Representatives of Berkeley Honda told the Berkeley City Council earlier this week that its future in the city may be in jeopardy, particularly in light of a new petition filed last week to landmark the building Honda hopes to one day occupy.
Last November, Berkeley Honda left its longtime location at 2600 Shattuck Ave. to make way for a large mixed-use development called Parker Place set to be built in the neighborhood. After struggling since 2008 to find an appropriate new location, it came to an agreement with the property owner of 2777 Shattuck, two blocks away, after Any Mountain requested an early termination of its lease there.
It has been difficult to find a site due to state laws that prohibit dealerships from operating within 10 miles of existing similar-brand dealers. According to Matt Beinke, who owns Berkeley Honda with his brother Tim and other family members, the company was unable to secure sites in northwest or southwest Berkeley due to the proximity of competitors in El Cerrito and Oakland. This left them with just a 1-mile radius around their former South Berkeley location to explore, Beinke said.
Any Mountain closed in May. Since June, Berkeley Honda says it has been paying “tens of thousands of dollars” in rent each month at 2777 Shattuck, but has not yet moved into the space, pending city approval. It has instead been operating out of two temporary locations, at 2627 Shattuck and 1500 San Pablo Ave. Initially, Berkeley Honda hoped to move to 1500 San Pablo but “lost that site to a multi-national developer,” according to project documents.
Berkeley Honda representatives told council Tuesday night during the public comment period for items not on the agenda that the company has spent more than $700,000 since April on architectural and engineering work, as well as fees to the city and consultants.
According to Matt Beinke, city staff told his family in November 2014 that their proposed auto sales business qualified as a permitted use at the new location. City staff said the application would, however, be subject to public review.
Since April, the Beinkes have been working their way through the city review process, and have appeared before the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission and Design Review Committee. In July, the DRC directed the Beinkes to redesign elements of the project, which they have worked to do. The project has not yet been scheduled for its Zoning Adjustments Board review.
Last week, the Beinkes appeared at the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) and learned about what Matt Beinke described as a “hostile landmarking initiation, which appears to be used to stall and finally kill the proposed project.”
Landmarks initiation underway
According to a brief record posted on the city website, Berkeley resident Steve Finacom filed a landmarks initiation petition Oct. 1 after paying a $100 fee. No additional details were posted online, but Finacom explained Friday by email that is one of two ways in the city of Berkeley to initiate consideration of a property for landmark status. The other way is for the LPC itself to make a decision to consider a property.
Finacom said 71 Berkeley residents, including many who live near the property, signed a petition to initiate landmark consideration of 2777 Shattuck. The Landmarks Preservation Commission will then set a public hearing and can either take action or continue the matter to a future meeting.
Finacom said he is working on writing a full landmark application for the property, which he hopes to submit before the LPC’s November meeting. He noted that landmarking only affects the exterior of private properties.
“The old Berkeley Bowl building has a rich history, which will be documented in the landmark application, but it has relatively simple and straightforward exterior features, mainly on the Shattuck frontage,” he wrote. “If the property is landmarked, then the LPC would have jurisdiction over reviewing changes to the exterior–such as paint colors, signage, or major alterations.”
Finacom said the landmarks initiation is “not directly related to the Berkeley Honda proposal. I live in this neighborhood and have thought for many years that this handsome building should be a landmark.”
Other residents have expressed interest in the interior of the property as well. According to a Sept. 30 letter from local resident Thomas Ferrell, the first complete performance of Allen Ginsberg’s historic poem “Howl” took place in a small theater that was located inside 2777 Shattuck on March 18, 1956.
“Before proceeding with the Honda proposal, I think it’s important for the public to know where exactly in this building the small theater was sited, and what features of the theater remain. These historical details are absent from the applicant’s Preservation Architecture report,” Ferrell wrote to the landmarks commission.
Neighbors have been fighting the project since April, when about 100 residents of the LeConte neighborhood turned up to a project open house to express concern about what they believed would be too many cars and too much congestion associated with the new operation, as well as the safety of children walking to Willard and LeConte schools, and how the presence of a service garage could bring down property values.
In a recent letter to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, Jane Kitchel wrote that converting the “spectacular” interior of the Any Mountain space into an auto repair shop “would be a travesty, and would effectively deny the public the right to its enjoyment.”
Chris Byrne, in another letter, said the proposed design for Berkeley Honda does not respect the architecture of the existing building or nearby neighborhood, and would destroy a historic façade.
“There has never been a car dealership, repair shop, or gas station at 2777 Shattuck,” she wrote. “Large buildings with unbroken histories of recreational and community-serving retail uses are rare in our South Campus neighborhood; losing one that is also an architectural and cultural gem would be a blow.”
