An overview of the senior housing planned for Pacific School of Religion’s campus. Rendering: Solomon Cordwell Buenz
An overview of the senior housing planned for Pacific School of Religion’s campus. Rendering: Solomon Cordwell Buenz

The Pacific School of Religion is teaming up with an Illinois-based non-profit builder to construct 265 apartments for seniors on Holy Hill in Berkeley.

Mather LifeWays will build a “continuing care” facility that features apartments, a memory care unit, and nursing facilities for people at the end of their lives, according to Mary Leary, the president of the company, which is based in Evanston. The bulk of the units would be in five-to-six story buildings on PSR’s main campus along Scenic Avenue, with two six-unit buildings on Le Conte Avenue, she said. The units fronting Virginia Street would be three-stories high and constructed in a Mediterranean style to better blend into the neighborhood, she said.

The Mather in Berkeley, as the complex will be called, would be the first facility of its kind in Berkeley, and one that is sorely needed, said Leary. About 25% of Berkeley property owners are older than 55 , she said. Many professors from PSR, other schools affiliated with the Graduate Theological Union, and UC Berkeley move out of Berkeley after they retire because there are no senior centers to move into, said David Vásquez-Levy, president of the Pacific School of Religion.

“Almost none of our emeritus professors can stay in Berkeley,” said Vásquez-Levy. “That’s the case for a lot of our faculty in all our institutions. We are losing the opportunity to retain knowledge.”

The project would also return land to the tax rolls that is now tax exempt because it is used for religious purposes.

As part of the proposed development, PSR will consolidate its operations into a renovated Holbrook Hall. Photo: Courtesy Pacific School of Religion

The idea would be to have a senior community that is connected to PSR, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, said Vásquez-Levy. The senior facility and the school will share dining facilities, classrooms, and meeting spaces. In addition, the seniors could take classes at PSR, pursue a degree there, or act as mentors for the students, he said. Visiting professors will use apartments in the senior facility.

PSR and Mather Lifeways unveiled the $400+ million plan last night at a community meeting. About 80 people attended, said Leary, and eight asked to sign up for units right away, she said.

But the reaction from the neighborhood was not all good. Many people who attended the meeting were “aghast” at the plan, which they said would level a neighborhood, according to Jim Sharp, who is with the Northside Neighborhood Association. Daniella Thompson, who is also associated with the neighborhood group, said the plan is massive in scale. PSR wants to demolish most of the buildings on its campus as well as a row of residential units on Virginia Street and two apartment buildings on LeConte Avenue.

“This is a scorched-earth campaign,” said Thompson. “They want to demolish everything and start from scratch… It’s a nice idea to provide senior housing, but this is demolishing wholesale a whole neighborhood. It’s horrible. It’s terrible.”

PSR will consolidate its operations into a renovated Holbrook Hall, which was the building originally constructed when the seminary moved to the site in 1926. The hall will be renovated and upgraded.

Mather LifeWays intends to retain and even improve the open, garden and forest-like setting of the campus, said Leary. The grassy quad will remain open to the public, as will the stairs leading to the campus from Arch Street. The developer plans to plant half as many trees as already exist on campus.

“The openness of the area will remain, to a large extent,” said Vásquez-Levy.

The senior units facing Virginia Street will only be three-stories high to better blend in with the community. Rendering: Solomon Cordwell Buenz
One six-unit structure to be built at 2317 Le Conte as part of The Mather in Berkeley. Rendering: Solomon Cordwell Buenz
The six-unit building that will be constructed at 2479 Le Conte. Photo: Rendering: Solomon Cordwell Buenz

The facility will have 282 underground parking spaces with the entrance on Le Conte, said Leary. In addition, her group would like to improve the traffic flow on Scenic Avenue by constructing a roundabout.

The Pacific School of Religion has been discussing what to do with its campus for about 10 years and the decision to partner with Mather LifeWays was a considered process, said Vásquez-Levy. Much of the current campus is underutilized as the old model of seminary study has evolved. In the 1940 and 1950s, mostly male student would come to PSR to live and study for three years. Then they would go off and lead a congregation, he said.

Now graduate students want to remain in their communities while they get an advanced degree, he said. They are less willing to uproot themselves for three years. In addition, there are fewer full-time jobs for pastors.

As a result, the way graduates pursue seminary degrees has changed. Although PSR has around 230 students – the same number it has always had – fewer of those attend full-time and not all of them are seeking degrees.

“This is not just happening at PSR but at all seminaries,” said Vásquez-Levy.

Indeed, the Graduate Theological Union has seen some of its member schools depart and consolidate. The Franciscans moved their program to southern California, he said. The Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary is selling its campus on Marin Avenue and is planning to open up a space downtown. Their administrative facilities are now taken care of by California Lutherans. The Jesuits have also consolidated administrative functions with Santa Clara University, although they still have a facility at GTU, said Vásquez-Levy.

Developing the PSR campus will allow the school to continue its affiliation with GTU, he said, as well as put the seminary on a sound financial footing.

Mather Lifeways and PSR will be submitting an application to Berkeley in the next two weeks, said Leary. They have hired Rhoades Planning Group to help with the entitlement process. The San Francisco architectural firm Solomon Cordwell Buenz designed the project and Oakland-based PGA Design did the landscaping.

Future residents will have to buy into the project and prices are likely to be round $500,000, although the exact price has not been set yet, said Leary. Some of that money will be refunded when residents die or move.

Mather LifeWays will seek traditional bank financing for the project, said Leary. PSR and Mather LifeWays will have to complete an EIR for the project. It will be several years before construction could begin, said Vásquez-Levy.

Sharp said he expects the neighborhood to be very involved in the EIR process.

“Stay tuned,” he wrote in an email. “This is a big one. It may eventually crowd 2211 Harold Way off the front pages of Berkeleyside.”

Follow Berkeleyside on Twitter and Facebook or get the latest news in your inbox.  Email us at  Support independent local journalism by becoming a Berkeleyside member.

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...