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There have been five public hearings since 2011, and five mediation sessions since last November, concerning the expansion and renovation plans of St. Mary’s College. Photo: St. Mary’s College High School

St. Mary’s College High School got the go-ahead last Wednesday for its master plan to add two buildings and renovate others. The move followed six months of mediation with its North Berkeley neighbors.

The private Catholic college preparatory high school sits on 12.5 acres, surrounded by about 100 homes in North Berkeley and Albany. Although St. Mary’s has a Berkeley street address — 1294 Albina Ave. — it actually sits on the Albany side of the line, so it was Albany’s Planning and Zoning Commission that approved the master plan and a conditional use permit.

The plan for the school of about 600 students includes:

  • A new music building of 13,400 square feet, to replace the much smaller current one;
  • A new campus chapel, 4,400 square feet, single-story;
  • A 14,000-square-foot addition to St. Joseph’s Hall (classrooms, library and offices);
  • A larger kitchen at the student center;
  • A new drainage plan.

At this time, St. Mary’s has only enough money to replace the music building, according to Vivian Kahn, planning consultant to the school. That construction is not likely to begin before summer 2014, she said. The rest of the master plan could take “10 to 15 years – or more” to build, Kahn said. “They need to raise money as they go.”

It’s been a long process already: in 2006, the school submitted a larger plan, withdrew it in 2008, and submitted the current, scaled-back plan in 2011. Five public hearings were held since 2011, and five mediation sessions since last November.

“We’re thrilled that the planning commission approved it,” said Kahn. However, she continued, the school is now waiting to see if the neighborhood group is going to appeal the decision to Albany’s City Council.

One major concern of neighbors, over many years, has been the traffic generated by the students, especially on small Albina. (There are two other drop-offs on the east and north sides of campus, on Monterey and Posen.)  Parking during weekend events at the school is also an issue.

As a result of the mediation, St. Mary’s will pay $25,000 for a traffic consultant and improvements. That work has to be completed before the music building can be used, said Albany City Planner, Anne Hersch.

Another issue was was that the new, larger music building might mean more noise. An agreement was struck that if that occurred, the school would close the building after 6 p.m.

An arial photo of the St. Mary’s College High School campus, which has a Berkeley mailing address but is actually located in Albany

One of the largest concerns remaining to the Peralta Park Neighborhood Association – the residents of Albina and nearby streets – is the chapel proposed to sit on the edge of campus by Albina, along the Codornices Creek.

The worry has been that the chapel would be used outside of school purposes, such as for weddings on weekends, generating more traffic outside school hours.

In response, St. Mary’s proposed to stipulate, in writing, that it will limit outside events at the chapel to two per year. That sounds like a solution, but the neighborhood group wants the City of Albany to make that a requirement for the permit. Albany will not do so.

“When it comes to limitations (on the chapel), we get into potential legal problems” with religious land use laws, said Craig Labadie, the city attorney, at the meeting.

Donna DeDiemar, a leader with the neighborhood association, is frustrated with the city’s stance on the chapel, because, she said, it doesn’t protect the agreement in the future.

“We know from experience that everybody’s best intentions aren’t good enough, because the players change. The conditional use permit has to be specific and clearly understood,” DeDiemar said.

The neighborhood group presented several more changes it wanted at at the September 11 meeting: clarifying the school’s maximum enrollment, which is somewhat vaguely worded, and reimbursing neighbors, should they experience flooding due to the new buildings on the school’s hillside location.

In the end, the Albany commission made just one requested change, eliminating a reference to threatened litigation, but did not respond to the other requests.

The 20-some neighbors who attended the Wednesday meeting were clearly frustrated. As they left, they complained that the permit was approved without further discussion. As of Friday, DeDiemar said, she did not yet know whether the group would appeal the commission’s decision to the Albany City Council.  The deadline for an appeal is Sept. 25.

Read city documents relating to St. Mary’s.

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Mary Flaherty is a freelance reporter who has lived in the Berkeley area for since 1994. She earned a masters in journalism from UC Berkeley, and has reported for several local papers and copyedited for...