Measure R Lets Voters Choose Plan for Future of Downtown

Photo: The Wells Fargo building is currently the tallest in Downtown, but Measure R seeks to have three taller structures - two capped at 120 feet and one potentially up to 180 feet tall.
Tim Maloney/Staff
The Wells Fargo building is currently the tallest in Downtown, but Measure R seeks to have three taller structures - two capped at 120 feet and one potentially up to 180 feet tall.

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Correction Appended

Voters headed to the polls next Tuesday will finally be presented with a tangible option for determining the future of Berkeley's Downtown, though an actual plan to govern development and encourage green practices in the area remains far from established.

Measure R, the Berkeley City Council's five-page answer to five years of squabbling over building heights, affordable housing, green living and development - all to bring new economic life to the Downtown - remains a controversial topic for local politicians and community members alike, as some say the measure leaves too many elements undefined and creates possible loopholes for developers, while others characterize it as a starting point toward a more viable Downtown.

The council approved the ballot measure in a 7-2 vote in July, with Councilmembers Kriss Worthington and Jesse Arreguin dissenting. Both have opposed multiple incarnations of the council's plans for the area and are up for re-election next week.

At the same meeting, the council also amended the city's General Plan to align it with the goals of the council's Downtown Area Plan and its synthesized version, Measure R. Both would allow five new buildings in the area with heights exceeding that of the existing zoning statutes. Two of the buildings would be capped at 120 feet, while the three more - one of which is slated to be a hotel - could be as tall as 180 feet.

The measure made its way to the ballot on the heels of the council's February rescission of its previously approved Downtown Area Plan, prompted by community opposition to its allowed building heights and lack of affordable housing proposals that culminated in a 9,200-signature referendum to put the plan as it stood after its July 2009 approval on the ballot.

Instead of letting that version of the plan go to voters, though, the council unanimously scrapped it, followed by Mayor Tom Bates' proposal of a "Green Pathways" program to incentivize environmentally friendly development through expedited city processes. The program now makes up two of Measure R's 12 points.

If passed Nov. 2, most agree the measure would function as little more than a guiding tool for the development of another actual plan. But the community remains split on whether the measure's open-ended function would benefit or harm the already five-year long process.

Some critics of the measure and the plan it came from say both have neglected the goals and conclusions of the original plan made by the city's Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee, which included Arreguin, whose district includes the Downtown. The committee's plan was established after nearly four years of community meetings, and the committee was made up of many nonpartisan residents and community members.

The plan was further changed when it hit the desk of the city's Planning Commission, another resident-based group whose members are appointed by council members. Both the commission's version of the plan and the committee's version were sent to the council, where additional changes were made.

Opponents of the measure, such as District 8 City Council candidate Stewart Jones, District 1 candidate Merrilie Mitchell and District 4 incumbent Arreguin, cite the differences between the community-developed plans, the council-approved one and the "vague outline" they call Measure R as reasons for dissent.

"It's a plan to have a plan," Judith Epstein, a Berkeley Neighborhood Preservation Organization member, said at the council's July 13 meeting. "How can the public make an informed choice when all you have is a plan to have a plan?"

Jones, Mitchell and others also question the measure's connection to the city's settlement with UC Berkeley regarding the Environmental Impact Report for its 2020 Long Range Development Plan, which lays out ways the campus will expand into the Downtown and also calls upon the city to revitalize the area. Since 2006, the university has paid the city $1.2 million annually as part of the settlement.

But those in favor of the measure, including the majority of the council, members of the Downtown Berkeley Association, the sustainability group Livable Berkeley and council candidates like District 4's Jim Novosel and District 7's George Beier, say establishing acceptable building heights and basic city development goals - such as those outlined in the measure - will only help in guiding the council toward a balanced plan in the future.

"This will allow the council to get a read on what the public wants," Erin Rhoades, executive director of Livable Berkeley, said.


Correction: Monday, November 15, 2010
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that building height exemptions under Measure R would be to the Wells Fargo building's current height. In fact, the exemptions would be to current zoning statutes, and no building would be taller than those currently downtown.

The Daily Californian regrets the error.

Sarah Springfield is the city news editor. Contact her at [email protected]

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