BERKELEY -- Tempers flared June 24 as the City Council prepared to place an initiative on downtown development before Berkeley voters, with accusations of behind-the-scenes intimidation to get the Downtown Initiative's author, Councilman Jesse Arreguin, to withdraw the measure, and the council majority approving ballot language written by an initiative opponent.
The council had little choice but to put the initiative on the November ballot after it garnered more than the required number of signatures.
Arreguin says the initiative would get developers to provide community benefits promised but not delivered after the passage of Measure R in 2010.
Measure R allows construction of two 120-foot buildings and three 180-foot buildings downtown; developers were given the option of an expedited approval process, called the "Green Pathway," in exchange for providing community benefits, including funding affordable housing and providing construction jobs for Berkeley residents at prevailing wages.
But no developers proposing tall building projects have chosen this option.
"The Green Pathway unfortunately is a path to nowhere," Arreguin told this newspaper.
"What we're trying to do is to make it a real path that will lean toward equity and sustainability and community benefits downtown, using the option of additional height to get those community benefits."
The Downtown Initiative would require developers of buildings higher than 60 feet to fund low income housing on site, green building, public restrooms, parking, bicycle racks and to pay prevailing wages for construction workers and employees of new hotels.
In return, developers get the expedited approval process.
The initiative includes a historic "overlay" district restricting development of downtown historic structures, including the post office, high school, Veteran's Building and Old City Hall.
These sites would be required to provide community-serving functions.
While most public speakers favored the measure, Councilwoman Susan Wengraf spoke against it. "If you want to get good development for this city, you need to provide certainty, and consistency," she said. "Flipping now, and changing everything is very bad policy."
A report prepared by San Francisco-based firm AECOM concluded that under the Downtown Initiative, "projects over 60 feet would be infeasible," and that 1,300 fewer-than-projected living units would be built.
Arreguin dismissed the report, saying AECOM's figures were based on a 2009 study.
He accused the study's author, Alexander Quinn, of a conflict of interest because Quinn's wife serves on the board of the organization Livable Berkeley, which he said is generally allied with the council majority's view favoring intense downtown development. Quinn previously sat on the Livable Berkeley board.
According to city clerk documents, Livable Berkeley Chairman Eric Panzer is treasurer of "Save the Downtown Plan," the organized opposition to the initiative.
Tension among council members mounted when dueling descriptions of the initiative to be placed on the ballot were presented by Mayor Tom Bates, on record opposing the initiative, and Arreguin.
The council approved Bates' language 6-3, with Bates and his council allies, Wengraf, Gordon Wozniak, Laurie Capitelli, Darryl Moore and Linda Maio, voting in favor.
Bates' description says, in part, that the initiative would "amend LEED (green building) requirements; change parking requirements ... (and) change prevailing-wage requirements for workers in specified categories ..."
Arreguin argued that the mayor's proposed language "implies that certain things are reduced, even if they're not reduced."
In fact, under the Downtown Initiative, prevailing wage requirements are broadened, parking is increased and LEED requirements are strengthened for buildings over 75 feet, he said.
Arreguin told this newspaper that, given legal requirements for neutral ballot language, he's "considering whether to litigate."
Arreguin's fight with the mayor began before the Downtown Initiative debate, during a discussion of a Redistricting Commission ballot measure Arreguin proposed and said he believed he had the support of Bates and the mayor's allies.
The commission was to be a politically neutral body responsible for redrawing council districts every 10 years.
Arreguin accused the mayor of withdrawing support when Arreguin refused to take the Downtown Initiative off the table.
"You went into my office and said to my aide that you were going to kill this because I did the Downtown Initiative," Arreguin charged. (Arreguin's aide Anthony Sanchez later corroborated the councilman's statement.)
"That's what he says," Bates retorted. "That's not what I say."
Bates did not return requests for further comment.
The council majority sent the Redistricting Commission for further study by the city's Fair Campaign Practices Commission.