City officials are considering the possibility of turning this parking lot into a supportive homeless housing complex. Image: Google Maps
City officials are considering the possibility of turning this parking lot into a supportive homeless housing complex. Image: Google Maps

Tuesday night, the Berkeley City Council took its first steps at considering a “super-green affordable housing project” that would offer extensive services to the homeless on the site of what’s now a 112-spot parking lot at Berkeley Way and Henry Street.

The “innovative housing and services center with permanently supportive housing, along with emergency shelter and supportive services” would “meet a critical need, and help further the City’s goals to end homelessness,” according to a staff report from Tuesday’s meeting.

Members of the business community have expressed concerns about the loss of parking during construction, and said the parking supply would need to be doubled to ensure that visitors to downtown, who are expected to increase as the area is revitalized, will have access to readily available spots. They noted that decreased parking already in effect or planned, with the construction of the new Berkeley Art Museum and a proposal to demolish and rebuild the Center Street garage.

Council members Jesse Arreguín, Laurie Capitelli, Kriss Worthington and Linda Maio brought the issue up for discussion Tuesday night.

Arreguín called the parking issue “absolutely critical,” and said the city cannot afford to lose more parking downtown. But he said that challenge, and any others, can be addressed as the project moves forward.

At least 10 members of local religious institutions and homeless services organizations spoke in favor of the project Tuesday, saying that the need for better housing for the homeless is dire, and long overdue. They noted that, currently, many of the city’s homeless who seek shelter are forced to do so in a seismically unsafe building. (The emergency overnight men’s shelter at 1931 Center St., at the Veterans Memorial building, was declared unsafe following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, according to information included in Tuesday night’s staff report.)

Worthington described the project as “one of the most visionary and exciting things to come before the City Council in a decade.” He compared it to the Ed Roberts Campus and the David Brower Center in terms of its ambitious, service-oriented scope. Worthington said the Ed Roberts Campus was originally considered “an impossibility, but it’s there in the real world today,” and said the Brower Center, too was considered a pipe dream.

“Yes, all of these ideas are impossible in the ‘real world,’ but this is Berkeley and we can do it,” he said.

According to the staff report, “The most recent Berkeley specific homeless count in 2009 found over 800 homeless people in Berkeley, including 680 chronically homeless individuals. The City provides a variety of social services, but there is a critical need for additional emergency shelter and permanently supportive housing to help people transition out of homelessness.”

Mayor Tom Bates said it would be important to sort out the parking and financing issues prior to putting out a formal Request for Proposals related to the project. He estimated it could take $50 million to build the project in the end.

“I totally think it would be a great thing to happen: a shelter, services, 24-hour care… it’s something to aspire to,” he said. “But why would you start doing something if you could never afford to do it?”

Services, emergency shelter would be part of housing project

The City Council ultimately voted unanimously to look at the parking and financing issues first, with the goal of developing a Request for Proposals for the development of the site after those details are hashed out.

According to the staff report, “Given the scarcity of land to construct new affordable housing Downtown, the Berkeley Way site presents the best opportunity for a dedicated affordable housing project to serve the needs of the homeless in the Downtown area. Given its location a half block away from Shattuck Avenue, its proximity to public transit, and to a variety of social services that serve the homeless, the Berkeley Way site is a prime location for permanently supportive housing.”

Because this project is in its very initial stages, few details are available. The staff report notes the possibility of an emergency shelter on the ground floor, along with space on that level for administration, community space and supportive services. The project could include open space and “a building design that reflects the Buffer designation of the neighborhood and that incorporates set backs and other design features to address scale, compatibility, and solar access.”

The project could potentially be a “zero-net energy building,” as recommended by the Downtown Area Plan, and would be required to meet LEED Gold standards.

Council members discussed the possibility of two levels of on-site parking. The staff report notes that construction would need to be timed with other public parking projects so as to minimize negative impacts on the city’s parking supply.

Community members express enthusiasm and urgency

Craig Larsen, who developed 2054 University Ave., wrote a letter to the city about the project that said the loss of parking, even temporarily, would be “catastrophic” to businesses in the area. He also objected to the project as a whole, saying it’s a matter that would be better decided by the voters: “It is unconscionable to spend tax dollars on a controversial project such as this without a clear mandate from the taxpayers. The government must be charged with the responsibility to make life for its citizens better. This is a misguided attempt to solve a problem that is not capable of being resolved in this context.”

But that opinion was not much in evidence late Tuesday night.

One member of the clergy, from First Congregational Church of Berkeley, called the need for housing “urgent,” and said discussions about this type of housing project have been underway since 2009.

“It’s a moral issue,” she said. “People do not get clean on the street. They do not get their life together on the street. We have the capacity to make huge progress in this area in Berkeley.”

Another said that providing resources, services and a place to live would offer “a viable solution that actually improves whole communities.” She continued: “Your investment in this will be the glory of the city of Berkeley.”

Councilwoman Linda Maio, in her remarks, noted that it is “unconscionable” that many of the city’s homeless who seek shelter must sleep in a seismically unsafe building: “Every time I see, at the end of the day, people waiting to go into the shelter at night I’m really afraid.”

She said the financing for this type of project is rarely known in advance, and may come from a range of sources, including grants, loans and public campaigns.

“You never start out knowing where the money’s going to come from,” she said, adding that it’s important to simply get the ball rolling. “And I think that’s what this does…. With all of the issues we’re facing, we’re getting started.”

City to consider new approach to emergency shelters (09.05.13)
Parking losses, lane changes possible in Line 51 overhaul (08.26.12)
New talks on homelessness in Berkeley start Thursday (08.14.13)
goBerkeley parking rules get final public review (for now) (08.08.13)
Berkeley Food and Housing Project wins $1m grant (07.23.13)
Details unveiled on proposed metered parking changes (07.03.13)
Op-Ed: Berkeley needs a year-round youth shelter (05.30.13)
People’s Park focal point for countywide homeless count (02.01.13)
Berkeley moves towards a consensus homeless plan (01.31.13)
After Measure S failure, it’s time to act on homelessness (01.24.13)
Has it gotten harder to be homeless in Berkeley? (01.02.13)
Measure S: Will it help or hurt the homeless? (10.31.12)
Measure S: We can do better with civil sidewalks (09.19.12)

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...