City Council unanimously passes plan for Southside development

After nearly 15 years of planning, the Berkeley City Council unanimously passed the Southside Plan at its meeting Tuesday night, providing a comprehensive set of guidelines aimed at promoting economic and community development in the area south of the UC Berkeley campus.

The measures adopted in the sweeping motion included three resolutions that will immediately take effect — one certifying the Environmental Impact Report for the plan, another adopting amendments to the city’s General Plan and a third adopting the plan itself. Four ordinances amending aspects of the city’s zoning ordinance will return to the City Council for a second reading next month, at which point, if adopted, they will become law after 30 days.

The plan concerns development on Southside — the area directly south of the UC Berkeley campus, from Bancroft Way to the north, Dwight Way to the south, Prospect Street to the east and Shattuck Avenue to the west. According to Elizabeth Greene, senior planner for the project, the plan began with a memorandum of understanding signed by the city and the campus administration in 1997. At that time, the city recognized a need to accommodate for the effect of campus development on the area.

“All of this will be taking place over a long period of time,” Greene said.

A central focus for many of the plan has been expanding the development of affordable student housing. According to a recent ranking by U.S. News & World Report, UC Berkeley is second on a list of the 10 most expensive room and board fees for the 2011-2012 academic year.

The campus’ location in the middle of a major urban area is a large part of the reason for the steep price of student housing, but Councilmember Kriss Worthington and many community members point to campus construction policy regarding parking as another key cause.

In previous years, the campus has upheld a policy that required all building projects that replaced parking areas to pay a $35,000 parking replacement fee for every parking space lost on the site. According to Worthington, the campus revised this policy over the summer, replacing it with a capital renewal fee charging a 4 percent assessment on the total budget for development totaling over $100,000.

According to Christine Shaff, communications director for the campus’s Facilities Services Department, the campus has never waived the capital renewal fee or the prior parking replacement fee for any projects. The fee money goes toward deferred maintenance for the campus.

Marty Takimoto, director of marketing communications for Residential and Student Service Programs, said the new fee and its predecessor directly impact students living in the dorms or campus-owned apartments, since the costs of all capital projects are built into room and board or rent.

“The issue is still the same,” Worthington said. “If we’re going to prioritize student housing, we can’t add extra charges to student housing fees.”

The city has asked the campus to exempt student housing projects from this fee in the past. At a council meeting in September 1999, the city unanimously passed a resolution asking the campus to revise the policy by providing a blanket exemption from the parking replacement fee for student housing.

This language was included in a 2001 version of the plan but was later left out of subsequent drafts of the plan. At Tuesday’s meeting, Worthington submitted an amendment asking that student housing be exempt from the replacement capital renewal fee.

“There have been over 200 students attending meetings through the years to advocate for an emphasis on student housing and exempting it from the parking fee,” Worthington said. “We can’t ignore that.”

The Berkeley Student Cooperative has a particular interest in the plan, since its own plans to expand low-cost housing provided by the co-op system have been restricted by the fee. Plans for a proposed co-op project on an existing campus-owned parking structure on Dwight were abandoned several years ago after the cooperative realized what the added costs from the fee would be.

The co-ops have notoriously long waitlists for students hoping to benefit from the significantly lowered housing costs. The cooperative would also like to provide more housing for graduate students, who are often forced to live far from campus and even outside of Berkeley in order to afford housing. Although the new capital renewal fee is an improvement for the cooperative’s plans, it is still not ideal, Worthington and the cooperative agree. Dozens of co-op residents attended Tuesday’s meeting in support of Worthington’s amendment to the plan.

“We do not have a public finance stream,” said BSC Executive Director Jan Stokely at Tuesday’s meeting. “We’re not eligible for federal loans. We have to borrow money and absorb funds through member rates. Every cost makes it that much harder to develop affordable housing.”

In the end, the city’s suggestion cannot force the campus to change its policies, but it may help to encourage them.

Roland Peterson, executive director of the Telegraph Business Improvement District, said the plan will ease development in the area by clarifying certain standards. Peterson acknowledged that construction on problem sites, such as the perpetually vacant lot on the corner of Telegraph Avenue and Haste Street, may benefit from the plan’s clarifications.

The business district’s only complaint about the plan is that most quotas for the business district — established to preserve diversity and local ownership on Telegraph by restricting the number of certain types of businesses that can open there — were not abolished. The only quota abolished by the plan were those concerning full-service restaurants.

“We feel that when you have quotas, it becomes much harder to fill vacant property,” Peterson said. “It often makes vacancies remain longer. That’s a major flaw from a business perspective.”

Adelyn Baxter covers city government.