A new rendering of a mixed-use project that has been approved at 1698 University Ave. in Berkeley. Image: Syncopated Architecture
A new rendering of a mixed-use project that has been approved at 1698 University Ave. in Berkeley. Image: Syncopated Architecture

A proposal to construct a five-story mixed-use building in central Berkeley was approved by the zoning board earlier this month after a request to increase the number of units from 25 to 36 while reducing the on-site parking.

The project, at 1698 University Ave. (at McGee Avenue), originally was approved by the city in 2005, and modified in 2008. Since then the property has changed hands. The new owner, San Francisco-based Realtex Apartments, asked the city Zoning Adjustments Board July 10 to increase the number of units and decrease the parking requirements from the earlier proposal.

The new project, designed by Syncopated Architecture — also of San Francisco — would take the place of a vacant automotive repair station. It is set to include approximately 2,000 square feet of commercial space and nearly 25,400 square feet of residential.

The new team changed the color scheme for the building’s exterior, modified the layout of its courtyard and increased open space from nearly 4,000 to about 6,300 square feet, according to project documents.

A Realtex representative told the board that his company bought the property last June when it was in foreclosure. He said plans include numerous “green” features, such as solar thermal heat and photovoltaic panels on the roof. The company plans to install energy-efficient appliances and LED lighting, and intends to include nine more bike parking spaces than are required.

Via the staff report: The number of apartments was increased from 25 to 36, and the average unit size was reduced from 1,010 to 676 square feet. According to the development team, that shift increased the number of bedrooms from 42 to 48. The building height — five stories and 50 feet tall — has not changed.

The Realtex rep told the board those changes in the project were necessary “to make it viable in the current economy.”

The project as it was approved earlier. Click the image to see the latest designs.

He said redwood trees behind the property would be retained, after neighbors expressed concerns about their removal, and that there are plans for “really usable open space” to include an herb garden.

A handful of neighbors addressed the zoning board saying the area is already heavily impacted by traffic congestion and a lack of parking, and that they fear new residents will only exacerbate the problem.

One woman expressed frustration about the modifications the applicant had requested, particularly given the site’s history. She told the board it had taken three years — and a lawsuit against the prior developer — to reduce the number of units on site to 25.

City planner Aaron Sage told the board that, under state density bonus law and the city’s own 9% affordability requirement, the project was actually entitled to build up to 40 units on the property, but had not elected to do so.

This vacant lot at University and McGee avenues is slated for development by Realtex Apartments. Image: Google Maps

Prior to the meeting, parking was set to include space for 29 vehicles on a triple-lift system, along with wiring for two electric vehicles. The applicant agreed to add an additional parking bay in response to concerns cited by neighbors. The project exceeds the district’s parking requirement under Berkeley’s code.

Tenants of the property would not be eligible for residential parking permits to allow them to park on surface streets for extended periods while the permits are in effect. The applicant and commissioners also noted the presence of numerous car-share spaces in the nearby vicinity, and the project’s proximity to two BART stations.

“I’m not unsympathetic to your concerns,” Commissioner Shoshana O’Keefe told meeting attendees. “The problem with this project is that it actually does meet the parking requirements in the zoning code.”

She encouraged residents to take Berkeley’s parking rules up with the city Planning Commission to try to push for policy change.

Commissioner Igor Tregub — District 4 Councilman Jesse Arreguín’s appointee to the board — was the lone “no” vote against the project. He said he could not ignore how “heavily impacted” the neighborhood already is: “I cannot make the required non-detriment findings,” he told his colleagues.

The project is slated to include three below-market-rate units to residents who earn 50% of the area median income.

There was also some discussion by the board of a request to allow a live-work unit on the property, which the applicant said makes financial sense because the unit size — “very small” — would make it a challenge to find a tenant otherwise.

Some commissioners said they were troubled by the age of the original permit, and asked why the city hadn’t lapsed the approval and had the new project team begin again.

City staff said it’s not the city’s practice to actively lapse permits, no matter how old they are. Some commissioners said they’d like the city to consider a different approach in the future, while others said — given the challenges faced in recent years in the real estate market — the city should consider itself lucky anyone wanted to do something with the property.

“Nothing got built for six years,” said Commissioner Bob Allen. “We should count our blessings there was a permit in place and someone was willing to buy it.”

City planner Aaron Sage also told the board that, as submitted, the project largely complies with city code and that, even under a new application, nothing substantial was likely to change.

See the project documents on the city website. Read more local real estate stories on Berkeleyside.

[CLARIFICATION: Igor Tregub’s initial quotation did not fully reflect what he said July 10. He said he was unable to make the required non-detriment findings given the neighborhood’s already impacted parking conditions under current zoning rules. This has been clarified in the story above.]

New affordable housing project headed for Berkeley (07.17.14)
Neighbors question parking, height of student-oriented housing planned on Telegraph (07.16.14)
Construction to begin on 6-story development (07.11.14)
Zoning board approves ‘The Overture’ on University Ave. (05.27.14)

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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...