Berkeley Honda: “A radical redesign that addressed all of their concerns”
Berkeley Honda said it did not initially plan to change the exterior of the new location, as the building is on a state list of historic resources. The building was originally a bowling alley, then became Berkeley Bowl, and then became an Any Mountain outlet in 1999. Glenn Yasuda, proprietor of the Berkeley Bowl parcel, also owns the former Any Mountain property, which includes one 16,720 square foot space and one 2,400 square foot space (the home of Sconehenge Café.)
Designs changed, however, in response to pushback from neighbors who took issue with a proposed service building on Stuart Street.
The new design “requires a minor alteration of the façade of the building by enlarging an existing door opening to 24 feet, and installing an attractive roll up door for auto entry/exit,” according to an applicant statement from August.
“Interior tenant improvements” are planned “to adapt the existing main building for an auto show-room, auto service and parts inventory.” A new addition is proposed in what is now a parking lot on Ward Street. According to the August applicant statement, the Stuart Street parking lot “will simply continue to serve the historical parking needs of Sconehenge café and Kirala restaurant.”
The business hopes to operate daily from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. to be competitive in a market it says requires longer hours to serve busy customers. It currently operates from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. all days except Sunday, when its hours are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Read the applicant statement for more detail.
Ali Kashani, who was hired by the the Beinkes to usher the project through the Berkeley zoning process, told council Honda’s attempt to move had proven to be a nightmare. The 40-year-old business was purchased in 2004 by the Beinkes, who now have “no certainty as to when” they will receive their permits for the new building, Kashani said.
According to Kashani, about 20 people attended a public hearing in July before the Design Review Committee to say they did not think the proposed service building should be located on Stuart. They asked for changes.
“We listened,” Kashani told council. “We went back to the drawing board and did a radical redesign that addressed all of their concerns. We reached out to to them to review our approach and every one of them declined.”
Tim Beinke told council he needs city support if Berkeley Honda hopes to continue operations.
“I share my story with you in the hope that you can help keep our doors open and preserve over 45 well-paying jobs,” he said, which include both union jobs and positions that have salaries that exceed $100,000. “Without your help, I fear we may be forced to close the business for good.”
Beinke said the family business employs his father and uncle, as well as his brother, and noted that Berkeley Honda is among the top 10 business income license fee and sales tax revenue generators in the city.
New auto sales are the third largest generator of sales tax for the city, according to information provided earlier this year by its Office of Economic Development. As of February, the city had collected close to $1.2 million in sales tax for new cars in the prior four quarters. New car sales account for 7.8% of the city’s annual sales tax revenue, behind restaurants, which provide 21.3% of the sales tax revenue, and general merchandise, which accounts for 10.3%.
Berkeley Honda is “such an important part of both the revenue base of the city and also the blue-collar job base of the city,” Michael Caplan, who runs economic development efforts for the city, told Berkeleyside in February. “There are dozens and dozens of highly paid union auto mechanics working for them. You are retaining jobs that are the kinds of jobs the city has a hard time developing and retaining — highly paid working-class jobs.”
The temporary move, however, has hurt the business, Beinke said this week.
“Sales are not optimum, as we are running it out of a trailer,” he said. “Service is being provided in an old building … we run the risk of losing our top-notch employees to our competitors outside Berkeley.”
According to his letter, U.S. Honda has been pressuring the business to finalize its permanent location. The national operation has offered Berkeley Honda a new franchise license in Brentwood, according to project documents, but its owners want to stay in Berkeley if they can.
Since February, he wrote, Berkeley Honda has been “caught in a bureaucratic quagmire and there is no clarity as to where the process will take us. We hope you can help us.”
He wrote that there should be a better process in place to help businesses like his, that are important to the city’s economy, to survive. In the applicant statement from August, the Beinkes asked the city to “put this application on a fast track.” Project representatives said Tuesday that the city’s approval process for new projects is not working.
“The process is subject to abuse by a small group of opponents to our relocation,” he wrote. “The process needs to be fixed.”
Matt Beinke pleaded in a letter to council for help: “Please do whatever’s in your power to assist us in getting a clear map of where we are going and when we can expect approval or denial of our application to relocate our business.”
Tuesday night, Councilwoman Linda Maio told the Berkeley Honda team that city officials would “for sure” look into the matter, and said the city does not want to lose the business.
In a separate move, Berkeley Honda announced Thursday night it had ratified a new contract, through 2020, with its union employees who are Machinists and Teamsters. Honda described the wage and benefits package outlined in the contract as “the model and gold standard for Northern California car dealers,” and said its pension benefits “are the top in the industry and the area.”
A company representative said in the announcement that Berkeley Honda hopes to move into its new location “in the coming months.”
Adeline report highlights desire for affordable housing (09.01.15)
LeConte residents express concern about Berkeley Honda’s move (04.02.15)
Berkeley Honda hopes to take over Any Mountain space (02.25.15)
Shop Talk: The ins and outs of Berkeley businesses (01.13.15)
Council to consider zoning change for ‘auto row’ dealers (09.27.11)
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