berkeley Post Office in 2012;  Photo: Daniel Parks

The overlay in the downtown initiative, and the language Bates wants to use for a city ordinance, designates that the 13 historic structures around Old City Hall cannot be used for commercial purposes. The plan would require that the structures, which include the post office on Allston Way, the Veteran’s Memorial Building, Old City Hall, the Courthouse, Civic Center Park, the Civic Center building, the YMCA, portions of the Berkeley Community Theater and Little Theater, and Berkeley High School, be used for community activities, cultural activities, and educational and civic uses. It would also allow a public market and live theater. No residential or mixed-use development would be allowed.

Arreguín introduced the overlay to try to thwart the U.S. Postal Service’s attempts to sell the Main Post Office, which has been listed on the National Registrar of Historic Places. Arreguín and other officials want to keep postal services at that location. They don’t want a developer to transform that building into a restaurant or a hotel.

The hope is that the overlay will make it less likely that developers purchase the structure.

Bates also said he decided to push for an overlay now because he had grown increasingly frustrated with his dealing with the U.S. Postal Service. As one element of its multi-part attempt to stop the sale of the post office, Berkeley has been trying to become the “holder of the covenant” of the building. Since the post office is landmarked, the U.S. Postal Service has to enter into an agreement with a third party to ensure that the public has access to the landmarked items. In Berkeley’s case, that would mean that the public could get inside to see the murals and historic architecture.

The language the U.S. Postal Service gave to the city is “totally unacceptable,” said Bates. But if the city cannot come to terms with the government and walks away from negotiations, the U.S. Postal Service can find another third party who may only open the building once a year to the public, he said. This possible impasse made Bates feel it was urgent to adopt a civic center overlay sooner rather than later, he said.

Bates said he has heard that at least three groups — at least one non-profit and one commercial — have expressed interest in buying the post office. There may be more.

The U.S. Postal Service is not publicly discussing potential buyers.

Related:
Would new green initiative kill two downtown highrises? (05.14.14)
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 
(03.21.12)

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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  • Name

    >Opponents are worried that people will vote for the overlay, not fully
    understanding that the initiative will affect the increased density
    Berkeley approved when it adopted Measure R in 2010.

    And rightly so since Arreguin’s signature gatherers got people to sign the petition for his attempt to repeal Measure R by telling them that it would “save the post office” and omitting the information about what it would do to downtown development.

  • John Freeman

    “Opponents are worried that people will vote for the overlay, not fully understanding that the initiative will affect the increased density Berkeley approved when it adopted Measure R in 2010.”

    No, opponents are worried that will people will vote for the ballot measure at all, for any reason, period.

    Opponents believe that by promoting this idea that other aspects of the measure are too “technical and complicated” for the ballot they can split off some of the vote.

    It should tell you something about these opponents that they can’t manage to even kick off their campaign against this measure without trying to convince us that our neighbors are stupid.

  • stuckinthemiddle

    I’m going to copy in the same comment I made about 10 months ago on the post office topic:
    I thought the job of a mayor would be to enable safe, pleasant, and affordable ways for citizens to conduct their social and commercial interactions. I’m still not sure how keeping that building under federal post office auspices meets any of those needs at the present time. The post office has said they will still keep a presence open in downtown Berkeley for mail services. They’ll move back end services to a more industrial area in Berkeley. If the building is able to be sold with preservation stipulations to an enterprise that brings in tax revenue and and brings more appropriate commerce to downtown it’s really a winning proposition for all sides. So what’s the problem exactly?

  • terry94705

    What is an overlay?

  • http://berkeleyside.com Frances Dinkelspiel

    It’s an area with special zoning. This is what I wrote

    The overlay in the Downtown Green Initiative, and the language that Bates wants to use for a city ordinance, designates that the thirteen historic structures around Old City Hall cannot be used for commercial purposes. The plan would require that the structures, which include the post office on Allston Way, the Veteran’s Memorial Building, Old City Hall, the Courthouse, Civic Center Park, the Civic Center building, the YMCA, portions of the Berkeley Community Theater and Little Theater, and Berkeley High School, be use for community activities, cultural activities, and educational and civic uses. It would also allow a public market and live theater. No residential or mixed use development would be allowed.

  • guest

    Multiple reports of Arreguin’s signature gatherers misleading those whose signatures they were collecting lead to the easy conclusion that similar misleading would be done on the subject come the next election.

    When people like Arreguin’s signature gatherers are being purposefully deceptive I don’t think it makes my neighbors “stupid” to be mislead.

  • VoteGREEN

    >the part about what it would would do to downtown development

    You mean how it would require high green standards?

    Or do you mean how it would block the loophole that allows developers to essentially bribe the ZAB to avoid following Berkeley laws?

    Let’s have development in downtown Berkeley that follows Berkeley laws.

    That is the essence of this initiative.

  • John Freeman

    It sounds like it must have been very confusing and upsetting to you. Are you feeling better now?

    hear them ask people to “Save the post office!” with no mention at all of the Measure R impacts of the measure.

  • guest

    In what way do you think this comment aids discussion? In what way do you believe that your continued defense of purposeful deception in local politics is of assistance to the community?

