Community Splits Over Downtown Plan

Photo: <b>The Downtown Area Plan</b> seeks to revitalize the district, particularly by making it more environmentally, pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly.
Kevin Hahn/Photo
The Downtown Area Plan seeks to revitalize the district, particularly by making it more environmentally, pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly.

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Plans to develop and rehabilitate the Downtown area have reached a stalemate as Berkeley community members and city officials remain entrenched on how best to revitalize the area.

The Downtown Area Plan, which lays out guidelines for development, was approved by the Berkeley City Council in July 2009 but sparked enough community dissent to enable a successful referendum campaign that could bring the issue to the June 2010 ballot.

The council has until March to revise its plan and gain community approval to prevent the issue from going to voters in June.

The plan has encountered a roadblock as many vocal residents claim it aids development at the cost of quality of life in the city.

In the most recent incarnation of the ongoing debate, a public forum to discuss ways to move forward with the plan was held Jan. 25.

Councilmembers Jesse Arreguin and Laurie Capitelli represented the two schools of thought regarding the plan and led the panel discussion.

"All of us on the panel want the Downtown to improve," Arreguin said. "But the question is how to go about that."

Arreguin sat on the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee, which after a three-year process, submitted its own plan to the city Planning Commission, where further changes were made before it went to the council for additional modifications.

Some community members feel the council-approved plan does not reflect the original DAPAC recommendations, which were the result of more than 100 meetings with residents.

Only Arreguin and Councilmember Kriss Worthington voted against the final council plan in July 2009. Both were members of the Alliance for a Green and Livable Downtown, which sponsored the referendum campaign that gathered 9,200 signatures against the plan a month later.

Since the plan's approval at council, Arreguin, Worthington and many community members have voiced concern that the plan needs stricter limitations for development in the Downtown, especially concerning building height.

"Having development at a more human scale represents Berkeley," Arreguin said at the forum.

Arreguin also said that he is holding out for stronger worker protections for those involved in the development and that the plan needs to provide for more affordable housing.

But Joel Ramos, a TransForm community planner who spoke with Capitelli in support of the plan, said the city will be able to use developer fees to fund affordable housing measures and transportation improvements.

"We can get the developers to pay for the infrastructure that we need and want here in the city of Berkeley, especially in Downtown," he said.

At its Jan. 26 meeting, the Berkeley City Council also created the joint subcommittee for the Street & Open Space Improvement Plan (SOSIP), which has similar goals of revitalization for the Downtown area.

The committee will establish a design and financing strategy for the creation of a "more livable environment" within the same boundaries considered by the Downtown Area Plan, according to the city report.

The plan will focus on making the Downtown more pedestrian-, biker- and environmentally friendly and is funded by a grant with matching funds from the city, said Matt Taecker, the city's principal planner for the area.

Taecker said that the process of forming the Downtown Area Plan brought to light community priorities and supported the SOSIP's creation.

"While the Downtown Area Plan is not in effect, all the thinking that the community gave to streets and open spaces will provide a good foundation," he said.

Though the SOSIP is a separate city venture, Taecker said that it would similarly benefit from developer fees.

"They are only connected in what the financial capacity of the downtown might be," Taecker said. "The division would be the same whether the Downtown Area Plan moves forward or not, but the financial capacity might not."

One project to be considered under the SOSIP is the "Strawberry Creek at Center Street" plan, for which a community meeting was held Jan. 28.

The plan is in the schematic phase, but emphasizes turning Center Street into a pedestrian passageway based around the area's natural water flow designed by architect Walter Hood, a professor of Landscape Architecture & Environmental Planning and Urban Design at UC Berkeley.

"This is an amazing opportunity to create a welcoming environment for people who live here and people who visit here," said Kirstin Miller of EcoCity Builders, the nonprofit organization sponsoring the plan. "That's what many people feel is missing from the Downtown."

Worthington said that the Center Street plan has been embraced by planners at every stage of the process.

"This component of the Downtown Area Plan, nobody argued against it," he said. "This was the most exciting presentation we'd heard in a year."

Despite the enthusiasm, the plan will stay in limbo until council and community can decide on how to proceed with the Downtown Area Plan, Miller said.

After four years of extensive planning, much of the community is emphasizing the need to simply move forward.

"As a citizen of Berkeley and someone who cares about the Downtown, I really want to see you guys get together and work this out," said Elyce Judith Klein of Citizens for Strawberry Creek Plaza at the forum Monday. "Sitting here watching the presentation, the plans adopted by the city council and the DAPAC aren't even that far apart."


Sarah Springfield covers city government. Contact her at [email protected]

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