Berkeley, East Bay

Downtown Berkeley’s Growing Pains

The Berkeley skyline, if one could call it that, has long been dominated by the Campanile and the two mid-rises on Shattuck Avenue that flank Center Street. That is poised to change, at least somewhat, now that the Berkeley City Council has approved the Downtown Area Plan.

Downtown Berkeley
Downtown Berkeley: looking south from Shattuck toward Downtown Oakland.

The presence of an anti-growth attitude in Berkeley has famously been vocal and insistent. And while this perspective may have once been deemed to be “progressive,” in a city that prides itself on setting the definition of that word, we now know better. What’s actually progressive is accepting growth that is dense and well-situated to avoid sprawl; reduce energy use and emissions; concentrate new development where it can utilize existing infrastructure; and encourage walking, bicycling, and transit use. In that sense, downtown Berkeley has a lot going for it. It lies directly adjacent to the Cal campus, which is populated by almost 50,000 faculty, staff, and students. It is also a hub for about a dozen AC Transit bus lines; it will one day be the northern terminus of a BRT line; and it is home to the second busiest BART station outside of San Francisco. So — no matter what murmuring you might hear about Berkeley being at heart a small town whose quality of life will be shattered, irreparably destroyed, by increased density — its downtown remains one of the most natural places in the Bay Area for dense development. Besides: a rising downtown emerges as the natural solution for a city that is intent on preserving existing neighborhoods as they are and have been, but which nonetheless must find a way to absorb its fair share of the regional housing need.

In other words, it’s high time that Berkeley grew up — both literally and figuratively. The goal, of course, is not to turn Berkeley into Oakland or San Francisco, but rather, to make a better Berkeley. The Downtown Area Plan, while certainly not perfect, will at least help guide the transformation of downtown Berkeley into a lively, more sustainable urban destination than it is now.

Downtown Berkeley last went through a major planning process in the early 1990s, with the adoption of a plan in 1990 and design guidelines in 1993. It was a plan that gave what essentially amounts to lip service to the idea of density, but was ultimately interested in preserving the downtown’s existing fabric and character. Since then, downtown has remained comfortable and walkable, but not exactly dynamic. Attempts to market downtown as a fertile location for an arts district and related cultural uses have borne some fruit. Yet, the downtown has never quite crystallized into the vibrant place one would expect it to be given its central location, adjacent to a major university.

The new Downtown Area Plan (DAP) slightly decreases the heights that have been generally allowed downtown, while specifically including a number of taller buildings as exceptions to that general rule. In its broad outlines, the DAP would add to the core downtown area (the half dozen blocks immediately surrounding the BART station) a small handful of taller buildings — mostly mid-rises, shorter than or comparable to the downtown’s current two tallest buildings: the 173-foot Wells Fargo building and the 180-foot Great Western building.  Heights would step down on the edges in “buffer” zones, to transition into existing residential neighborhoods.

Going into any more detail than that requires picking up at least a few threads of a four-year-old planning process, which resulted in competing visions for downtown. Those competing visions confronted each other right to the end, and are symbolized in the 7-2 Council vote that formally adopted the DAP. What lies at the heart of the controversy? Height, naturally.

The Berkeley City Council has been chewing over two versions of the DAP — one version set forth by the Planning Commission, and another version set forth by the 21-member Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC) that encapsulated community input. Although the DAPAC plan was less ambitious than the Planning Commission’s, both versions embraced an increase in height. The most surprising nugget from the DAPAC version was the inclusion of two 225-foot hotels — along with four 120-foot buildings, and four 100-foot buildings. Other than these exceptions, all buildings would be limited to approximately 85 feet, subject to the State density bonus.

DAPAC’s plan included 10 taller buildings, while the Planning Commission’s included 12 — two 225-foot hotels, four 180-foot buildings, and six 120-foot buildings — but in many other respects resembled DAPAC’s version. The Planning Commission’s decision to include more and taller buildings was connected to a market feasibility study, which demonstrated that the mid-rise buildings suggested by DAPAC (particularly the 100-foot buildings) would likely not pencil out for residential use. While a 75-foot building could be constructed with wood frame, any taller would require concrete or steel. In particular, apartments would probably not be feasible if taller than 75 feet, while condominiums would be feasible for heights under 75 feet or taller than 140-180 feet. As a result, the Planning Commission pushed a version that tended toward the upper end of the height spectrum under consideration. The Commission’s plan would, in particular, pave the way for a number of taller residential projects in the downtown.

Downtown Berkeley
The tallest heights are concentrated in the central “core area” near BART. Courtesy of City of Berkeley.