  • Name

    No, I mean the part about how it would add ridiculous requirements and effectively undo the changes voters approved when they passed Measure R with a 2/3 majority.

  • Emily

    Wrong. It would solidify the promises made to us when we voted for Measure R, which have not been kept.

  • John Freeman

    Ask someone who might know, like the Mayor, or “guest”.

    In what way do
    you believe that your continued defense of purposeful deception in local
    politics is of assistance to the community?

  • B. Williams

    I was approached twice in two different places (Monterey Market and North Berkeley BART) and both times was told that the signatures were to “save the post office” with no mention of any of the rest of it.

  • guest

    Wrong. It would undo most of what voters approved when they voted for Measure R. Read the comments from the recent Berkeleyside articles about this subject for more information.

    http://www.berkeleyside.com/2014/05/14/would-new-green-initiative-kill-two-downtown-high-rises/#disqus_thread

  • Chris J

    Well, I have nothing against a green initiative, however it’s put together, but I’m not sure that a lot of developers will go for it. Certainly forward thinking types, but most will say: Emeryville. Oakland.

  • guest

    When you defend signature gatherers for Arreguin’s initiative deceiving voters by only informing them of a tiny portion of what the initiative they are signing would do, YOU are the one defending deception in local politics.

    How do YOU believe that YOUR defense of deception in local politics is of assistance to the community?

  • VoteGREEN

    Have you even read Measure R?
    This initiative essentially enforces Measure R’s requirements.

  • Completely_Serious

    Post office. Grey pony tail. BMW 2002 (or better, 1600). “Don’t Blame Me, I’m from Massachusetts.” Mayor Bates.

  • John Freeman

    The signature gatherers didn’t deceive anyone. You have gone on (and on and on) for weeks now about your crazy assumption that barking “Save the post office!” was some great deception. It’s nonsense.

    Say it a few more times though. You really do seem upset and confused and, no, not feeling better. So get it out of your system! Tell us again how angry you are at Arreguin!

  • guest

    What is things that have gotten really, really old?

  • FosterBoondoggle

    I was also approached at least 3 times in front of Berkeley Bowl by sig. gatherers for this saying it was to “Save the Post Office”. When I once looked at the text and said it didn’t look like that’s what it was for, the guy shrugged and moved on to someone else.

  • FosterBoondoggle

    The downtown area is sure to be improved by the permanent presence of a 1/2 block square empty building! Since it was built with public money 90 years ago for a purpose it no longer serves well, it must be preserved in amber rather than being reused to benefit the public in some other way. Murals! Unions! A facade! So many reasons!

    With continued efforts, we can proceed towards that glorious day when downtown Berkeley is just a beautiful expanse of empty landmark buildings. Between that and the tax exempt Cal campus, there might be just a little trouble with the city’s expenses, but we can always impose confiscatory taxes on any remaining businesses having the temerity to — gasp — try to make a living in the area.

  • Completely_Serious

    Close. “Pat, I’d like to buy an ‘R'”, please.

    “There are 2 Rs.”
    _RR_ _ _ _ _ _ _

  • guest

    Telling someone that their signature or vote for Arreguin’s ballot initiative will “save the post office” and omitting the fact that it will also throw up a myriad of development obstacles that will largely undo things that voters approved with Measure R is political deception, plain and simple.

    I’m sorry you think that deception through omission is an acceptable way to try to gain public support. It seems odd that someone who so regularly champions sunshine initiatives and speaks so frequently and garrulously about the issue of transparency in government would think that attempting to pull the wool over the eyes of the voters in this way is an acceptable thing to do.

    Splitting the issue of saving the post office from downtown development makes sense and gives voters more of a choice since not everyone who wants to save the post office also wants to curtail downtown development and vice versa. Your attacks on attempts to give voters more of a choice by splitting measures like this are disappointing.

  • eriksf

    “It would also allow a public market and live theater. No residential or mixed use development would be allowed”. For me this is key. The post office transformed into a public market would be a stunning addition to the Berkeley landscape!

  • guest

    By ‘really, really old’ I meant, of course, tired and irrelevant rather than chronologically advanced – except for the 2002 which I would love to have.

  • guest

    I was approached two different times, one in the NB BART station and one in the DT. BOTH times I was told it was “merely an effort to protect the Post Office”. When I pressed about the rest of the document I was told that those provisions were “there to insure the Post Office’s protection.” Lies. Both times. On the second occasion, when I pointed out the “morality” clause (places serving alcohol must close by midnight most nights) she was truly flummoxed and walked away “oh I didn’t know that was in there…”.

  • John Freeman

    How did dressing down the signature gatherer on the basis that you already knew more than she did make you feel? And what is it supposed to prove to the rest of us other than you have an unrealistic view of the role of signature gatherers?

  • guest

    2002. Me too. And I’m old.

  • Mbfarrel

    I too was approached by a signature gatherer at NB Bart. The come on was “Save the Post Office.” Interesting that there was no mention of save downtown or any other description of the initiative.
    But of course a little truth is often more effective than a big lie.

  • John Freeman

    Were you deceived? It doesn’t sound like and you haven’t said so. Was this your first time encountering signature gathering?

    But of course a little truth is often more effective than a big lie.