City Grapples With Historically Contentious Downtown Plan

Photo: Downtown Berkeley has seen several proposals for revitalization over the past five years. Residents will vote on the issue in November.
Anna Vignet/Photo
Downtown Berkeley has seen several proposals for revitalization over the past five years. Residents will vote on the issue in November.

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Downtown Area Plan analysis

City News Editor Tomer Ovadia speaks with reporter Sarah Springfield about the status and history of the Downtown Area Plan to revitalize downtown Berkeley.

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After years of debate, city leaders seem to finally be on the verge of implementing the perennially contentious Downtown Area Plan, which is designed to breathe new economic life into the area.

The plan, which would serve as the governing document for Downtown Berkeley development and aims to revitalize the area, has been at the center of an ongoing political struggle for the last five years.

As a result of the stalemate, development, as well as numerous attempts to establish public transportation and environmental projects in the Downtown area, have been kept at bay.

Already the product of more than 150 meetings between city officials and the community, the plan will undergo a few more months of adjustments before reaching voters in November.

The plan that will finally hit the ballot this fall is one of many compromises, especially after the council's 8-1 approval of Mayor Tom Bates' alterations to the plan at a Feb. 23 meeting.

Bates' plan has gathered additional support because it strikes a palatable balance between development and its opponents by recognizing needs for affordable housing and placing stricter limitations on building heights.

"There's no plan that's perfect, but this is one of the most creative and innovative plans and will create a vibrant, green Downtown," Bates said.

In consideration of the changes to the plan-lauded by the council and community as a turning point in the process-a public hearing will be hosted by the city's Planning Commission on April 28 at the North Berkeley Senior Center. Another hearing before the council will follow on June 22.

Despite recent steps toward completing what has been a long and tiring process for residents and city staff alike, political divisions that prevented the plan's implementation since its July 2009 approval have continued to play a large role in the stalled development of an acceptable substitute measure.

Before proposals for the plan even reached the council, they were considered by the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee and the Planning Commission, both of which compiled separate recommendations that sometimes included ideas for the area that were incompatible with each other.

Community members served on both the committee and Planning Commission, and the two bodies held a series of meetings between residents and city officials before forwarding their recommendations to the council.

Still, complaints from residents regarding the process's transparency have been frequent.

Councilmembers Kriss Worthington and Jesse Arreguin, who were the only two council members to oppose the original version of the plan, echoed these concerns when the proposals made their way to the council's agenda in early 2009.

Following the council's extensive engagement of community members and internal debate of the issue, council members voted 7-2 in favor of the plan in July 2009, despite lingering opposition among the community.

Even though the final tally showed strong support for the plan from council members, a month later, Worthington and Arreguin led a referendum campaign against it, which gathered 9,200 signatures and slated the issue for the June 2010 ballot.

But to prevent the unpopular plan from going to voters, the council voted unanimously Feb. 23 to rescind the version that had triggered such widespread community dissent.

At the same meeting, the council approved in an 8-1 vote Bates' new proposals, which responded directly to resident concerns as articulated in the referendum movement and also somewhat assuaged original complaints against the plan.

Many community members who spoke at the meeting said the newest version of the plan sufficiently addressed their worries-enough so to turn Worthington's vote and prompt Arreguin to call it a "small victory for the people," despite voting against it.

The city may still have to contend with a vocal base of opposition before the matter is settled, many residents have said.

Many of those who still oppose the plan-even in its most recent incarnation-claim the city's goal of Downtown revitalization is too closely related to UC Berkeley's own plans for development, articulated in its 2020 Long Range Development Plan.

That plan sparked a lawsuit from the city due to environmental concerns in 2002. In the settlement, the parties agreed to replace the city's 1990 Downtown Area Plan, which still remains in effect while the new plan is developed.

Critics of this agreement allege the city, especially Bates, is making undue, back-room concessions to the campus.

"It all goes back to the mayor signing an agreement with the university that we were going to have a new Downtown plan ... without bringing it to the public or all of his colleagues," said former mayor Shirley Dean, who lost to Bates in 2002 and opposed him in the 2008 election.

But council members have maintained that the old plan is "outdated" and ready to be replaced, as it fails to draw people to the area, which is a priority for the city during the economic downturn.

For now, the only dissenting voice left on the council is Arreguin's, who sat on the Downtown committee and whose district includes the Downtown.

Despite the plan's contentious history, Bates and other proponents have consistently said they believe most residents are not opposed to the current plan and expect it to finally be implemented after going before voters in November.

"We're moving forward with the primary objective," said Will Travis, who had served as the commissioner of the committee. "I think it's a wise decision to put it on the ballot so we can really see what everybody thinks, not just the group of people who are complaining."


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

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