City zoning board members approved a 77-unit mixed-use housing development near downtown Berkeley late last week, expressing excitement about a “unique” design set to include more than a dozen working rooftop farm plots and a novel approach to parking.
“Garden Village,” at 2201 Dwight Way at Fulton Street, brings with it a number of innovative features, from its composition — it’s made up of 18 distinct but connected “volumes,” or towers, that range in height from 3 to 5 stories and are connected by open-air walkways; its more than 12,000 square feet of rooftop farming plots; and its small garage, which offers just enough space for a fleet of shared vehicles that will be rentable by tenants.
Without the car-sharing idea, the project would have required room for 71 vehicles. Instead, Berkeley-based developer Nautilus Group decided it would purchase a fleet of four to 10 automobiles and contract with a car-sharing operator called Getaround to run the “car-share pod” operation. (The city required Nautilus to pay for a parking demand study to bolster the justification for that approach.)
Zoning board Commissioner Shoshana O’Keefe described the concept as potentially “genius,” adding that the notion of projects that fold effective car-sharing programs into their plans “might be the magic solution” to the hairy issue of meeting parking demand efficiently in a densely-populated community.
Robust transportation plan set new standard
The small, ground-level garage will include space for four to 10 vehicles; developers say the number in the fleet will be adjusted to ensure an availability rate of 96% to its residents. Given the small space, commissioners expressed concern about whether there would be room for a disabled parking spot, and made setting aside the appropriate space for that spot, somewhere on-site, a condition of project approval.
The project is also set to include ample bike parking options both within units and in other areas on the property. Ceiling-mounted hooks for 154 bikes will be located within the units; another 58 spaces will be available in the basement and in ground-level lockers and racks; and eight sidewalk racks intended for visitors will be installed.
As part of the Garden Village Transportation Plan, developers will provide two AC Transit EasyPasses per unit ($480,000), Bikelink locker cards good for 200-300 hours to every resident ($70,800), and an on-site self-serve bike repair station available to tenants.
Commissioner Sophie Hahn said the transportation plan is the most “robust and thought-through and complete” of anything to come before the zoning board.
The project area, in Berkeley’s southside area, covers 27,223 square feet and has frontage on both Dwight and Fulton. The project site now houses a one-story commercial building on the southern portion, fronting on Dwight, and a surface parking lot on the northern portion. The structure, which will be demolished, was built in 1947 as an automobile dealership and service facility, and was converted to offices in 1983.
[Update: The owner of the land is Anthony Levandowski, a leader in Google’s driverless car program.]
“A modernistic interpretation of community living”
To come up with a “fresh approach to student-oriented housing” Nautilus held a design competition, and ultimately chose the work of San Francisco’s Stanley Saitowitz, “whose innovative design represents a modernistic interpretation of community living,” as the winning entry.
Randy Miller, principal at Nautilus Group, told Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board members, in their Oct. 10 meeting, that the company aims “to build the best student housing project in the country.” (Zoning board members pointed out that, legally, tenancy cannot be restricted to students, and that they could imagine young professionals being drawn to the project as well. See a project overview here.)
Miller said Nautilus had surveyed more than 700 students, parents and neighbors nationwide to find out “what do students really need?”
“They said, ‘Give us a private space.’ They needed their own bedroom, but at the same time wanted to live in a collegial environment,” he said. They also said that “design matters,” he added. “It matters a lot to us, too. These are real units.… It’s dignified. It’s a lot better than what I had when I was a student.”
To avoid what he described as “an Animal House situation,” he assured commissioners that there would be on-site professional management during working hours, on-site security from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. nightly, and a resident manager available 24 hours a day. Commissioners made the on-site manager position, for the lifetime of the building, a requirement for approval.
A key element of the project is the rooftop farm, with which Garden Village hopes to break “new ground for the local, organic, & sustainable food movement.” Intensive rooftop farms — which are intended to be visible from the street — are planned above 16 of the 18 building volumes: “The rooftop farm will be the first of its kind in California and will yield approximately 16 tons of produce annually. According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, this equates to enough fresh vegetables for every daily meal for an estimated 160 people.” The produce — an estimated 32,000 pounds annually — will be available to all residents and the broader community via a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program.
