Proponents of downtown development in Berkeley won two victories Thursday night after city leaders and commissioners approved a proposal for community benefits related to tall buildings and, in a separate meeting, certified the environmental impact analysis related to the first tall building in the pipeline, at 2211 Harold Way.
The Berkeley City Council held a special meeting at 5 p.m. at Longfellow Middle School to tackle the thorny subject of what significant community benefits should be required of developers who wish to construct tall buildings downtown. Seven tall buildings were approved when local residents voted in favor of the city’s Downtown Area Plan, but the type of significant community benefits required of those projects was left vague to allow flexibility during the entitlements process.
In recent years, city zoning board commissioners have expressed frustration about that ambiguity, and asked for more direction from council. Earlier this year, council launched a series of discussions aimed to clarify the requirements. Thursday night, city officials voted in favor of a compromise proposal from council members Lori Droste and Darryl Moore that will help guide the process going forward.
That proposal will now go to the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board for additional discussion.
Thursday night, the zoning board also met to discuss for the fourth time the environmental impact report (EIR) for the 2211 Harold Way project, a 302-unit complex contiguous to the Shattuck Hotel with six movie theaters — to replace the Shattuck Cinemas Landmark — and other ground-floor commercial features, as well as a large underground parking garage.
Throughout the night, many members of the public, including former mayor Shirley Dean, along with some officials, decried the decision to hold both meetings June 25. The discussions were separated by about 1½ hours, but community members said “double booking” them had been, at best, poor planning and, at worst, designed to reduce public participation in the back-to-back sessions.
The zoning board appeared poised to continue the Harold Way discussion once again, citing the need for additional details related to the construction impacts on Berkeley High School, but ultimately voted 5-3 (with one absence) to certify the EIR to allow the project to advance to the next stage. It is now scheduled for review before the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission on July 9 regarding structural alterations related to the project.
Tuesday night, council is slated to look at another aspect of the Harold Way project involving the view from Campanile Way on the UC Berkeley campus. The landmarks commission voted in April not to protect that view, of the San Francisco Bay, which would be partially blocked by the complex. That decision was appealed, and council is set to hear that appeal Tuesday, June 30. (A Berkeleyside story is forthcoming.)
The community benefits proposal
Approximately 60 members of the public addressed council Thursday night. Many of them asked the city to wait to take action on the community benefits requirements pending more analysis of what the market can bear. (A nexus study is currently underway.) Many said Berkeley is becoming too crowded, and that quality of life and the city’s limited resources will be impacted by more tall buildings downtown.
Some community members also noted that, given last week’s fatal balcony collapse at Library Gardens, the city should halt new construction pending the improvement of Berkeley’s approach to building inspection.
Others said they are looking forward to the taxes and fees that will come from the large projects planned downtown, and said both affordable housing and money for the arts should be high priorities for the city.
Those in favor of downtown development said city voters have twice put their support behind measures related to increasing downtown density, and asked council to take action Thursday night so more housing can be built, and the city can reap the associated benefits.
Prior to Thursday night’s meeting, there were two proposals on the table, a joint measure from Mayor Tom Bates and Councilman Laurie Capitelli, and an alternative presented by Councilman Jesse Arreguín. Thursday night, however, council members Droste and Moore passed out what they said was a compromise measure that included elements from both of those plans.
Droste apologized for the late submission, but said she and Moore had noted positive ideas in both prior proposals, and wanted to find a way to craft a consensus.
“Will everybody get what they want? Probably not, but that’s the nature of a compromise,” she said. “I hope that everyone is somewhat pleased and maybe only a little bit ticked off.”
Droste said she and Moore used Arreguín’s proposal as a framework, with affordable housing identified as the most important community benefit. The proposal includes an independent analysis as well as an enforcement mechanism aimed to make sure developers follow through with their promises.
Under the proposal, developers will submit a community benefits package to the city and have two options for how to proceed. Option A includes the inclusion of benefits related to affordable housing, labor and at least one other category from a menu of options, such as arts and culture, streets and open space, sustainability, historic restoration and social services.
Option B will set out a flat fee “predetermined by an independent financial consultant that would capture the highest reasonable value while maintaining financial feasibility of the project.” Those fees would be paid into a city fund used to support the range of benefits listed above.
According to the proposal, the University of California has agreed to comply voluntarily with the policies of the Downtown Area Plan, including its required significant community benefits, even though it is not required to do so by law.
Under the Droste-Moore proposal, which passed 8-1, with Councilman Max Anderson voting against it, Harold Way is set to follow a different course because it is already in the permitting pipeline. The fees for projects in the pipeline are set, preliminarily, at $100 per rentable residential square foot, from 75 feet to 120 feet high, and $150 for that same type of square footage from 121 feet to 180 feet high.
As part of the motion, council also voted to have the city manager or an independent consultant review the per-square-foot fee described above for financial feasibility.
That portion of the proposal — regarding projects in the pipeline — was split off for a separate vote. It passed, with council members Anderson, Kriss Worthington and Arreguín voting against it.