The challenge has been to somehow blend DAPAC’s plan, the Planning Commission’s plan, the market feasibility study, staff recommendations, and the amendments of Councilmembers. The combination of all the above reflects Berkeley’s growing pains and a lack of consensus. Public comment was offered from both ends of the urbanist spectrum. A few recognized the environmental and placemaking benefits of density. But there was also a parade of the NIMBYs for which Berkeley has become locally famous. Protesting high-rises and crowded streets, chanting songs about developers and green-washers (“Our city they are taking and the hearings they are faking, while the money they are raking around here”), advocating for “real density” — to be achieved through an undisclosed method, but definitely without new development — or simply pushing new buildings off to Oakland, since Berkeley is already “dense enough.”

The Council, meanwhile, engaged in all the usual discussion that you would expect, albeit in a somewhat confused fashion. How much growth is too much? How tall is too tall? Will tall towers impact views, cast shadows, and negatively impact residential neighborhoods? Will towers gentrify downtown by infusing it with condos that only the affluent can afford? Shouldn’t we strengthen inclusionary housing requirements and historic preservation requirements? And so forth. The stunning part of it was that throughout much of the past two sessions at the City Council, many Councilmembers were not clear as to just how many towers actually were in the plan as it stood at that point — perhaps not surprising, given the various versions and a flurry of amendments. But that did not stop Councilmember Jesse Arreguín, whose district encompasses the DAP plan area, from trying to delete towers in any case. Resisting the efforts of Mayor Bates to shift heights back toward the higher end that the market study deemed would be most feasible, Arreguín ultimately dissented from the adopted plan.

Art museum &  Center Street envisioned.
Courtesy of City of Berkeley.

So where do we end up? Berkeley being Berkeley, we might just see the whole thing go up in referendum. But the adopted plan certainly bears the hallmark of compromise — perhaps too much. The Council, in part wary of the sentiment on the part of the community that the work DAPAC did was ignored, consciously tried to strike a middle ground between DAPAC and the Planning Commission, but it ultimately approved fewer tall buildings. The Downtown Area Plan now includes two 180-foot buildings (for which a 45-foot bonus was discussed in connection with a hotel use), four 120-foot buildings, and two 100-foot buildings. Many of those building heights fall squarely outside of the height range that the feasibility study determined was viable for residential use. Those buildings might be appropriate for office or University use; but infill housing is a critical regional need, and it’s an important component of revitalizing the downtown. In light of the feasibility analysis, it remains to be seen how many housing units will ultimately be built under this configuration. But it will be less than the roughly 3,100 units contemplated in the EIR — and thus will ultimately have less transformative impact. Beyond the taller buildings, an 85-foot maximum would be in effect, taking into account the density bonus, and certain amendments would ensure that project proposals in the buffer or “Downtown District” areas (colored orange and yellow in the above map) would more closely match the scale of existing residential use.

Although we’ve spent a lot of time talking about heights in this post, the DAP is certainly more than just a height map. It is a multifaceted document that includes policies that emphasize the downtown’s transit orientation, urban livability, housing affordability, environmental sustainability, water conservation, energy efficiency, and emissions reduction — all that you would expect to see in a major urban planning exercise carried out in the 21st century. The plan incorporates transportation demand management strategies — residential parking unbundled from housing units, thus permitting residents to purchase a home without purchasing the parking; as well as car share pods, bicycle facilities, and developments that provide courtesy transit passes to employees or residents.

The DAP identifies the parking lot on Berkeley Way, owned by the City, as a site for a “green demonstration” project. It suggests capturing street space to create linear parks, as well as park blocks in the very wide section of Shattuck Avenue, between Dwight and Durant. The plan identifies other opportunities to enlarge the public realm, including closing off to cars the block of Center Street between Shattuck and Oxford. This would create a public plaza — a “living room” for the downtown — and would provide a safe and direct pedestrian link between the UC Berkeley campus and the BART station.

It has been a long four years of community process leading up to the adoption of the Downtown Area Plan. Had the planning pen been put in our hand, we might have done some things differently. Still, the plan does contain many good ideas. We will need to see more downtown areas throughout the region (and beyond) take similar steps to accommodate infill growth, and those other cities will likely undergo similar growing pains in the process. Even with the passage of the DAP, Berkeley’s efforts are not yet complete. The next step for the City is to adopt new zoning regulations and design guidelines that would actually implement the policies in the DAP. But when all is said and done, we will hopefully see this plan blossom into the more successful, vibrant, and progressive downtown that Berkeley deserves.



15 thoughts on “Downtown Berkeley’s Growing Pains

  1. Back when I was a student there (6 years ago), there was talk of closing off Center between Shattuck and Oxford as a sort of “green” demonstration. Not only was the plan to promote pedestrianism, but also to open up the underground Strawberry Creek to daylight were discussed. IIRC, there is a blue line on the pavement on Center Street detailing how Strawberry Creek flows in the area.

