A rendering of the Acheson Commons complex on University Avenue, which now will go forward.
A rendering of the Acheson Commons complex on University Avenue, which now will go forward. Image: Kirk Peterson Architects

Acheson Commons, the largest apartment complex ever planned for Berkeley’s downtown, is set to go forward after its opponents decided not to file a challenge to the plan.

A coalition of unions, preservationists, community activists and Rent Board members did not file an appeal to a recent ZAB ruling by the deadline, Monday, July 8, at 5 p.m. That means the 205-unit project slated for 2133 University Ave. could be completed in the next three years.

“I think this project is a cornerstone to the revitalization of the downtown, at least the northern end of it,” said Mark Rhoades, a former city planner whose Rhoades Planning Group is representing the developer, Chicago-based Equity Residential.

The Zoning Adjustments Board first approved Acheson Commons in December 2012, but that approval was appealed before the Berkeley City Council in March. The City Council remanded the project back to ZAB, which held a public hearing on 10 issues in June, then approved Acheson Commons once more. The project does not have to return to the council for any more approvals, said Terry Blount, a principal planner for Berkeley and the staff liaison to the zoning board.

“There was no appeal,” said Blount. “The decision is final.”

The appellants were concerned about the height of the buildings, contending some were higher than the 75-foot limit; the amount of parking for the project; and the possibility that Berkeley would lose eight affordable housing units, among other issues.

Equity Residential fought back on some of those items but made other adjustments in response to the points raised, according to Rhoades. Equity took another look at the parking configuration. Originally, the developer had proposed to include only 48 spaces in the building, with 46 of them dedicated to customers of Ace Hardware and other retailers. There would be two handicapped spaces and two spaces reserved for car shares. None of the parking spaces would have been available to residents. Instead, Equity planned to provide bicycle parking and transit passes.

After the project was remanded to ZAB, Equity agreed to create 83 parking spaces, said Rhoades. Twenty-two of those will be at grade and will be reserved for retail customers, 58 of the spaces will be below grade and available to residents, and three will be car share spaces, he said.

The Rent Board had been particularly concerned about eight units situated on Walnut Street that Equity needs to move to build Acheson Commons. The Rent Board wanted those units, which had long been vacant, to continue to be covered by rent control when they were re-rented.

Originally, Equity had contended that the units, located in a cluster of brown-shingled homes, had been vacant for so long they were no longer covered by rent control. The developer had said it would try to find a new location for the homes, but planned to demolish them if no new place could be found.

In the end, Equity softened its position. Rhoades said the developer is close to working out a deal to move the houses to a lot in West Berkeley. The new owner has agreed to make the units comply with affordable housing guidelines in perpetuity, said Rhoades.

If that deal falls through, Equity has agreed to reserve eight units in Acheson Commons at the same reduced rent, said Rhoades.

Ellen Trescott, attorney for the appellants, said her clients had gotten a number of compromises out of Equity Residential, which led to the decision not to appeal the most recent ZAB ruling. She pointed to the increase in parking and agreement on the vacant units as particularly gratifying. Equity also redesigned one of its buildings to comply with the 75-foot height limit, she said.

“We did get some significant changes made to the project,” said Trescott, who for works for Adams Broadwell Joseph & Cardozo in Sacramento. “It reinforces the concept that if an out-of-town developer is going to develop such a large project, they need to comply with codes and provide as much community benefits as possible.”

The Building and Construction Trades Council of Alameda County had been pushing Equity to promise to hire union workers. In the end, Equity did not do that, but in all likelihood union tradesmen will be hired for certain parts of the job, said Rhoades. Mayor Tom Bates said at the March council meeting that 60% of the jobs at Acheson will be union jobs.

Equity Residential first proposed the Acheson Commons project at 2133 University in 2010, and donated $25,000 to the Yes on Measure R campaign, an advisory measure that laid out plans for a more densely developed downtown. It passed with 64% of the vote in November of that year.

The 48,122-square-foot project site includes the MacFarlane Building on Shattuck and University; the Krishna Copy Center building on University; the Crepes a Go-Go building on University; the Acheson Physicians building on University; the Ace Hardware building on University; and two homes on Walnut Street.

The project involves the construction of 205 apartments and the rehabilitation of 34,000 square feet of commercial space. Nearly 17,000 square feet of existing office space would be removed from the site. Historic buildings and façades along University would be retained and rehabilitated. Two brown-shingled homes on Walnut would be relocated and replaced by ground-floor parking with residential units above.

The project will increase the city’s annual tax revenue by $600,000, said Rhoades.

Equity Residential is one of the major landlords in Berkeley. It currently owns 429 units in Berkeley and that number will increase to 634 units once Acheson Commons is completed.

Equity, which is run by Sam Zell, owns the Gaia Building at 2116 Allston Way; the Fine Arts Building at 2110 Haste St.; the Acton Courtyard at 1370 University Ave.; the Bachenheimer Building at 2119 University Ave.; ARTech at 2002 Addison Ave.; the Touriel at 2004 University Ave.; the Berkeleyan at 1910 Oxford St.; and Renaissance Villas at 1627 University Ave.

View Equity Residential in Berkeley in a larger map

Now that the appellants have decided not to file an appeal, work can begin on the construction drawings, said Rhoades. Those should take about six or seven months to complete. Then Equity will either apply for a foundation permit, or it may wait and apply for a permit for the entire complex, he said. The project could be completed, if everything goes smoothly, three years from now, in August 2016, he said.

One remaining question mark is what will happen to Ace Hardware during construction. Bill and Virginia Carpenter, the owners of Berkeley Ace Hardware, have been looking for a temporary space but have not found one yet.

Acheson Commons sent back to Berkeley Rent Board (03.07.13)
1,000 new apartments planned for downtown Berkeley (02.07.13)
Ace Hardware will not move to Andronico’s old space (09.18.12)
Two Berkeley brown shingles for sale. Price: $1 each (07.19.12)
Acheson Commons: Large change for downtown (04.09.12)

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...