Developers said the idea is part of their effort to maximize the project’s sustainability performance: “With the goal of creating a model for truly low environmental impact housing, Nautilus Group moved away from image focused certification goals and trendy photovoltaics. Instead, they carefully focused on developing deep green value through energy and material efficiency strategies combined with addressing specific underserved community needs like car sharing and local agriculture.”
The farms, run by Berkeley-based Spiral Gardens, will focus on “3-4 popular niche crops such as small fruited tomatoes & specialty lettuce mixes, will regularly produce a total of 15-20 crop types for market and will additionally grow a dozen other crops that regenerate the soil and provide beneficial insect habitat for pest control.”
Bar grate walkways will connect the gardens, and a vertical shaft to a basement processing center will get produce from the roof to street. In addition to the planned CSA available to tenants, Nautilus also plans to sell food at local farmers markets, and hopes simply to break even with the farm operation.
In response to concerns from commissioners about what might happen on the rooftops if the farm doesn’t work out, Miller said Nautilus is committed to the idea, but would come up with a suitable alternative if need be.
“We’re viewing this as a prototype,” he said, adding that Nautilus is looking at the possibility of creating similar farms on other projects the company has in the pipeline, and that he’s “really excited and passionate” about urban farming. “But if it doesn’t work, we fall flat on our face, the worst thing that happens is we turn this into the biggest, most beautiful rooftop garden in Berkeley.”
(Many more details about the farming operation are available beginning on page 27 of the applicant statement.)
All the units in the project will be furnished, and are set to include a full kitchen as well as a washer and dryer. Forty-one of the units will have four bedrooms, and 36 are set to include two bedrooms. Seven very-low-income units, the full number required under the city code, will be provided on site; three will have two bedrooms and the rest will have four, according to the city staff report prepared for the zoning board meeting.
In most cases, bedroom occupancy will be limited to one person, and a light cleaning service will be provided every other week.
The building will be constructed using factory-built modules (two modules per two- bedroom unit, and three modules per four-bedroom unit), to reduce construction time and waste generated during the building process, according to the staff report.
Community feedback was key
In response to community feedback, from the public, the Design Review Committee and the Zoning Adjustments Board, developers made a range of adjustments to the project. These included a partial height reduction along Fulton, as well as a reduction in the initial unit number and planned occupancy, and increased setbacks and open space.
Several in attendance credited Berkeley resident Nathan George with his work over the past 10 months offering suggestions that ultimately improved the design.
George, speaking to the commission, noted that “every single abutting property owner is opposed,” but acknowledged that the developer had made changes in response to concerns he and others had identified. He said he wasn’t yet fully happy with the property setbacks and massing, but said he had “tried my best” to advocate for important changes, and that he was ready to be done with the struggle.
Nine other members of the public spoke in favor of the project.
Commissioners thanked the developer for listening to George and other public feedback. Said Commissioner Sophie Hahn: “You’ve really worked with the community and made changes to your design. You’re not taking everything that might be available to you if you pushed really hard and wanted to play hardball.”
Commissioner Igor Tregub called the design “bold but harmonious,” adding that it is “one of the most interesting proposals that’s come before us.”
Another commissioner, George Williams, said the project will “set a standard for development in the future,” and noted “the neatness of the land-use pattern.” Williams said the distinct buildings, which were described as both “towers” and “volumes,” effectively break up the building massing and include wide green spaces in between.
The board voted unanimously to approve the plans and, after a suggestion by Commissioner Deborah Matthews, asked for a review by staff one year after occupancy begins to see whether the operation is going smoothly.
Miller said after the meeting that the project is scheduled to open by summer 2015, with groundbreaking to come next June. Units are tentatively slated to cost $800-$1,000 per resident.
“We are extremely excited that ZAB recognized the widespread community support for Garden Village’s unique design, environmental features and community benefits, and unanimously approved the project,” he said. “Through the community’s input, we were able to design and present a project that we can all be proud of. We look forward to breaking ground as soon as the city will allow us, and hope to see all of our neighbors and supporters at the ribbon cutting ceremony once Garden Village is completed.”
Learn more at DiscoverGardenVillage.com, where those who are interested can sign up for email updates about the project.
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