Early drawings, which are set to change, of a 120-foot condo project in the works at Shattuck Avenue and Berkeley Way. Image: The Bay Architects
Early drawings, set to change, of a 120-foot condo project in the works at Shattuck Avenue and Berkeley Way. Image: The Bay Architects

Berkeley zoning board commissioners asked the architect for a 120-foot-tall building planned for Shattuck Avenue to make the project less suburban, craft a better street-level retail experience and take steps to retain existing local merchants on site during a review late last week.

The board expressed excitement about the project, but also offered extensive feedback, which was the purpose of the preview session June 26. No action was scheduled or taken.

The 12-story, mixed-use development at 1951-1975 Shattuck Ave. — called L’Argent — is set to include 78 apartments of 1,200 to 1,600 square feet on 10 floors, along with 10,000 square feet of retail on the bottom two stories. Currently, the project includes 91 parking spots and 30 bike storage spaces, according to city staff. (The project architect said there are more than 50 bicycle stalls planned.)

Read more about the details of L’Argent in past Berkeleyside coverage.

The project is in the very early stages of city review, and is likely to change in various ways over the next year as it seeks the necessary approvals and permits.

The project team has appeared before the Landmarks Preservation Commission, Design Review Committee and the Zoning Adjustments Board to get a sense of what changes are needed before any approvals are granted.

Project architect Jim Novosel told commissioners that planning has been in the works for a year, and that his team has met with the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, Downtown Berkeley Association, Berkeley Design Advocates, and Berkeley Association of Realtors, as well as the city panels noted above, to collect ideas.

“We want to get a great, beautiful building,” he said, adding that he was looking forward to ample feedback to ensure that outcome.

Attention to community benefits

Berkeley’s Downtown Area Plan allows for the construction of five tall buildings ranging from 120 feet to 180 feet high in the downtown core. One of those projects, the 17-story 355-unit Residences at Berkeley Plaza, at 2211 Harold Way, is winding its way through the city planning process. Another group is working on a design for a 180-foot hotel and office complex on the Bank of America site at Shattuck and Center Street.

Under the downtown plan, developers for buildings taller than 75 feet “must provide significant community benefits” as part of those projects, “beyond what would otherwise be required.”

The downtown plan does not specify what those benefits must be, but says they could include “affordable housing, supportive social services, green features, open space, transportation demand management features, job training, and/or employment opportunities,” as per city staff.

According to the staff report, the applicant for L’Argent has been “proactive in submitting and refining” proposed benefits associated with the project.

As planned, Novosel said 25% of the property will be left as open space; that public art will be provided on site through a percent-for-art fee and in collaboration with the city’s Civic Arts Commission; and that bioswales along Berkeley Way would be built to help the city capture rainwater coming down Oxford Street.

“We have not shrunk from approaching this issue,” he said, of the proposed benefits. “Allowing the city to have five tall buildings is really a privilege.”

Some commissioners asked Novosel to think again about the proposed benefits, and to consider including a commitment to pay prevailing wages during project construction, or to make sure to help the local businesses that now operate on the property stay on site, or relocate nearby.

The proposed complex at 1951-1975 Shattuck Ave. would displace several small stores lining Berkeley Way and Shattuck, including Berkeley Vacuum, the Missing Link annex and The Cutaway. That’s been of concern to many members of the public, and commissioners said they too are worried about the fate of those businesses. (See the letters below for more community voices regarding that issue.)

Novosel said the property owners, members of the Nasser family — which has a long history in San Francisco — are in negotiations with the business owners to try to come up with rental agreements that would work for both parties, or help them relocate in Berkeley, if possible. He said the two brothers who run the vacuum shop, however, might also be looking at retirement.

“I use Berkeley Vacuum, I love them,” Novosel told commissioners. “I would hate to see that type of business leave Berkeley.”

Commissioners to applicant: Make it less suburban, more Berkeley

Commissioners were unified in asking Novosel to come back with a building design that seemed less “generic suburban,” less “Walnut Creek,” and pay more attention to the street-level shopping experience. They asked him to design the retail and structure with an eye toward other projects nearby, particularly Acheson Commons, and to consider a nod to the historical feel of the block.

“Really nicely articulated entrances to retail would feel really good to people,” said Commissioner Denise Pinkston. “Maintaining that historic pattern, even if you lose a little bit of the open space.”

Some commissioners asked Novosel to reconsider proposed setbacks around the property, noting that coming right up to the sidewalk — called a “street wall” — might be more in line with the city’s Downtown Area Plan.

“If you can make it pretty, I’m all for allowing you to use as much of the zoning envelope as possible,” substitute Commissioner Tim Frank told Novosel. “But it has to be pretty.”

What comes next for L’Argent

After the meeting, Novosel said he took the feedback from the commissioners to heart, and is planning to have his team “humanize, or Berkeley-ize, the building a little more.” He said the team is likely to remove the front balconies from the project, and “make the retail level a lot more attractive.”

Novosel said the group will look at the project’s windows and façade to add more colorful elements, such as stained glass or tiles, in places, taking inspiration from the building that is currently on site. He said the plan is to retain large windows in the units to allow for great views, but to look at adding in smaller windows for variety.

Novosel said, currently, the team does not plan to change its approach to setbacks and open space.

He said, because it’s a condominium project, the city will have to complete a new study to determine what the affordable housing requirements will be. Whether the owners will include those units on site or pay into the city’s affordable housing fund has not been determined.

Novosel said he hopes to submit new plans in late August, with hearings before Design Review and the zoning board to be complete, ideally, by early 2015. If the project can get its entitlements by March or so, construction drawings will follow.

Novosel said construction costs have not been determined, so an estimated price point for units in L’Argent was not available as of this week.

He also noted that, if the downtown initiative — set to come before voters in November — is approved, that would likely kill the project. At the very least, he said, it would require a complete reanalysis of the plans.

“We’re doing all that we can to get a decent-looking building,” Novosel said. “If they start to pile on all those other things — a LEED platinum requirement, that a certain number be three-bedroom units, for example — that would make it a whole new ballgame. It will be a game changer. The benefits we’re proposing, we will have to look at them, too: the art benefits, all these things will have to be re-looked at.”

Downtown initiative put on ballot; city may lose millions in fees (06.26.14)
Would new green initiative kill 2 downtown high rises? (05.14.14)
Op-ed: Beware deceptive ‘Save Post Office’ ballot petition (05.09.14)
Initiative aims to tighten ‘green’ parts of Downtown Plan (05.05.14)
‘Explosive’ downtown Berkeley housing boom under way (01.14.14)
New 120-foot building proposed for downtown Berkeley (12.09.13)
1,000 new apartments planned for downtown Berkeley (02.07.13)

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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...