Planning Commission discusses Downtown Area Plan

As the city of Berkeley reviews the latest version of a plan that aims to transform the Downtown area into a more welcoming place for residents, tourists and businesses, concerns continue to arise regarding zoning designations and building height limits.

The city Planning Commission met Wednesday night to review proposed staff amendments to the Downtown Area Plan’s zoning ordinance and ensure that it remains consistent with Measure R — passed by voters last November. The measure language includes guidelines for the construction of new structures, improved housing services, historic preservation of architecture and environmental sustainability standards.

At the meeting, commissioners discussed height restrictions and considered the measure’s maximum height limit — 60 feet for buildings in the Downtown area and 75 feet with a use permit along portions of Shattuck Avenue from Hearst Avenue to Haste Street and also along University Avenue from Oxford to Milvia streets. However, the commissioners said they wanted to hold a public hearing to gather input about allowing 75-foot buildings in larger areas of Downtown.

The commission discussed the development of site-specific standards and boundary adjustments in some areas in the city. Among the sites discussed was the north side of Dwight Way east of Shattuck, which is currently under residential zoning R-4, a multifamily zone with a base height limit of 45 feet and 60 feet with a use permit, according to Matt Taecker, the city’s principal planner for the area.

There was debate about whether the site would remain under the R-4 zone or be changed into a buffer zone, which would allow a height of 50 feet, or 60 feet with a use permit, and designate the zone’s buildings as mixed-use — permitting retail use on the ground floor and residential on the upper levels.

Other options included downzoning the site under Southside Plan R-S, which would restrict the maximum height to 35 feet. Commissioner Patti Dacey said the lower height requirement would correspond better with the barracks already on that site, while also limiting population density in the area. In contrast, Commissioner Jim Novosel said that since there are commercial areas on both sides of the site, it should fall under the South Area Commercial District, which would allow a maximum height of 60 feet with a use permit.

Similarly, another site that commissioners discussed Wednesday was the area at Berkeley and Martin Luther King Jr. ways, which the commission leaned toward making into a buffer designation.

Commissioners also discussed whether the northeast portion of the Golden Bear site — located at the southwest corner of Milvia Street and Berkeley Way — would be a buffer, though there were some concerns that since buffers allow for commercial as well as residential use, efforts for affordable housing in that area could be abandoned.

Furthermore, the plan’s language for a uniform design based on the historical development in the area gave rise to some contention, as some commissioners and community members felt that it should include contemporary buildings.

“Modern architecture is not included in the plan,” said Avram Gur Arye, a design consultant who was present at the meeting.

He added that although giving deference to older buildings is reasonable, not all downtown structures need to uniformly follow those designs.

The commission will meet again Sept. 21 to continue discussing design guidelines and zoning ordinances.

Karinina Cruz covers city government.

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