A rendering of the upgraded Center Street garage. The Zoning Adjustments Board was critical of the plan, saying it was not ambitious enough. Image: Marcy Wong Donn Logan Architects
A rendering of the upgraded Center Street garage. The Zoning Adjustments Board was critical of the plan, saying it was not ambitious enough. Image: Marcy Wong Donn Logan Architects

Berkeley zoning board members told the developer of the Center Street garage overhaul at a project preview session last week that they want him to go above and beyond the submitted plans in terms of green features and physical design.

“I am dismayed by this project in a major way,” said Zoning Adjustments Board Commission Chairman Prakash Pinto on Thursday night. “It’s rather mundane. It’s got some lipstick on it as far as I’m concerned.”

Read more about parking in Berkeley.

The downtown Berkeley garage is a bit different than most that come before the zoning board because it is a municipal project and not one brought forward by a private developer. In December 2013, the city voted to pay up to $1 million to San Francisco-based Conversion Management Associates Inc. to plan and manage the overhaul. Money for the project is coming from the city’s off-street parking fund, including $350,000 last year and $650,000 in fiscal year 2015.

Pinto, who was not particularly vocal during the first several hours of Thursday’s meeting, spoke with emotion for several minutes about his disappointment in the garage proposal. He focused in particular on the green aspects of the design, saying city projects should be a model for superior environmental standards, especially when the city asks so much of private developers downtown. (Under the Downtown Area Plan, most projects are required to meet a LEED Gold standard or its equivalent.)

Pinto said, too, that the garage could be a beautiful structure with creative features without necessarily costing the city an excessive amount of money.

The other commissioners echoed Pinto’s sentiments and added their own concerns regarding the look of the structure, plans for its public restrooms, parking spaces for the disabled and electric vehicles, the possibility of open space for recreation and more. 

According to project documents, the new 8-story, 248,000-square-foot parking structure — with space on the ground floor for a garage operations office, arts displays and tenant spaces for a quick-service restaurant and bike parking station for about 270 bikes (which exists now) — would include 711 vehicle parking spots.

The current garage stands 5 stories tall and has 440 parking spots.

As for other proposed bike-related amenities, “Bicycle repair, retail sales of biking accessories, and bicycle rentals would be offered within a 635 sq. ft. tenant space fronting Center Street. In addition, the Bike Station would oversee a secure bicycle parking area (540 sq. ft.) with parking for approximately 56 bicycles. This area would be accessible only to BikeLink pass holders 24 hours per day.”

Commissioner Denise Pinkston brought up the steel mesh that is proposed to wrap around the garage. She said she hoped it would not look like the siding on the MacArthur BART station parking lot, which she called “one of the worst things we’ve built in the Bay Area in the last couple of years.”

Several options for the metal mesh on the garage. Image: Marcy Wong Donn Logan Architects
Options for mesh on the garage. Image: Marcy Wong Donn Logan Architects

The mock-ups of the garage, in a presentation by architect Keith Brown, looked appealing, Pinkston said, but so did the mock-ups of the MacArthur garage, which she said did not translate well into reality.

Commissioner Sophie Hahn shared what she described as a “laundry list” of comments on the plans, and said the city should be asking, regarding the project, “What can we do that can be fabulous?”

Hahn questioned the visual appeal of the project, asking the developers to rethink the bright colors proposed for the structure and suggesting something similar to the “patina rust of the de Young museum.”

Her main concern, however, was the design of the public restrooms in the new garage. She compared the sorry state of Berkeley’s restrooms to those she saw recently in Istanbul, which she said were spacious and lined with marble.

“I’d like the restrooms to be robust, easy to find, and not some little thing tucked away in a corner that says ‘if you’re a human being who needs to use a bathroom you’re a bad person,’” Hahn said.

See the developer’s overview of the Center Street garage project.

Commissioners said the city would also have to think carefully about plans for public art on site to ensure that whatever is selected could withstand the test of time.

Commissioner Shoshana O’Keefe inquired about the garage’s charging stations for electric vehicles.

“I just got an electric car, so I suddenly care about charging stations in a new way,” O’Keefe said.

The garage as planned has 24 charging stations, with wiring to accommodate “more as is needed,” Brown said. He also noted that he will need to determine in advance the total number of stations because the wiring and power supply cannot easily be adjusted down the road.

The double-helix design planned for the garage. The developer said the design would speed entry and exit times in the garage. Image: Marcy Wong Donn Logan Architects
The double-helix design planned for the garage. The developer said the design would speed entry and exit times in the garage. Image: Marcy Wong Donn Logan Architects

O’Keefe asked him to come back at the next meeting with more information on how that works, and said she hopes the city will maximize the potential for electric vehicle charging in the garage.

She also expressed the need to compensate for the nine disabled parking spaces that will be unavailable during construction, and suggested the relocation of those spaces on Addison Street or nearby to maintain accessibility in the short term.

“I’d like to see a really, really robust plan for the year of construction to mitigate the parking loss,” O’Keefe said.

The mitigation plan during construction is expected to be completed shortly, and Berkeleyside will continue to report on the project as additional details are available.

Berkeley resident and local historian Steve Finacom summed up the evening’s sentiments when he spoke during public comments about a memo he submitted to the zoning board about the project.

“This needs to be a 21st-century garage,” Finacom said, rather than “just 

He said he’d like to see the garage “fully wired for electric vehicle charging,” adding that, in his view, “the most important thing is a rooftop park” that could include basketball and tennis courts, urban gardens, a dog park or other notable public amenities.

The issue of open space on the parcel remains an open question. Generally, projects in Berkeley are required to include a certain amount of open space, but a consultant who presented the garage project to the zoning board said the city had decided to waive that requirement. Commissioners said they were not convinced by the city’s logic, and asked for more detail at the next presentation about why the project should be exempt.

The garage will have some green and dynamic aspects, including a water filtration system, solar panelling, and a double-helix design that would speed up entry and exit time in the garage. The sidewalks around both entrances would be widened with a bench planned for the Center Street side. Brown said the goal is to “activate” the sidewalks by improving the pedestrian experience with some of those changes.

Commissioner Pinkston commented that garages are often dead spaces, though she said the planned bike parking and art exhibits on site would likely help to avoid that. She suggested “losing a few [parking] spaces” and leasing some space to the Berkeley Art Center or another similar creative Berkeley organization to liven up the space.

The board did not set a date for its next review of the garage, but the city’s Design Review Committee is slated to discuss it Thursday. For details, project documents and news about future meetings for the project, stay tuned to the city website. See the developer’s preview presentation of the Center Street garage project.

Berkeley Center Street garage project gets first review (06.10.15)
Neighbors question parking, height of student-oriented housing planned on Telegraph (07.16.14)
Center Street garage slated for demolition, expansion (12.10.13)
City parking garage fees up downtown, down on Telegraph (10.30.13)
Metered parking changes launch Tuesday in Berkeley (10.15.13)
Berkeley council weighs in on parking pilot program (06.12.13)
Parking changes slated for 3 Berkeley business zones (05.23.13)

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Eden Teller, a junior at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, is a Berkeleyside summer intern. She is majoring in media and cultural studies and minoring in geology.

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Eden Teller is a freelance reporter, writer and amateur gardener. She began reporting for Berkeleyside as an intern in 2013 and continued her career with a B.A. in Media Studies from Macalester College...