Posted inHousing & Development

John King: Keeping downtown Berkeley’s design distinctive is a tall order

BAM:PFA. Photo- Paul Chinn, The Chronicle
The newly emerging BAM/PFA building in downtown Berkeley. Photo: Paul Chinn, The Chronicle

By John King / San Francisco Chronicle

A walk through downtown Berkeley reveals a treasure of pre-World War II architecture, different styles and materials blending together in comfortable structures that were built for their time but seem to grow in stature with each passing decade.

The newer buildings? Not so much. And the ones on deck — one as tall as anything now there — could be even less satisfying.

The problem isn’t the scale of what’s proposed, or the architectural mishmash in the mix. It’s the way that a confusing process encourages checklists over creativity, while opponents would rather fight to stop nearly all change, rather than find ways to make that change enrich downtown’s sense of place.

Nearly 20 projects are now in the works in the area roughly bounded by Berkeley Way on the north, Dwight Way on the south, UC Berkeley on the east and the Civic Center on the west.

Together they include more than 1,500 housing units. There also are two hotels, plus the new home for the Berkeley Art Museum /Pacific Film Archive that will open in January. In size, they range from discreet mid-block additions to a trio of proposals more than 10 stories high.

A big reason for the boom is the underlying appeal of Berkeley itself, with its campus and its tumultuous legacy of cultural adventure. Downtown has a BART station, and nearby Emeryville is home to such desirable employers as Pixar and Novartis.

Paul Chinn
Early construction on the residential and retail Stone Fire project is underway at University Avenue and Milvia Street in Berkeley, Calif. on Friday, Aug. 28, 2015. Several multi-level residential and commercial development projects are changing the landscape of the downtown area. Photo: Paul Chinn, The Chronicle

The stepped-up development is being encouraged by Berkeley’s political establishment and the City Council, which in 2012 passed a downtown plan that emphasizes the environmental virtues of centered growth. When opponents tried to undermine the plan last year with a ballot initiative that in essence would raise the bar so high as to prevent almost any substantial new buildings, voters rejected it by a 74-26 percent margin.

But if the momentum for growth is real and steeped in social trends of the moment, the buildings that result are mired in the past.

Not taking risks

Forget Berkeley’s political liberalism: For many local residents, conservative architecture is their creed. The review process, meanwhile, is a confusing journey that many applicants respond to by doing just enough to win their approvals.

Unlike San Francisco, where the Planning Department hashes out design issues before a project goes to the City Planning Commission for a yes-or-no vote, Berkeley’s planners exist mainly to make sure paperwork is in order. Design issues are hashed out at either the Design Review Committee or the Landmarks Preservation Commission before going to the Zoning Adjustments Board.

In other words, design by committee. There’s a presentation and then a series of responses from intelligent but opinionated appointees. Citizen commenters weigh in, not always on point. Architects retreat to lick their wounds and compare notes, then return a few months later with changes in hand for round two. Repeat as needed.

This explains why many projects play it safe. A building going up at Shattuck Avenue and Dwight Way, for instance, is in streamlined moderne style — a design motif found nowhere else downtown except for the decade-old neighbor next door. The corner of University Avenue and Milvia Street is about to sprout an eight-story building that began as Tuscan Lite but now is a subdued collage of setbacks and bays in no discernible style…

Striving to be noticed

Two of the largest projects now being reviewed are more ambitious. They also show the strains of trying at once to stand out and fit in.

One is a 12-story box of 98 apartments that would replace what now is a low corner of retail buildings at Shattuck Avenue and Berkeley Way. The longtime landowner hired Bay Architects, founded in 1980 by James Novosel. The firm has done some good work, especially in historic restoration, but it has never worked on anything of this scale.

First shown in April 2014 to the Design Review Committee, the fourth iteration of the proposal was presented this month. Initially, it came in washed-out hues with a pitched roof at each corner, then a vaguely southwestern theme with three peaks along Shattuck, then a darker and more stately package vaguely reminiscent of a 1920s East Coast apartment block. Now the bottom nine floors wear light terra-cotta … topped by a three-story glass summit with horizontal metal accents.

This is architecture as camouflage, like a portly man trying on a procession of snug suits to see which one best hides his girth. After a back-and-forth during which unimpressed-looking commissioners offered comments, committee Chairman Burton Edwards sent off Novosel — himself a planning commissioner — with a dutiful “perhaps it needs a little bit of tweaking.”

Despite its height, this project hasn’t stirred much reaction from growth-wary residents — maybe because their ire has been aimed at downtown’s largest development project in 40-plus years.

It’s an 18-story housing block that would rise behind the historic Shattuck Hotel at Kittredge Street and Harold Way. The height would match or slightly exceed downtown’s two existing towers.

A multi-story residential building under construction on Addison Street backs up against two smaller buildings accessed off of University Avenue in Berkeley, Calif. on Friday, Aug. 28, 2015. Several multi-level residential and commercial development projects are changing the landscape of the downtown area. Photo: Paul Chinn, The Chronicle
A multi-story residential building under construction on Addison Street backs up against two smaller buildings accessed off of University Avenue in Berkeley, Calif. on Friday, Aug. 28, 2015. Several multi-level residential and commercial development projects are changing the landscape of the downtown area. Photo: Paul Chinn, The Chronicle

Generation gap

Opponents have attacked 2211 Harold from every conceivable angle since the “conceptual application” was filed in December 2012 (it now is nearing a final vote, though critics already have threatened to sue). This includes a petition with 1,500 signers objecting to how the project’s north edge marred the view of the bay from the top of the steps to the Campanile tower, a campus landmark.

Most of the attacks, though, come from longtime city residents who seem repelled by the idea that young people with good jobs might want an urban buzz close to home. At the Landmarks Preservation Commission this month, for instance, roughly 50 people spoke against the proposal before it was approved on a 6-3 vote. The website Berkeleyside reported that one speaker told the commission he and other critics are in their 50s and 60s and should be listened to because they are the “the intellectual and cultural treasure of Berkeley.”

It’s a generation gap of sorts, the 1960s turned on its head. Don’t trust anyone under 40.

What gets lost in the acrimony is that 2211 Harold isn’t good design. It’s a real estate deal packaged for developer Hill Street Realty by SVA Architects as an unconvincing attempt to make one building look like three. The centerpiece would be 18 stories in thin-brick veneer, with lower glass-clad wings to the north and east. And when the 12-story northern wing was pulled back 23 feet to remove any impact on the view from the Campanile steps, the trimmed space was stacked on top of the eastern wing — boosting it to 16 stories, nearly the height of its brick “neighbor.”

Multiple pressures

In a different scenario, city planners would keep the setback but veto the inflation, like a squeezed balloon, of the eastern wing. Make the project a bit smaller, accept a smaller check for development fees.

Opponents, meanwhile, could pressure City Hall to make the project better — improving the details, thinning the bulk, putting pressure to include affordable housing. Instead, they seem to glory in the role of martyrs, true believers fighting the tide of techies and Manhattanization.

Berkeley remains distinctive. The downtown is more engaging than it was a generation ago, in large part because of the focused growth. But in terms of creating urbane structures that will endure, the city that gave us such renowned architects as Julia Morgan and Bernard Maybeck has seen much better days.

John King, the San Francisco Chronicle’s urban design critic and a Berkeley resident, took his regular Cityscape series and coverage to Berkeley in August. Story reprinted with permission from the San Francisco Chronicle. King’s new book,“Cityscapes 2: Reading the Architecture of San Francisco” published by Berkeley’s Heyday, was published on Sept. 1. Reach John King by email: Twitter: @johnkingsfchron

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