Berkeley City Council approves plan to green downtown

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At its meeting Tuesday night, Berkeley City Council voted unanimously to approve the Downtown Streets and Open Space Improvement Plan as well as the fees to fund the project.

SOSIP, first prepared in 2010, involves creating a more environmentally and pedestrian-friendly Downtown Berkeley by adding public parks and plazas. SOSIP is part of the larger Downtown Area Plan passed last March, which allows for the creation of seven tall buildings as well as additional green buildings and establishes open-space requirements. SOSIP would cost the city about $17 million.

The city is facing a projected deficit of $3 million in the general fund and $3.9 million in special funds for fiscal year 2014. However, the Downtown Area Plan does not include funding from the general fund.

SOSIP includes projects such as allowing two-way traffic on the west side of Shattuck Square; possibly creating a “slow street” for traffic on the east side and a transit plaza for buses, pedestrians and bicycles; closing Center Street to automobile traffic between Shattuck and Oxford; and widening sidewalks and adding more bicycle lanes. The city is also considering adding more green infrastructure, such as park blocks in the middle of Shattuck Avenue.

“If we can do even a fraction of these projects, it would really make a big difference in making Downtown a much more pedestrian-friendly and vibrant area,” said Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, whose district includes the Downtown area. “I’m very excited by the fact that we adopted the SOSIP, so now we can move forward with the project.”

Local environmental groups also expressed their support for the plan and the changes that it would bring to the city.

“We were on the whole very pleased with the green features and the capabilities to make this a sustainable element of the Downtown Area Plan,” said Igor Tregub, a Zoning Adjustments Board commissioner and a former rent board member who spoke on behalf of the Sierra Club, during the public comment section of the meeting.

To raise $5.4 million for the plan, SOSIP includes an impact fee, which is a fee that developers pay to offset the costs of additional development on the city’s infrastructure and services. The impact fee for the project is set at $2.23 per square foot of new residential use, $1.68 per square foot of commercial use and $1.12 per square foot of new institutional use.

A variety of other revenue sources, such as in-lieu fees and grants, is expected to cover the remaining $11.68 million.

Despite the amount of money needed, council members remained optimistic about the chances of receiving grants to cover the costs.

“These projects are exactly what some of these grants are for … open space, grants that encourage smart growth,” Arreguin said. “There’s a lot of money available for cities that have plans to encourage higher density and smart growth. There’s a lot of planning that’s happening.”

According to the SOSIP Nexus Study, the new developments of residential, commercial and institutional uses are estimated to add about 2.9 million square feet in floor area by 2030.

“We have an opportunity here to make the Downtown a much more inviting green place,” said Councilmember Gordon Wozniak.

Daphne Chen is the lead city government reporter. Contact her at [email protected]