Commuters walk across Shattuck Avenue in downtown Berkeley on Sept. 22. In November Berkeley residents will vote on a building plan for the downtown area.
By Doug Oakley
Bay Area News Group - East Bay
A downtown Berkeley plan that includes height limits on new buildings, a streamlined permit process for builders who follow green guidelines and incentives for residents who don't own cars will go before voters Nov. 2.
The City Council placed the plan, known as Measure R, on the ballot in July after it rescinded a downtown plan it agreed to in 2009. The previous plan came under fire from opponents who said it did not require enough affordable housing and allowed too many tall buildings.
However, the plan now before voters says it will serve only "as guidance" for the City Council and allows for future "adjustments" to its policies.
Still, Mayor Tom Bates said, although the plan is only a guide, the council would be hard-pressed to circumvent its suggestions in a place such as Berkeley.
"It is a guide, but I think it will be awfully difficult for an elected city council to change the will of voters," Bates said. "What you see is what you will get, I think."
The policies include a maximum building height of 60 feet except for two new residential buildings and one hotel to be built with a maximum height of 180 feet, and two smaller office or residential buildings up to 120 feet.
City Councilman Jesse Arreguin, who leads the opposition to Measure R, said the plan lacks legal teeth, allows too tall buildings and shortens the time to review a building for landmarks status.
"We can bring more people downtown and have more vibrancy without buildings that tall," Arreguin said. "The heights have always been a big issue. I believe building up to 17 stories is unnecessary."
In addition Arreguin said the plan expands the downtown area into residential areas without adding a buffer zone.
"This is why leaders of some neighborhood groups are opposed to it," he said.
Bates said the plan will create a downtown "that will be one of the great environmental places in the United States." The whole idea is to get more people living in and visiting downtown to stimulate business and prevent people from driving their cars to other places for entertainment and activity, he said.
Part of the plan also requires that new construction meet international standards for energy savings, water efficiency and pollution emissions. It also requires new buildings to offer car sharing, bike parking and transit passes, as well as to incorporate open space or pay into a public open space fund. It requires residents of new buildings to rent parking spaces separate from their apartments.
For builders who want to go beyond those requirements, they can go through a streamlined approval process. The enhanced requirements to get the streamlined permit include providing 20 percent affordable housing and employing 30 percent of the project's workers from Berkeley.
Some of those lining up behind the plan before voters are the managing director of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Susan Medak, and Robert Reich, the former U.S. secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton and professor of public policy at UC Berkeley. Opponents of the plan include Arreguin and Patricia March, secretary of the Alameda County Green Party, among others.