“The process from the beginning has been fraught with inadequacies,” Anderson said, of his dissent. Regarding the Droste-Moore proposal, he added, “Having been handed this tonight is not adequate time to study these things.”
Councilwoman Susan Wengraf said having a financial feasibility analysis would be good for the city. She said she had checked in with some associates in real estate who told her the proposed fees seemed to be high.
“We may be proposing higher community benefits than any other city in California,” she told her colleagues, to which several members of the crowd clapped and cheered, shouting, “Good for us!”
Capitelli, a real estate agent with Red Oak Realty, described the approach he took to arrive at the $100- and $150-per-square-foot fee amounts — calling “a bunch of management companies” to compare the rent they receive for upper-floor units vs. those lower down. He then calculated the increase and used it to come up with the fee.
He also said, even if the city is successful in collecting “pro formas,” which lay out the expected finances of a project in general terms, those documents are not necessarily reliable because small changes in the numbers can move the totals “all over the place.”
He told his colleagues that, going forward, it would be important to build housing for both the very-low income as well as “our schoolteachers, secretaries and others.” Otherwise, the city is likely to end up even more divided as a result of the growing wealth gap. He said he also hopes community members who support the construction of affordable housing will be realistic about what it will take to get it.
“There is no such thing as cheap housing,” said Capitelli. “There’s no such thing as inexpensive housing. All housing is expensive. It’s just a matter of how it’s paid for.”
The Harold Way EIR
When the council session ended, around 8:15 p.m., some audience members rushed over to the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board meeting at Old City Hall for the discussion related to the Harold Way environmental impact report.
The zoning board had promised not to begin discussion of Harold Way until after 8 p.m. As it turned out, an earlier agenda item, related to a proposed demolition on Durant Avenue — which ultimately was approved — did not conclude until about 9:40 p.m.
Ultimately, the zoning board said the city needed to work more closely with the Berkeley Unified School District to resolve concerns raised regarding construction impacts at the high school. Board members said those details should be worked out as part of the project’s conditions of approval, and that they would not ultimately approve the project’s use permit unless those issues — such as air quality, noise, construction, traffic, hours of construction, pedestrian safety and “sensitive hours” for Berkeley High — are addressed.
Project representative and former city of Berkeley planning manager Mark Rhoades told the board that any further delays related to the environmental report could put the project in jeopardy.
“The property owner has a limited amount of time that he can sit on this project,” he said, adding that the developer “cannot move forward with other decision points” until after the EIR had been certified. Rhoades said the draft EIR had been issued 14 months ago, and that the project was submitted to the city in December 2012.
Commissioners said the city should have done more to reach out to the school district, because Berkeley High is within the impacted area near 2211 Harold Way. But they also noted that the school district should have been more proactive about responding to the project notification it had received. According to city staff, the district did not respond with concerns until after the comments period for the EIR had ended.
Said Commissioner Richard Christiani, “The issue really is that a large building is going to most likely be built in accordance with the downtown plan, which was part of a democratic process.… I think we’re trying to make something go away that was part of the democratic process in how it got here. We’re on both sides of it, and we do hear you,” he told those in attendance.
Commissioners also asked city staff to provide a matrix outlining all the project’s environmental impacts and mitigations, which staff said has been created.
Members of the public in attendance said the board should not approve the EIR, because they believed it did not adequately address all the impacts or respond to concerns that had been raised.
“This process has been wrong from the outset,” said Paul Matzner, who has been leading the fight against the demolition and reconstruction of the Shattuck Cinemas Landmark. Matzner said a meeting early in the process had not adequately notified the school district about the project.
Others said the project would be “grossly out of scale” next to the historic Shattuck Hotel, and that the environmental impact report relied on a geotechnical document that was “already defunct.”
Said downtown resident Moni Law: “This is a horse that should not get out of the barn as currently saddled.” She said traffic and shadow impacts had not been adequately addressed.
The majority of the board said they felt the document was thorough and ready to be certified, as long as more detailed information related to Berkeley High is included later in the process as part of the conditions of approval.
Ultimately, the board voted 5-3 (with one absence) to certify the EIR. Commissioners Shoshana O’Keefe, Igor Tregb and John Selawsky (sitting in for Sophie Hahn) voted against the certification.
The EIR decision cannot be appealed until the project receives its final approval, staff told the board.
See more Berkeleyside coverage related to community benefits and the tall buildings planned for downtown. See tweet from both meetings for more detailed coverage. See more project documents on the city website. A PDF of the June 25 consultant presentation is also online.
With Harold Way EIR on hold pending new design, officials consider community benefits (05.20.15)
Council says affordable housing, union labor should be priority community benefits (05.07.15)
Berkeley officials seek feedback on ‘community benefits’ (04.14.15)
Council on community benefits, sewer fee increase, vaccines, parking permit expansion (04.07.15)
Berkeley Zoning Board considers community benefits of proposed downtown high-rise (01.12.15)
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