Planners Tackle Brower Center, UC Parking, Sports Fields

Planning Commissioners sang the praises of the proposed David Brower Center Wednesday night, but city planning staff wondered just how they could fit the complex into existing city zoning laws downtown.

In another case, commissioners were forced to accept a condo project where the developer had figured out a way around the city’s inclusionary housing law for low-income tenants, while in a third instance, planners grumbled at being presented with yet another fait accompli by the university.

The Brower Center building, named for the Berkeley-born environmentalist, features four floors of offices for environmental organizations over a ground floor of retail space and a 250-seat lecture hall/theater.

The accompanying six-story building will house 96 units of affordable housing available exclusively to low-income tenants.

Planners loved the project, but, as Project Planner Aaron Sage reminded them, approval will take some tweaking of the Downtown Plan. One possible solution floated by Sage was the creation of a “green” bonus, which would award density bonuses for construction of structures that meet recognized standards for energy efficiency.

No decision was required of planners Wednesday because project developers had merely come to present a preview look at their plans.

Low-income unit law

Planners did have to confront an uncomfortable vote on another controversial project.

Architect Timothy Rempel and spouse Elizabeth Miranda figured out a way around the city’s inclusionary housing law, which requires one or more low-income units in projects that include five or more dwelling units or five or more live/work units.

Their project at 2209 and 2211 Fifth St. in West Berkeley features four apartments and two live/work units. Their application to build on the site was approved only after they fought back a challenge by neighbors and preservationists to landmark a Victorian cottage on the site.

The fight to save the poorly maintained Amos Cottage, a modest 1878 Italianate built the year Berkeley became a city, was spearheaded by neighbor Stan Huncilman, a sculptor who lives in another Victorian at 2129 Fifth St. A divided Landmarks Preservation Commission rejected the application and the Zoning Adjustments Board approved the new project, which features four apartments and two live/work units.

As explained by city Planning Manager Mark Rhoades, had Rempel and Miranda planned for six units of either type, the city’s inclusionary housing law would have required them to allot one for low-income tenants. But by splitting the types, they eased their project out of the requirement.

“It was the intent when we passed the inclusionary requirement that he would have had to have offered one,” said Commissioner Rob Wrenn, who sat on the commission when the ordinance was adopted.

“We’re all disturbed by this process. The developer of 2700 San Pablo has done the same thing by offering four live/work units in her building,” said Steve Wollmer of

John Gutierrez, attorney for the developers, reminded commissioners and staff that the law says what it says, and a reluctant commission was forced to concur, approving the tract map for the project.

Rhoades promised to consult his staff and the city attorney’s office to find a way to change the city ordinance to conform with the original intent.

Underhill Field Parking

Commissioners were less than happy when Kerry O’Banion, associate director of Project and Environmental Planning for UC Berkeley’s office of Capital Projects, presented plans for Underhill Field, a four-level, 1,000-slot underground parking structure capped by an artificially surfaced playing field built between Haste Street and Channing Way for the two blocks extending west of College Avenue.

The parking structure that once occupied the space was demolished in 1993, and cars have parked on the surface since then, O’Banion said.

The announcement particularly annoyed Commissioner Wrenn, who noted the city’s current battle with the university to collect city parking fees the university claims it doesn’t have to collect from those who use its parking.

“They’re shoving it down our throats, just like they did with the LRDP,” Wrenn said, referring to the UCB Long Range Development Plan, which is the target of another city lawsuit.

“The city opposed the Underhill Master Plan in 1989, and when the city announced they were not supporting it when they went ahead with the Environmental Impact Report in 2000, the university went ahead anyway,” he said.

“This is a huge parking structure,” Wrenn said. “They’re not just replacing the old structure; they’re expanding it.”

Waterfront sports fields complex

The commission also gave its blessings to creating a joint planning and review process to team their commission with other city commissions, other cities, the East Bay Regional Parks District and an assortment of sports and environmental organizations to develop a joint plan for the three-baseball-field, two-soccer-field complex to be built just south of where Gilman Street dead-ends into the waterfront.

The parks district received $3 million in Proposition 40 Urban Parks Act funds for the projects, and the cities and other groups are also raising funds to create the playing fields in a section of the East Bay sadly lacking in public recreation facilities.

Many meetings and more money will be needed before the project comes to fruition.

City Councilmember Kriss Worthington appeared earlier in the meeting to plead for a full-scale hardball field at the site, but the plans include two softball fields and a high-school-scale hardball field. Both soccer fields are regulation-sized.

During the discussion, Rhoades mentioned that the city’s Waterfront Plan could include a hotel sometime in the future on the portion of Golden Gate Fields within city limits. A hotel is one of the specific uses spelled out in the plan, Rhoades said.

The site currently houses the track’s stables.

Rhoades’ disclosure came three days after Mayor Tom Bates denied a report that he had told an Albany City Councilmember that a hotel was planned for the site.

Commissioners and staff also gave short shrift to another Worthington proposal, to approve a business quota system along a small section of Euclid Avenue where restaurants, which can typically pay higher rents than merchants, are driving out other small businesses.

“I beg you, I implore you to put this on your agenda,” said Worthington, noting that the council had twice voted unanimously to send the same request to the commission.

But Rhoades said the council’s mandate to devote staff time to revisions of the creeks ordinance had forced the tabling of many other projects, Worthington’s included.

Later in the meeting, Commissioner Helen Burke again raised the issue.

“Let Kriss Worthington deal with it at his level,” said Commissioner David Tabb.

“There aren’t that many more food services that can go in there,” added Commissioner Susan Wengraf.

“Of all the issues we have to face, this is pretty insignificant,” said Chair Harry Pollack.

Of more importance, most agreed, was developing a uniform policy to regulate all the various bonuses a developer can use to build structures larger than the regular codes allow.