Some critics of 2211 Harold Way say the models and drawings produced by the project team are inaccurate. Here, they look at a model and compare the height of Harold Way to other tall buildings downtown. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Some critics of 2211 Harold Way say the models and drawings produced by the project team are inaccurate. Here, they look at a model and compare the height of Harold Way to other tall buildings downtown. Photo: Emilie Raguso

A controversial mixed-use project proposed in downtown Berkeley won an important permit Thursday night after a 6-3 vote from Berkeley’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.

The commission had been tasked with deciding whether to grant 2211 Harold Way a structural alteration permit, which it needs to carry out excavations on the project site. The 18-story building is set to include 302 residential units, 177 underground parking spots and more than 10,000 square feet of commercial space.

More than 60 people turned out to Thursday night’s meeting, including more than 50 local residents who spoke forcefully against the project, and about six who spoke in favor. Many project opponents made their disapproval known by hissing and jeering at the handful of speakers who said Berkeley needs more housing, and that Harold Way will be a good project for the city. Commission Chair Christopher Linvill repeatedly had to ask the crowd to quiet down and give the project supporters their chance to speak. The public comment period lasted roughly three hours.

The list of arguments critics have raised against the project is long, covering everything from its height and massing, to its proximity to the historic Shattuck Hotel — with which it shares a block — to its expected displacement of the popular Habitot Children’s Museum, its impact on the view of the bay from the base of the Campanile, and the fact that it will require the demolition and reconstruction of the Landmark Shattuck Cinemas.

More than 60 people showed up for the Landmarks Preservation Committee hearing on 2211 Harold Way. Photo: Emilie Raguso

All of those questions were raised by members of the public Thursday night. Critics said they were also concerned about the project’s structural integrity, particularly in light of the extensive excavations that will be needed, in part, to make room for the new theaters. They said a structural engineering analysis has not yet been completed, and urged the landmarks commission not to approve the project permit until that report is done and can be independently reviewed.

Members of the public questioned whether the project’s height has been represented accurately in the materials that have so far been available, saying they believe it is much taller than what city rules should allow.

They also expressed distrust about promises made by developer Joe Penner of Hill Street Realty regarding his intention to replace the theaters, saying that the cinemas’ fate will hang in the balance until the results of the structural analysis are known.

Penner, in his remarks to the commission, said Berkeley has built an average of 48 new housing units annually since 1970, which he said has contributed to the housing crunch in the city. According to the U.S. Census, Berkeley’s population jumped from about 103,000 in 2000 to more than 112,000 in 2010.

“It took 45 years to get here and it won’t change overnight,” he said, of the housing crisis. “It’ll take time to fix. And I think the downtown plan, once it’s implemented — and further steps that way — will help alleviate a lot of the housing problems here in town.”

From left: Joe Penner, Mark Rhoades and Matt Taecker speaking on behalf of Harold Way at Thursday’s LPC meeting. Photo: Emilie Raguso
From left: Joe Penner, Mark Rhoades and Matt Taecker speaking on behalf of Harold Way at Thursday’s LPC meeting. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Berkeley resident and Daily Planet co-owner Becky O’Malley told the commission it could save the city “a great deal of money” by electing not to grant the structural alteration permit. She and many others raised questions about the project’s EIR, or environmental impact report, calling it “very, very deficient.” (The city’s Zoning Adjustments Board approved the EIR in late June.)

She said those fighting the project have retained “a very good attorney” and plan to file a lawsuit should the city approve 2211 Harold Way.

“The people of Berkeley will raise the money to fight these errors should they be made by the people who were supposed to prevent them,” she told the commission.

Local resident Paul Matzner, who has been helping lead the Save Shattuck Cinemas campaign to preserve the movie theaters in their current form, told the commission it should listen closely to those who came out Thursday. He noted that most of them are over 50 or 60 years old, and described them as “the intellectual and cultural treasure of Berkeley.”

His comments were, in part, a response to project supporters who reminded the commission about the 2010 majority vote to approve the Downtown Area Plan and increase density in Berkeley by allowing the construction of seven tall buildings in the core, as well as last fall’s voter rejection of a measure that would have added additional requirements and costs to downtown construction. Project supporters said city leaders need to listen to the will of the whole community, rather than only those who have been showing up publicly to oppose Harold Way.

“What’s important to recognize is that the crowd that you see before you is not necessarily representative of the broader population in Berkeley,” Tim Frank told the commission. He and others said Berkeley would be making the sustainable choice by increasing housing density along transit corridors in the city.

Other members of the crowd took issue with both of those arguments. They said Berkeley voters had not known what they were approving when they voted in favor of the Downtown Area Plan. Many also said the concept of “smart growth” — high density in transit corridors — is a scam being used by developers to encourage those with left-leaning philosophies to support big projects that harm neighborhoods in the long run.

