City Council agrees on significant community benefit plans for Downtown high-rises

Benjamin Shenouda/Staff

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Berkeley City Council moved forward with determining significant community benefits for new Downtown building projects but decided to exempt the 18-story building planned for 2211 Harold Way.

City Council approved a proposal at a special meeting Thursday that would determine significant community benefits provided by Downtown Berkeley development projects more than 75 feet tall. The benefits system aims to capture the highest reasonable value from each project but in a way that also addresses longstanding community concerns, such as providing affordable housing and local jobs.

Under the new proposal by Councilmembers Lori Droste and Darryl Moore, developers can choose from two options to provide these benefits. One option would be to pay a fixed per-square-footage fee — taken from the initial proposal by Mayor Tom Bates and Councilmember Laurie Capitelli — to the city fund.

The other option — mirroring Councilmember Jesse Arreguin’s proposal — would require developers to provide affordable housing units, hire local labor and choose one additional community benefit, such as the provision of public space or of benefits for arts and culture.

The value of each project and its benefit package would be assessed by third-party consultants hired by the city and approved by the Zoning Adjustments Board.

Arreguin, who said the “workable and enforceable framework” was “vastly superior” to the mayor’s proposal, said he was dismayed that the council decided to exempt the Harold Way project — the largest among the projects — from the resolution.

The council decided to impose only the fixed per-square-footage fee for 2211 Harold Way but will require the city to reassess the fee amount.

Councilmember Kriss Worthington expressed concerns that the council was rushing by exempting the 2211 Harold Way project and said at the meeting that it was “immoral to give special treatment to one building.”

But John Caner, CEO of the Downtown Berkeley Association, said he was pleased to see the Harold Way project moving forward.

Some community members stressed the importance of providing more rental housing through the developments to provide immediate relief to what they called a “housing crisis” in Berkeley and the Bay Area. Many others, however, expressed concerns that the residential units provided by the Downtown projects would be unaffordable for those such as students and local workers.

Former mayor Shirley Dean, who said the projects’ values would be determined by rents, urged City Council to wait for the results of a city analysis of an affordable-housing mitigation fee before imposing the per-square-footage fee on the Harold Way project.

Community members also expressed concerns that the meeting was scheduled for the same evening as the Zoning Adjustments Board’s meeting, which certified the environmental impact report for the Harold Way project.

City Council is expected to approve the resolution at an upcoming meeting July 14.

Contact Yuka Koshino at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @YukaKoshino.