John English :: Measure R: Claims vs. Facts

Measure R — Claims vs. Facts

John English

25 September 2010

This memo discusses several key aspects of Measure R.
For each of them, it compares (a) proponents’ deceptive wording, as quoted from the voter’s pamphlet, with (b) what the measure itself does or doesn’t prescribe. I’ve closely read every word of Measure R—the details of which give ample play for deviltry.

A general problem is Measure R’s repeatedly obfuscating the differences between the measure itself, the new Downtown Area Plan per se that the City Council would subsequently prepare and adopt, and the implementing measures (including zoning and LPO amendments) that the Council would enact, presumably then or later.

The Nouveau-RFD

Proponents’ Claim: “The new Plan will ensure that a comprehensive, independent analysis of potential impacts on historic sites will be reviewed by the Landmarks Preservation Commission prior to approving any project [...] Any new development must be reviewed by the Landmarks Commission for its impacts on historic structures nearby.”

The Reality: Measure R does mention a “City-conducted analysis of historical value.” But even if you assume that it would be independent and unbiased, the claim that this analysis, and review thereof by the LPC, would be mandatory for “any new development” is patently false.

The City-conducted analysis and LPC review thereof are mentioned only as part of the proposed “Green Pathway” review process—using which is described by Measure R as just “voluntary.” Developers could choose instead just to follow the standard review process (indeed, doing so would have several advantages).

Even within the Green Pathway process, the pertinent rule would vary depending on whether or not a proposed development were taller than 75 feet. Developers of lower projects would have to submit an application “including funds for City-conducted analysis of historical value.” But the comparable wording for projects higher than 75 feet instead calls for submitting an application “with possible option to pay for City-conducted analysis of historical value.” So developers of the tallest new buildings could instead “opt” to submit their own analysis (done by their hand-picked consultant), with predictably self-serving results.

Height Limits

Proponents’ Claim: “Measure R restricts building heights [...] The new Plan allows two residential buildings and one hotel no higher than the Wells Fargo and Great Western Buildings [...] Despite what opponents claim, no building could be taller than what we have now. The plan does not permit anything higher.”

The Reality: Proponents are trying to confuse “what we have now” with Downtown’s present two very tallest buildings. In fact, of course, virtually all of Downtown’s existing buildings are much, much lower than those existing towers. So are Downtown’s present allowable heights, under existing zoning and the present Downtown Plan.

For several parts of Downtown, Measure R would increase allowable heights. And it’s quite untrue that nothing could exceed Measure R’s heights. One reason involves the State Density Bonus Law. Though developers using Measure R’s proposed “Green Pathway” review process would have to waive the right to a bonus under the state law, following the Green Pathway would (as I’ve pointed out above) just be “voluntary.” So developers who opt instead to follow the normal review process could still demand a State-mandated density bonus—potentially including height increases even above Measure R’s 180 feet.

Furthermore, Measure R’s own proposed height limits are not as firm as advocates pretend them to be. Look closely at the part of the measure’s Section 4 that specifies those limits. Its preamble says the people merely “advise the City Council that planning efforts for the Downtown should include “consideration” [sic!] of the indicated limits. So passage of Measure R would get claimed as sanction for letting development go that high—but wouldn’t preclude the Council from adopting even higher figures!

Effect on University Projects

Proponents’ Claim: “U.C. Berkeley agreed to the plan adopted by Council. Without voluntary agreement with the plan, U.C. could develop however and wherever they want.”

The Reality: Here’s another case of flagrant obfuscation. The plan that “U.C. Berkeley agreed to” was the one that the City Council adopted in July 2009 and subsequently rescinded after voters mounted a successful referendum.

Measure R proponents are trying to confuse voters into thinking that U.C. has agreed to comply with the height limits of Measure R. But the Council’s July 2009 plan gave to U.C. special major concessions: allowing 100-foot-high buildings on nearly all of U.C.’s present landholdings in Downtown, and letting U.C. build two 120-footers in addition to the plan’s other 120-footers. Surely, the University hasn’t now given up those extras! To illustrate: At Hearst Avenue and Oxford Street, where Measure R proposes a 60-foot height limit, U.C. is constructing the Helios Building, which will be 100 feet high.

The operative parts of Measure R itself don’t mention the University at all. If Measure R were approved, the Council in subsequently adopting the new Plan per se presumably would add back in those special extra-height concessions for U.C.

Copyright © 2010 John English. All rights reserved.