Berkeley City Council proceeds with third phase of West Berkeley Project

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At its meeting Tuesday night the Berkeley City Council voted to proceed with the third phase of the West Berkeley Project — a controversial long-term plan that aims to expand the area’s retail and multi-use space — that may be placed on the city’s November ballot.

Following much debate regarding the potential environmental impacts of the project and a lack of definitive community benefits, the council added amendments to the plan and will further discuss the proposed ordinance involving the project in July after the city attorney drafts the ballot language. The council will then vote again to determine whether the ordinance will be formally placed on the ballot.

“I question whether it’s possible in Berkeley to have total consensus,” said Councilmember Gordon Wozniak at the meeting. “I don’t think we can have 100 percent approval … there’s always going to be somebody that sues.”

According to a report from the city’s Planning Commission, the third and current phase of the project would provide for a new master use permit process for blocks of land as large as a full city block in West Berkeley.

At the council’s May 22 special meeting, Councilmember Laurie Capitelli proposed a set of modifications for the project, which included maintaining the current 35-foot height limit in residential areas and the 50-foot height limit in commercial areas in West Berkeley. The maximum height limit for developers with master use permits would be 75 feet, and in no case would a building be allowed to exceed 100 feet.

However, with the release of the final Environmental Impact Report, both city residents and councilmembers raised concerns about the inadequate mitigations provided in response to significant environmental impacts, particularly around Berkeley Aquatic Park — a West Berkeley park that will be affected by the project’s developments.

“Green is local industry and a local economy, which we already have in West Berkeley,” said city resident George Manning at the meeting. “Your plans are not green. (They) are anti-green. They are red.”

To address the environmental issues raised, the council voted to exclude the aquatic park from the ordinance to be placed on the ballot, such that no developments would be built on the master use permit site adjacent to the park until the council has adopted a “protection package” for the park.

Another source of concern for the residents and some council members was the lack of “specific and concrete” community benefits that were still not defined. According to the report, the council needs to adopt specific and concrete community benefits agreements before a master use permit may be approved.

“To say that the benefits of approving this project outweigh the significant environmental impacts by getting community benefits that aren’t actually going to be provided is intellectually dishonest,” said Councilmember Jesse Arreguin at the meeting.

The council will hold a meeting on July 10 to discuss language for the ballot measure and to further examine the environmental issues surrounding the aquatic park.

Daphne Chen covers city government.