The proposed view at San Pablo Avenue and Jones Street. Image: Pyatok Architects
The proposed view at San Pablo Avenue and Jones Street. Image: Pyatok Architects

A sprawling mixed-use complex on San Pablo Avenue won approval Thursday night from Berkeley’s zoning board.

Neighbors turned up in droves for the May 12 Zoning Adjustments Board meeting. Most of those who spoke during public comment lobbied for what they said was a more efficient alternative created by three community members to reduce the impacts. Supporters of the project, some of whom said they live nearby, were also in attendance. They said the time is now for more housing, and that the alternative plan was not realistic.

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The board did not vote on the project until 11 p.m., though 1500 San Pablo Ave. was the only item on the action calendar. Seven board members voted in favor while two — Igor Tregub and Shoshana O’Keefe — abstained.

Tregub had tried to win support for an alternate motion that directed the applicant, Amir Massih of 4Terra, to work with neighbors and come back later with a project that was more compatible with its surroundings. He could not get a majority vote in favor, however. O’Keefe said she liked a lot about the project but had too many questions about traffic impacts to vote Thursday night. 

The proposed view from 10th and Jones streets. Image: Pyatok Architects
The proposed view from 10th and Jones streets. Image: Pyatok Architects

The project is located at the former site of McNevin Cadillac, which still owns the property. An existing 3-story building would be demolished to make way for a 5-story 62-foot mixed-use building with 170 residential units including 11 townhouses, nearly 11,000 square feet of commercial space, 179 vehicle parking spaces and 184 spots for bikes. Sixteen of the units are set to be designated as below-market-rate apartments.

As part of the approval process, the applicant has agreed to help found a new West Berkeley shuttle similar to the Emery Go Round that would get local residents to BART and other locations. Commission Chair Denise Pinkston said the applicant has committed to setting up the organization, which other local employers and developers can join.

Pinkston said, until the shuttle is up and running, the developer of 1500 San Pablo has committed to provide transit passes to building residents. Once enough support has been collected for the shuttle, available funds would be used for that purpose.

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Commissioners also included in the final vote a provision that would prohibit building residents from being eligible for parking permits, should the neighborhood ever seek to put them in place, to try to help placate the parking-related concerns of residents who live near the development.

They asked, too, for the city’s traffic engineer to look closely at local impacts to ensure the project allows for a “smooth traffic flow” despite the influx of new residents. One idea that came up from a nearby resident was the possibility of a left-turn “pocket” from San Pablo onto Jones. Commissioners also asked staff to look into “passive controls” on Jones, where the garage entrance is located, that could help with circulation.

Looking north: Proposed townhouses on 10th Street. Image: Pyatok Architects
Looking north: Proposed townhouses on 10th Street. Image: Pyatok Architects

Public comment for the project lasted about three hours, followed by about 45 minutes of commission discussion. Neighborhood concerns focused on the shadows cast by the project, the influx of new drivers in the area, and related traffic and parking problems. Many expressed skepticism about a traffic study that found there would be no traffic impact in the neighborhood. Some asked why the developer could not go farther underground with the parking structure to allow for more light in the neighborhood.

In a rare move, several local residents were allowed by the zoning board to give their own presentation of an alternative version of the project that purported to offer a more efficient parking structure at a comparable cost. Commissioners then asked the applicant to explain why his project was better.

Berkeley resident Massih, representing the project team, said he would rather not go there.

“Critiquing a Berkeley community plan is like saying you don’t like Santa or puppies or something,” he told the board, adding that the team was proud of its own proposal and wanted to focus on that. “We’ve gone through a lot of compromises to get to this point.”

He did say, however, that he did not think the numbers would pencil out economically for the proposed alternative, citing a failure to adequately take ADA rules into account, as well as the cost for more excavation and other “inefficiencies.”

Supporters of the project told the board that now is a critical time to approve housing in Berkeley before the current market cycle ends. One supporter, who called the area as it is now “a dead zone” told the board: “I think this project as proposed will have an impact. And I think it will have a positive impact.”

Many speakers were in agreement that something should be built, though there was disagreement about the scale. Some said the city also needs to take action to create a San Pablo Avenue plan that will codify ideas about how the corridor should grow.

2100 San Pablo Ave. could one day look like this. Image: RGArchitecture
Proposed at 2100 San Pablo, about half a mile south, near Addison Street: 91 more units. The project has not yet gotten to the Zoning Adjustments Board. Read more on Berkeleyside. Image: RGArchitecture

In the end, most members of the board said they believed the applicant’s vision was appropriate for the neighborhood, particularly because it is located on a major transit corridor, San Pablo Avenue. Board members also said they believed the applicant had made a number of changes since the project was first submitted to the city — in March 2015 — to try to diminish impacts on the neighborhood and respond to neighborhood concerns.

Commissioner George Williams said the San Pablo Avenue location was a key issue for him.

“If we’re going to attempt to resolve the housing shortage in this city, we have to look at corridors like this,” he said.

Commissioner Steven Donaldson said he liked that there are 75 family-friendly units in the project — the 11 townhouses and 64 two-bedroom units — which he said are very much needed in Berkeley. He said these are the type of units that will be attractive to people like firefighters and school teachers who currently don’t have a lot of options in town.

“These will be accessible to people who work and live in the city, and I think that is a great thing,” he said. “We need double that in the city.”

Pinkston noted that, though the building feels tall, it is actually under the height limit, with the bulk of the height on San Pablo Avenue.

“Infill is uncomfortable,” she said, moving closer to her neighbor on the dais as an illustration. “That’s what infill means, and it means Berkeley’s going to change over time.”

Speaking of changes, for those keeping track, 91 units have been proposed at San Pablo and Addison Street, about half a mile south of 1500 San Pablo. Another 39 units have been proposed about 1.5 miles south in the 2700 block of San Pablo, at Ward Street. Stay tuned to Berkeleyside for continuing coverage.

Read the applicant statement and see the project plans. See all the project documents on the city website. For more detail from the meeting, see Berkeleyside’s live tweets in PDF form.

91 units over underground parking proposed on San Pablo (05.05.16)
Apartment, townhouse complex slated for San Pablo Ave. (04.08.15)

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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...