EL CERRITO -- The city's Design Review Board last week received an explanation of its role in implementing the San Pablo Avenue Specific Plan, which will guide development on and near its primary traffic corridor over the next 25 years.

A public meeting to discuss the draft environmental impact report for the plan will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday and a Planning Commission workshop will be held at 7:30 p.m. July 16, both at City Hall, 10890 San Pablo Ave.

The plan is based on so-called form-based codes that mandate a host of aesthetic and practical considerations, including the form and mass of buildings, the design of facades, open space included in developments, appropriate landscaping and other issues.

For example, the code specifies a building height limit of 55 to 65 feet, depending upon how much shade the building would cast onto surrounding structures, but building up to 85 feet is allowed if a development meets certain state rules for affordable housing.

The overall goal is for development in the 2.5-mile-long, 206-acre specific plan zone to become denser, with higher buildings and smaller housing units, especially near the city's two BART stations, and friendlier to bicyclists and pedestrians.

At the same time, the specific plan encourages development considered appropriate for its location in terms of size and design and whether it's residential or commercial, according to a staff report prepared for the design review board.


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The specific plan provides for four types of review of proposed developments.

The four categories will provide a road map of how the city planning and approval process will work, giving developers a clear idea of what kinds of uses and designs will pass muster easily with the city and which will require more intense review.

At the same time, the city will leave open the possibility of making exceptions to planning standards in the interest of development that is "more interesting and innovative," according to Development Services Manager Margaret Kavanaugh-Lynch.

Tier I review is aimed at small projects that "will not substantially change the exterior character of an existing building." These projects can be approved by the Planning Department's zoning administrator and will only come before the design review board when the project is especially significant.

Tier II review encompasses new development that follows all the parameters of the form-based code. The design review board will have the authority to approve all the design elements of these projects, but its decisions could be appealed to the Planning Commission.

Tier III review is for major projects involving existing buildings that make "significant exterior modifications to a structure." Here, also, the design review board would be authorized to approve the design components of the project, with the possibility of an appeal to the Planning Commission.

Tier IV review is aimed at new projects that don't meet the parameters of the form-based code but will help meet the goals of the specific plan and provide an "overarching public benefit."

Such projects would be reviewed by both the Planning Commission and the Design Review Board, but its decisions could be appealed to the City Council.

"Tier I and Tier III talk about existing buildings and go just to the Design Review Board," Kavanaugh-Lynch said. "Tier IV means you are doing something better in some ways, something that meets the goals of the specific plan but maybe doesn't meet the specific plan criteria."

Most projects now are treated like Tier IV, with separate hearings for the use and the design, she said.

Tier II calls for only one review hearing for projects that meet the specific plan criteria, Kavanaugh-Lynch said.

"We're hoping most of our projects come in under Tier II," she said.

A copy of the draft specific plan is available online at www.el-cerrito.org, and the city is taking public comment on the environmental impact report through July 21.

The City Council will consider a first reading of the plan at its Sept. 22 meeting and may adopt a final reading as soon as October.