    Posted by eddo | 15 July 2009, 12:21 pm
  2. Yeah, the Center Street Plaza idea has definitely been kicking around for awhile. At least some of the DAP documentation also includes the daylighting of Strawberry Creek. We’ll see what happens with it, as the DAP might provide some momentum to actually move in that direction. The plan also included a policy encouraging an extension of the Ohlone Greenway.

    Posted by Eric | 15 July 2009, 12:24 pm
  3. Also, it’s clear to me SOMETHING needs to be done. Downtown Berkeley and Telegraph Ave are suffering even more than when I left 5 years ago. The monied clientele prefer 4th Street, which is inconvenient by transit and in a relatively remote area near the 80/580 interchange. There is a large population that passes through DT Berkeley everyday and there are businesses that don’t support their needs. It’s not difficult to imagine businesses that appeal to students, faculty, and employees in the area. You need a population willing to invest in an urban core.

    Posted by eddo | 15 July 2009, 12:24 pm
  4. in the map… are those park blocks on shattuck between durant & dwight? are those still planned?

    Posted by Jon | 15 July 2009, 12:36 pm
  5. Rats — thanks Jon, I meant to bring up those blocks in the post after mentioning the linear parks, but it slipped my mind. I’ve added it in, but yes, the park blocks are still identified as a future open space opportunity in the plan. Shattuck Ave. is really wide at that point, with four travel lanes, landscaped medians, and diagonal parking. I think the discussion from Planning found (80 ft x 270 ft) parks to be feasible, occupying the bulk of Shattuck between Durant and Dwight.

    Posted by Eric | 15 July 2009, 12:52 pm
  6. For all the flack Berkeley gets about resisting growth, it has experienced a tremendous amount of 4-6 story mixed-use development the past few years Downtown and along the Shattuck and University corridors. I think the most important issue isn’t necessarily a couple of taller buildings downtown–as you mentioned, they’ll add a solid but not transformative 3,100 units downtown–but the consistent low rise growth throughout the city main commercial and transit corridors. Either way, Berkeley has already done a lot compared to Albany, El Cerrito, and even Emeryville and Oakland (except the Uptown area) to grow in a smart and sustainable way.

    Posted by Daniel | 15 July 2009, 6:59 pm
  7. I certainly don’t dispute that there has been good development on commercial corridors in Berkeley, and that will have to continue long-term. But there has also been determined resistance to good development, and that resistance is often considerably more vocal than what you see in other cities. Calling Berkeley “anti-growth” would be simplistic (and, thankfully, increasingly incorrect), but its reputation for blocking projects, housing or otherwise, has historical basis. My rationale for mentioning it here was not so much to dwell in the past, but to show the tide turning, so to speak.

    In any case, the point is that this is a post about the downtown plan and its pluses and minuses. Major corridors are important, but downtown is also an important issue for an array of reasons that include and go beyond the number of units built there.

    I think you unfairly discount Emeryville and Oakland. Emeryville has produced a lot of housing, though it falls short on housing for lower income levels. Also, Oakland certainly hasn’t limited development to Uptown (and even if so, the main point is that it gets built).

    Posted by Eric | 15 July 2009, 9:02 pm
  8. What I was getting at is that Berkeley has grown in a way that has really supported its existing neighborhoods and encouraged walking, bicycling, and transit use. Emeryville hasn’t been as successful at improving its neighborhoods (there are some exceptions, such as 40th and San Pablo), and Oakland hasn’t had nearly as much growth in neighborhoods such as Rockridge, Piedmont Ave, Temescal, Laurel, Grand/Lakeshore, etc. compared to University, Shattuck, or Telegraph in Berkeley. It seems like Oakland’s flaw is that it has focused nearly all of its growth in Jerry Brown’s 10K plan while other neighborhoods have remained stagnant.

    Posted by Daniel | 16 July 2009, 12:01 pm
  9. Daniel – It’s true that much of the growth in Oakland has been in Uptown, but certainly not all of it (or even a majority of it). Jack London Square has seen a huge amount of growth, and there’s been growth in other areas, like Temescal and West Oakland.

    Posted by Becks | 16 July 2009, 4:57 pm
  10. This is getting a bit off the topic of the Berkeley DAP, but… Jerry Brown was indeed quite focused on 10K, and you could say that it was a flaw, or you could say that a strong downtown, coupled with a truly open policy toward development, would in time trickle down the avenues toward the neighborhoods. In any case, his downtown focus makes sense in part given the large gap between where downtown was and where it should be. Revitalization has to start somewhere.

    Posted by Eric | 16 July 2009, 5:13 pm
  11. i’m absolutely amazed at the fights in berkeley over the gaia building. its the perfect downtown infill building.

    Posted by Jon | 16 July 2009, 11:16 pm


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