A model of Harold Way drew a lot of interest Thursday night. Photo: Emilie Raguso
A model of the Harold Way project (file photo). Photo: Emilie Raguso

After over 30 meetings since an initial application in December 2012, the 18-story multi-use Berkeley Plaza project at 2211 Harold Way received its use permit from the Zoning Adjustments Board on Wednesday night.

The approval, with a 6-3 vote of the board, came with significant amendments to the developer’s proposed community benefits plan that allocate $4.5 million to affordable housing, in addition to the $6 million required by the housing mitigation fee.

“We’ve got to appeal it. We can’t live with those numbers,” said Mark Rhoades of Rhoades Planning Group, a project representative, to one of the union supporters at the meeting. A few minutes later, speaking to Berkeleyside, Rhoades said, “We believe that’s outside our reach.” But he said his group would decide on any action in the coming days. Any appeal would be heard by the Berkeley City Council.

Read more about tall building projects in Berkeley.

The use permit approval came at the end of a nearly five-hour meeting, with over 80 commenters from the public. The 18-story building in downtown Berkeley is set to include 302 residential units, 177 underground parking spots and more than 10,000 square feet of commercial space, including a 10-screen movie theater to replace Shattuck Cinemas. Unusually, given the heated criticism the project has attracted at previous ZAB meetings, as well as hearings at the Design Review Committee, Landmarks Preservation Commission and council, public comment was fairly evenly divided between opponents and proponents of the project. 

2211 Harold Way is one of several tall building proposals in the pipeline that must offer "significant community benefits" under the Downtown Area Plan. Image: MVEI Architecture and Planning
2211 Harold Way would be the first of several tall buildings planned for the downtown. Image: MVEI Architecture and Planning

Opponents cited the scale of the project, flaws in the approval process, concerns about earthquake safety and worries about the impact of construction on nearby Berkeley High School. Advocates called for more housing in Berkeley and for increased activity downtown. To a remarkable extent, the divide in opinion was generational: older commenters were opposed; younger ones approved.

“We have to stop letting the perfect be the enemy of the good and get housing built now,” said Eric Panzer, chair of Livable Berkeley. He said many opponents had secured housing in Berkeley years ago and wanted to “pull up the drawbridge.”

“I don’t care how many meetings you had up to now, but each and every speaker has pointed out how you’ve not done your job,” said Becky O’Malley, co-owner of the Berkeley Daily Planet. She said there was too much “unfinished business” for the board to make a decision.

When zoning board members weighed in, all of them said they supported the project — but there were significant disagreements about what the community benefits required of the developer should be. Council’s community benefits package for buildings over 75 feet, approved in July, resulted in a $13,524,500 calculation for Harold Way.

The developer’s package proposed $6 million for the Project Labor Agreement (to encourage the hiring of union labor), $6.3 million for the movie theater construction, $250,000 for the displacement of Habitot Children’s Museum and $974,000 for affordable housing.

In discussion, zoning board members proposed between giving the project credit for $4 million to $6 million for the labor agreement, between $1 million and $4 million for the theaters, between nothing and $1.2 million for arts and culture (including Habitot), and between $4 million and $6.4 million for affordable housing — which would be in addition to the $6 million in fees for the Housing Trust Fund mandated by the city. Commissioners Shoshana O’Keefe and Igor Tregub argued for some affordable housing to be included in the project, as well.

The zoning board voted to certify the Harold Way EIR on Thursday night. Image: MVEI Architecture and Planning
The zoning board approved the use permit for Harold Way on Thursday. Image: MVEI Architecture and Planning
The zoning board approved the use permit for Harold Way on Thursday. Image: MVEI Architecture and Planning

Board members also spoke more broadly about the project.

“I support the project because I think it’s good urban design,” said Commissioner Richard Christiani. “We need good buildings, good, responsible buildings… We actually have a developer that has been giving with the process, that has been moving in the direction you are leaning. The final design has incorporated a lot of your concerns, even if it doesn’t speak to all your concerns.”

“I support this project if it’s done ethically,” said O’Keefe. “Our job is to balance the needs of the community with the needs of the applicant.”

“I support this project because this project is uniquely positioned to contribute substantial community benefits,” said Commissioner Savlan Hauser. “We need these community benefits. If we don’t have a project, we won’t have the benefits.”

Commissioner Denise Pinkston referred to a report on housing prepared by the California Legislative Analyst’s Office.

“Coastal California has been underproducing housing for generations,” she said. “I resent people coming up here and saying we’re not doing our duty unless we say no. I think our duty is to find a way to get to yes. I’d rather have housing in Berkeley that reflects our green values than housing in Antioch or Tracy which is largely single-family housing and forces people to commute.”

Prakash Pinto, board chair, compared Berkeley to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he used to live. Cambridge, he said, had managed to build thousands of units of new housing in the last few years.

“I always thought Berkeley was a very progressive city,” Pinto said. “But [Cambridge] looked at themselves and said, ‘For us to be truly progressive, we need to build new housing.’… We have to move into the next century. We have to move forward. Cities build. That’s what has to happen.”

The discussion became heated after Rhoades and his colleagues recessed to consider the zoning board’s suggested numbers. Rhoades said the project could support a maximum $2 million cash payment for community benefits (the money for the labor agreement and the theaters is a credit, rather than a requirement for a cash payment).

“We provided a substantial amount of hard data to support the numbers that are in our community benefit proposal,” Rhoades said. “There isn’t the equivalent in any of the proposals that are on the table. To start throwing $4 million here and $4 million there, it’s kind of arbitrary.”

“It’s not arbitrary. We have an economist report,” said Pinkston. She said it made no sense to have a credit that paid for 100% of the theater. But, she said to other board members, “If we only ascribe a $1.1 million credit for the theater, you won’t get a theater. You’ll get a check for $1.1 million.”

“When you tell us that we don’t know the numbers, you insult us,” Pinto told Rhoades. “I’ve done more buildings than you’ve done.”

Before the final vote, the zoning board rejected on a 6-3 vote a substitute motion from Tregub that would have allocated $1.1 million to the theater, $6 million for the labor agreement and $6.4 million for affordable housing, as well as 10% affordable housing on site.

In the final vote for approval of the use permits, Tregub, O’Keefe and Stefan Elgstrand — sitting in for Sophie Hahn — were opposed.

Project documents are posted on the city website. Read complete Berkeleyside coverage of 2211 Harold Way. Several recent stories appear below.  

Harold Way project gets Landmarks Commission approval (08.14.15)
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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Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...