Opinions Vary Regarding Downtown Revitalization Plan

Measure R Doesn't Provide A Sufficiently Clear Plan for Development of Downtown, Some Council Members Say

Photo: Downtown Berkeley revitalization is a common goal for many, but the route toward achieving progress has been debated. Measure R may provide a framework for change, but opponents call it a 'plan to have a plan.'
Anna Vignet/Photo
Downtown Berkeley revitalization is a common goal for many, but the route toward achieving progress has been debated. Measure R may provide a framework for change, but opponents call it a 'plan to have a plan.'

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Berkeley's slow progress toward creating a new plan to revitalize Downtown inched forward yet again with the passage of Measure R last week, which outlined certain guidelines for the city in drafting a final proposal for the area.

Berkeley voters passed Measure R with a solid majority of 64 percent on Nov. 2, approving maximum heights for five tall buildings, concentrated development near transit and Mayor Tom Bates' "Green Pathways" program, which is intended to expedite city processes for "green" developers.

Because the measure is nonbinding and leaves many elements undefined, some opponents have referred to it as a plan to have a plan.

"It isn't a plan," Councilmember Kriss Worthington said. "The city will still need to adopt a plan."

The Berkeley City Council's previous Downtown Area Plan - approved in 2009 - faced a 9,200 signature referendum from residents that ultimately led the council to rescind the plan in February of this year and vote to place Measure R on the November ballot last summer.

Jim Novosel, member of the planning commission and a former candidate for the council, said voters' main concern regarding the previous plan was the provision allowing buildings of up to 225 feet. Measure R allows three buildings at 180 feet and two at 120 feet.

Novosel said the commission has to wait for official direction from the city - coming sometime in the next few months - to combine the previous plan with the measure's guidelines to create a final proposal to revitalize Downtown. He said he expected the process would include input from city staff and that the commission would probably hold public hearings.

The commission will send the final product to the council sometime next spring, according to Novosel. Barring a referendum, whatever plan the city council passes will not have to go back to the voters.

"For it to be referendumed would be very odd," Novosel said, pointing out that Measure R had addressed the issues behind the first referendum.

Though there is no precise timetable for the process, Novosel said he does not expect the council to pass a final plan until at least May of next year.

Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, whose district includes Downtown, said it is difficult to know how council, staff and commission discussions will develop over the next several months.

"How long it's going to take, what the process is going to be ... these things are still unclear," Arreguin said. "Who is going to be at the table? ... We don't know."

Arreguin and Worthington have spoken out against Measure R repeatedly over the last several months, arguing that the measure does not provide clear parameters for development or advance the planning process for the area in any meaningful way.

Worthington added that the council should have remanded the creation of a Downtown plan to the city's Planning Commission without going to the voters because Measure R delayed the planning process for months.

"Having meetings, having the planning commission vote," he said. "All of that could have been done a long time ago."

However, Councilmember Gordon Wozniak said the measure is an important step in determining the inclinations of Berkeley voters.

"Now that there's directions from the citizenry ... we've got to actually come up with some detailed guidelines," he said.

Moving forward, Worthington said he hopes the proposal that comes out of the commission will be an "intelligent" plan and include provisions for affordable housing, access to public transit as well as traffic issues.

Though several plans regarding Downtown development have been proposed - such as the Streets and Open Space Improvement Plan - the new Downtown plan resulting from the measure will be a separate entity. However, Arreguin said the plan could potentially provide funding for some of the other proposed but unfunded projects for the area.


Gianna Albaum covers city government. Contact her at [email protected]

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