Many said, too, that the proposal is vastly out of scale with the nearby historic Shattuck Hotel, which they believe should be taken into consideration.

“It is Godzilla the gorilla overshadowing our landmark,” Anne Wagley told commissioners during public comment. She and others said the project does not comply with federal guidelines related to the rehabilitation of historic sites, and for that reason too should be denied its permit.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission voted 6-3 to grant Harold Way its structural alteration permit Thursday night. Photo: Emilie Raguso
The Landmarks Preservation Commission voted 6-3 to grant Harold Way its structural alteration permit Thursday night. Photo: Emilie Raguso

At 10:20 p.m., the commission began its own hour-long discussion of what to do about the structural alteration permit, which the project needs to move ahead.

After brief remarks by Commissioner Austene Hall, Commissioner Carrie Olson spoke for about half an hour noting an array of questions and criticisms related to the project. The two, together with Linvill, voted against the approval of the permit.

Olson said she did not think the city was taking the appropriate approach to the project permits, particularly regarding demolition plans, because of 2211 Harold Way’s proximity to the landmarked Shattuck Hotel. She said she didn’t trust the agreement by the developer to replace the theaters, and said she was concerned about plans to have fire pits on the building’s roof. She said the building does not include enough solar panels, and that she did not like plans to “uplight” the building at night. In addition, she said Harold Way’s “glassy façades” would be too bright in the daytime, and interfere with views from the east.

Echoing comments from the public, Olson said she does not believe the project renderings are accurate, and said the 2211 Harold Way site had not been one of the “opportunity sites” identified by the community as a good place for development downtown during the public process related to the creation of the city’s Downtown Area Plan.

Olson said she was particularly worried about planned renovation of the space where Mel’s and Yogurtland now stand, as far as work needed underground to make way for the theaters, and said the current design for the cinemas does not seem adequate. She also held up a map of the area and said the project site historically had Strawberry Creek running beneath it, which may lead to surprises if construction moves forward.

“The truth is we don’t know” what the construction team will find during excavation, Olson said, adding that it is this uncertainty that makes the future of the theaters particularly questionable. She and others expressed fear that the community could be left without theaters in the project if the structural report says the requisite excavation is not possible.

Chair Linvill said he also thought 2211 Harold Way was “an odd choice for a site.” He voted against the project.

A model of 2211 Harold Way in downtown Berkeley drew a lot of interest Thursday night. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Materials proposed for Harold Way. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Only two commissioners, Paul Schwartz and Dmitri Belser, offered comments regarding the rationale for their votes to approve.

Schwartz said he believed 2211 Harold Way would “give the city of Berkeley a shot in the arm in an area that’s not very desirable right now.” He said other cities had been successful in blending together historic landmarks and new development, and hoped Berkeley will manage to do the same.

Schwartz also brought up the example of Cambridge, Massachusetts, which he said has about the same population as Berkeley, and is also a college town. Although Cambridge is about half the size of Berkeley, he noted, it has 23 buildings that are 205-295 feet tall, and another one in the pipeline.

“I think the developers have bent over backwards to take into consideration everything that everybody has mentioned or complained about,” he said.

Belser said he feels strongly that projects such as Harold Way and the expansive Parker Place, which is being built in his neighborhood, help protect neighborhood character by keeping density along the city’s main thoroughfares.

“I believe that building buildings on the arteries and in the downtown makes sense,” he said, “to protect the character of the neighborhoods we want to protect.”

Meeting attendees called out to demand comments from the other commissioners — Kim Suczynski Smith, Kiran Shenoy, Tom Beil and Steven Murphy — who did not speak about the project prior to the vote, but the commissioners did not respond, in line with meeting protocol.

After the vote, Commissioner Hall expressed her displeasure at the decision. She and Olson had proposed an alternate motion to put off the decision to a later date, but they were the only votes in favor, so the motion failed.

“You will go down in history,” she told the rest of the panel, after it granted the permit. Of the project, she said: “There are so many things in here that are just wrong.”

Read complete Berkeleyside coverage of 2211 Harold Way. Several recent stories appear below. An earlier version of this story wrongly reported the LPC vote as 7-2 in favor, rather than 6-3 in favor. 

Op-ed: The Harold Way Project, as presented, will sacrifice Berkeley’s unique character (08.05.15)
New plan calls for 10 theaters at 2211 Harold Way (07.30.15)
Berkeley council adopts community benefits package (07.16.15)
Op-ed: Let’s say ‘yes’ to a vibrant downtown Berkeley (07.10.15)
Council declines to overturn LPC vote on Campanile Way (07.01.15)
Berkeley council to hear Campanile Way landmark appeal (06.30.15)
Council approves community benefits package; ZAB votes to certify Harold Way EIR (06.29.15)

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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...