Plan Would Make City a Model

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During the second half of the 20th Century, urban sprawl grew exponentially. As a result, much of the Bay Area's spectacular greenbelt of farms and natural areas was paved over. New developments were auto centered, long commutes became commonplace, and the suburbs grew to rival city centers in total population.

With the dawn of the 21st Century, people began to recognize problems associated with low-density urban sprawl. In particular, the San Francisco Bay Area is projected to grow from 7.2 million people in 2010 to over 9 million in 2035. If new development continues to sprawl outward on the urban edge, it will drain resources from existing cities and create longer commutes, more traffic, and more climate-changing greenhouse gases.

Berkeley adopted its last Downtown Plan, in 1990, after six years of gestation, before greenhouse gases or the world-wide web had entered the lexicon of the body public. Since then a successful new Arts District was created around live theatre & music, which is now a regional destination for tens of thousands of music and theatre lovers.

However, during the same time period, retail business moved to the malls and, later, web-based competition increased dramatically. Business downtown declined, vacant storefronts multiplied, draining not only the vitality, but also the tax base that helps pay for Berkeley's services. During the same time period, the population of the Downtown was constant.

In 2005, an effort to update the Downtown Plan was triggered by the University's expansion plans and concerns about humanity's impact on our climate. Both the City and the University recognized the benefits of a healthy, sustainable, livable and vibrant Downtown and agreed to a joint planning process to realize this goal.

To help make Berkeley a model green city and minimize environment impacts, residential growth should be located near job centers and transportation infrastructure. Since the Downtown area has a net job surplus, additional residents living downtown will enhance its economical vitality and help our local retail establishments and restaurants thrive. In addition, its proximity to an internationally renowned public university as well as its cultural and historic assets should attract regional and national visitors.

In 2009, after four years of public process, the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee and the Planning Commission submitted two very detailed, but different plans, to the City Council. The major difference was that the Planning Commission relied on an economic study, which concluded that taller buildings were financial feasible, whereas intermediate-sized ones were not, due to the added cost of steel construction and additional fire safety requirements for buildings taller than five stories.

After much deliberation, the Council passed a compromise version by a 7 to 2 vote. Subsequently, a group of citizens collected sufficient signatures for a referendum, claiming that Berkeley would turn into "another Manhattan" with skyscrapers. In response the Council rescinded the detailed compromise plan and created a conceptual plan with fewer tall buildings and a reduced maximum height limit, which addressed the bulk of the concerns articulated by the opposition. Before drafting all the details needed to implement this green vision, the Council decided to seek voter approval of its broad concepts and voted 7 to 2, to place the following proposition on the November 2010 ballot:

"Shall the City of Berkeley adopt policies to revitalize the downtown and help make Berkeley one of the greenest cities in the United States by meeting our climate action goals; concentrating housing, jobs and cultural destinations near transit, shops and amenities; preserving historic resources; enhancing open space; promoting green buildings; and allowing 2 residential buildings and 1 hotel not taller than our existing 180 foot buildings and 2 smaller office buildings up to 120 ft."

By limiting the number of new tall buildings to five and restricting their height to be less than or equal to the tallest existing building, the Council has addressed the opposition to very tall buildings. Under this green vision, new buildings in the Downtown will be required to meet the highest green design standards. By creating jobs and housing in the city core near public transit, Berkeley will become both a green and vibrant city.

For a City to be vibrant, it must be attractive to the Millennial Generation. To be green, it must have higher density to accommodate some of our region's future growth. Please support a Green Vision for the Downtown and make it both the destination and residence of choice for yours and future generations!

If you would like to learn more about the Council's Green Vision for the Downtown or get involved in realizing this vision, please don't hesitate to email me at [email protected]


Gordon Wozniak is a member of the Berkeley City Council. Reply to [email protected]

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