BERKELEY -- Should the City Council set new guidelines on eventual reuse of the downtown post office and nearby historic buildings, or should the future development of the civic center be left to a buyer and current regulations?

Some 90 people attended Wednesday evening's Planning Commission public hearing to weigh in on the question.

At issue was Councilman Jesse Arreguin's proposal to craft an ordinance restricting reuse of historic buildings in the civic center to community-serving purposes. The "overlay zoning" would include the post office, Veterans Building, Old City Hall, the YMCA and several other historic civic center sites. Current private uses, such as the YMCA health club, would likely be grandfathered in.

After listening to the public -- 30 speakers in favor of new restrictions and three opposed -- commissioners voted unanimously to have the city planning staff draft a zoning overlay ordinance. The commission will discuss the draft at its Nov. 6 meeting and could send it to the City Council for approval at that time.

One of the speakers favoring new regulations was Margaret Rossoff, a small-business owner in the downtown area. She said new zoning would help protect Berkeley from becoming one of the many lackluster towns that resemble one another.

"I don't know any other town that has poetry on the sidewalk," she said. "This zoning overlay is a really creative way to protect the unique architectural, historical and cultural features of downtown Berkeley."


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Speakers suggested various community-serving uses to include in the ordinance, such as museums, libraries, a public market, government services and performance arts space.

Rob Wrenn, a former planning commissioner, urged the commission to include height limits in the new regulations. "What we don't want is any of the taller buildings allowed in the downtown plan (120 feet) to be allowed anywhere in the civic center," he said, noting that the downtown plan says "additions must be compatible with the scale and character of the existing historic building."

Downtown resident Sally Nelson said developers should "bring their vitality" to the empty storefronts on University Avenue, leaving the historic district "free of retail, hotels and cafes."

A different outlook came from three people representing business and professional planning organizations who said the proposed zoning would hinder private sector participation.

John Caner, CEO of the Downtown Berkeley Association, told commissioners that, like the other speakers, he wanted to preserve the historic civic center, but that the zoning overlay ordinance was the wrong solution.

"We need more flexibility to bring in private capital." Caner told this newspaper in a follow-up phone interview. For example, private investment in a boutique hotel at the back of the post office could provide funding for an arts center on the ground floor of the building, he said.

Caner said restrictions could stifle development not only of the post office building, but of Old City Hall and the Veterans Building, both in decay and seismically unsafe.

"To box ourselves in with additional restrictions is a mistake," he said.

Representing Berkeley Design Advocates, Dorothy Walker also spoke against the zoning overlay. She said covenants could be attached to the sale of the building to guarantee public access to the ground floor.

Eric Panzer, chair of Livable Berkeley, asked commissioners to take the rezoning effort off the table. "We must encourage and collaborate with favored buyers and developers and offer them the flexibility to realize new futures for the Berkeley post office and other civic buildings," he said.