Local zoning plans usually don’t attract much attention from locals. But in Berkeley, where politics is a contact sport, the city’s new downtown plan—its first since 1990—has turned into a political war pitting city council members against each other and thousands of residents choosing sides.
COURTESY Planning and Development DEPT
In mid-July, the council approved the new plan by a vote of 7-2, which would bring taller buildings and more housing and jobs to the center of town. After four years and over 150 public meetings spent hashing out the plan, it looked like it was a winner. But shortly after its passage, the two dissenting council members kicked off a signature drive to let the public “vote” and, the dissenters hoped, overturn the plan. They had until August 20 to collect signatures from at least 5,558 Berkeley voters (10 percent of the roles) to force the city council to take a second look at the plan.
“As progressive as Berkeley is, there’s always some resistance to change,” said Matthew Taecker, the city planner in charge of the plan. By August 21, the city clerk had counted 9,200 signatures, and now the county registrar has a month to validate them. If there are enough, the city council will have to rescind the plan, call a special election, or place it on the ballot for the next scheduled election in June 2010. A special election is unlikely, Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates said, because it would cost the city $200,000, an amount it cannot afford.
But if the opposition is right, Bates had better be preparing for action. “We feel pretty confident we’ll be successful,” said Anthony Sanchez, spokesman for Council member Jesse Arreguin, who voted against the plan. Council members Arreguin and Kriss Worthington voted against the plan because it did not set aside enough units for affordable housing and allowed a larger number of taller buildings to be built.
The plan requires that only 20 percent of all housing units built downtown be affordable, and not 25 percent as Arreguin and Worthington had hoped. They also charge that developers can waive the sustainable and community benefits they would otherwise be forced to include under the existing plan.
Yet many of the protestors’ goals are already included in the plan in some way, city officials say. All new buildings must meet LEED Gold standard or higher, and development fees will be funneled back downtown. Berkeley already requires that 20 percent of all housing units built citywide must be affordable, so increasing the amount of moderately priced housing downtown could drive development out of the city center—contrary to the goals of the plan and a move Berkeley could ill afford during a recession. “Five percent of nothing is still nothing,” Taecker said. He also suggested that the real concern for the petitioners was height more than anything else.
If the referendum goes down in defeat, the plan will go into effect immediately. As passed, it allows developers to put up eight buildings rising from 100 feet to 225 feet. The city now caps building heights at 85 feet, or about 10 stories, although there are variances for affordable housing and sustainability inclusions. The plan also calls for the creation of large public open spaces, called “park blocks” and for smaller plazas; the modification of streets to top out car speeds at 25 miles per hour; and the further promotion of retail space downtown. New development fees would go to open space creation, landscaping, tree planting, and new street signs.
Given past history, even if the referendum passes, it may not succeed with voters. Seven years ago, a measure to reduce building heights along major streets failed in a citywide vote by 80 percent.
Bates has also threatened to sue the two council members if the referendum passes. While he has yet to meet with the city’s legal team, he is concerned that the wording of the referendum was deliberately misleading and did not accurately describe the zoning plan. “It seemed to us unreasonable that two people could circumvent the will of hundreds of people and years of meetings,” Bates said. “We have a really great plan and it’s sad to see this hiccup.”