Workshop held to discuss community benefits from Downtown high-rises

Michelle Kim/Staff

Related Posts

Members of Berkeley’s Zoning Adjustments Board and Councilmember Jesse Arreguin held a workshop Wednesday night to discuss the community benefits from five high-rises allowed to be built in Downtown Berkeley.

The workshop — not an official City Council workshop or event — was independently organized by Arreguin and zoning board members Sophie Hahn and Shoshana O’Keefe. About 90 people attended. The event was held to receive input from residents on what constitutes “community benefits,” as well as to educate the public on the process of developing high-rise buildings.

The Downtown Area Plan, whose last iteration was adopted in 2012, is guided by the city municipal code. It allows for a maximum of five new buildings more than 75 feet tall: two residential buildings and one hotel up to 180 feet tall, and two office or residential building up to 120 feet tall. These buildings must provide “significant community benefits” beyond what would otherwise be required.

Currently, these “community benefits” include affordable housing requirements; Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Gold ratings, or an equivalent, for buildings more than 20,000 square feet; and “green” requirements, such as free transit passes and parking spaces for car-share vehicles.

According to Hahn, there were 30 to 40 specific ideas discussed at the event. Topics included the construction of arts and cultural venues in order to compensate for the spaces taken by the building projects and energy efficiency for the new buildings. Attendees also suggested building a community center to bring youth and retired adult mentors together and providing relief for displaced businesses and community organizations.

Hahn said every new project in Downtown Berkeley requires a “unique” package of community benefits. She also said she fears there “may not be enough opportunities” for the Berkeley community to give input on these projects.

“This is still very much only the beginning of a long discussion,” said Igor Tregub, a member of the zoning board who attended the workshop. “But this is the first time I’ve seen a gathering of different community members in one place, having a robust discussion on this subject.”

According to Matthew Taecker, the principal planner and community liaison for a 16-story hotel planned to be built in the Downtown area, Berkeley’s benefit requirements are among the highest in the Bay Area.

“It’s important not to overburden development to the point where it becomes infeasible or too risky,” Taecker said in an email. “(The) Council will need to find the sweet spot that asks for more.”

A council item to hear public comment and further define what constitutes “significant community benefit” was originally planned for the City Council meeting April 7, but it was held for a special meeting scheduled for May 5.

Contact Jessie Qian at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @jessieq96.