Equity Residential once planned to redevelop a square block of downtown and construct 205 apartments in a development named Acheson Commons. Now the company is seeking to sell the project, along with others. Photo: Tracey Taylor
Equity Residential has sold the square block of downtown it owns to Mill Creek Residential, which will now construct 205 apartments in a development named Acheson Commons. The tall building on the right is knows as the Bachenheimer Building and the shorter building on the left once held the MacFarlane candy store. Photo: Tracey Taylor

The developer who wants to build an 18-story apartment building over the Walgreens at 2190 Shattuck Ave. will also be building a 205-unit complex along University Avenue.

Mill Creek Residential Trust has purchased the row of historic buildings along University Avenue between Shattuck and Oxford owned by Equity Residential and slated to become the Acheson Commons complex, although no construction ever started. The sale happened in mid-July. The price was not disclosed, but the assessed value of the various properties is more than $20 million.

Read more about the Acheson Commons project on Berkeleyside.

Mill Creek Residential, which has an office in Menlo Park but headquarters in Texas, plans to revive the stalled project and begin construction in early-to-mid-2017, according to Jason Overman, a director at Lighthouse Public Affairs, the firm Mill Creek Residential hired to handle its public relations. Construction will take at least two years.

“They were really drawn by how vibrant Berkeley is,” Overman said in an email. “It’s an incredibly dynamic city, and they’re excited to be part of the community. And there’s obviously a tremendous need for housing. They are excited to see this project through.”

The stretch of University Avenue from Shattuck to Oxford avenues once used to be a vibrant part of the cityscape, with Berkeley Ace Hardware, Krishna Copy, and Tikka Korner operating out of a string of historic structures, most of them built between 1908 and 1925. Recently, the street has become somewhat moribund as businesses moved away in preparation for the construction of Acheson Commons. Berkeley Ace Hardware left the spot it had occupied at 2145 University Ave. for 71 years for a new home at 2020 Milvia in May. The corner restaurant Tikka Korner is vacant. Krishna Copy moved further west on University.  Crêpes-a-Go-Go, Makris Cafe, Long Life Vegi House and Domino’s Pizza are still open.

Photo, taken at 3:55 p.m., by Kenneth Stein
A fire damaged a building in the 2100 block of University Avenue on Sept. 17, part of the group of structures recently purchased by Mill Creek Residential. Photo: Kenneth Stein

On Sept. 18, a fire broke out in the rear of 2111-2113 University Ave. causing about $50,000 worth of damage to the offices of the UC Theatre and the space that once held the Krishna Copy Center, according to Deputy Fire Chief Donna McCracken. The cause of the blaze is unknown because it started in a stack of wooden pallets and “too many sources of ignition were found in the area to narrow it down to one,” she said.

Michael Caplan, Berkeley’s economic development manager, said he is happy that Mill Creek Residential plans to start construction soon on the apartment complex.

“Having a project languish for a number of years, regardless of the reason, creates a dead space in the downtown which is not helpful to the surrounding merchants,” he said.

Equity Residential began its quest to transform that block into a large apartment building catering to the university community in 2007 when it purchased the (newish) Bachenheimer Building from Patrick Kennedy’s Panoramic Interests. In 2010, Equity Residential submitted plans to Berkeley to create a 205-unit apartment complex. The design by architect Kirk Peterson called for the historic facades of the buildings in the 2100 block of University Ave. to be retained, with construction rising behind them.

A rendering of the Acheson Commons complex on University Avenue, which now will go forward.
A 2013 rendering of the proposed Acheson Commons complex on University Avenue.

In the plan, the one-story building on the corner of University and Shattuck Avenues would be redone as the six-story MacFarlane Building, named after the candy store that once operated there. The historic Acheson Building in the middle of the block, currently used as offices, would become apartments with a restored exterior.  The exterior of the former ACE Hardware building, which is landmarked, would be incorporated into a new six-story building. The Bachenheimer Building, a relatively new structure, would be incorporated into the complex.

Equity Residential had planned to remove the two brown shingle duplexes on Walnut Street and replace them with a new structure known as the Walnut Building, with parking for Acheson Commons residents underneath.

The two brown shingle homes once contained rent-controlled housing and Equity agreed to find new spots for the properties or incorporate the rent-controlled units into Acheson Commons. Dmitri Belser, president of the Ed Roberts campus who also moves and restores historic houses, has agreed to take one of the brown shingle homes and is considering taking the other if he can find a large enough lot, he said. He will move the smaller of the homes, a duplex, to what used to be the Berkeley Bail Bonds shop, at 2214 Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Belser will restore the existing building as well as the duplex, which will be put in the back of the lot. Both houses will be used for affordable rental housing, said Belser.

Equity Residential wanted to get out of student market

Equity Residential put its portfolio of eight Berkeley apartment complexes with 452 apartments on the market in November. Equity, a publicly-traded company started by the Chicago developer Sam Zell, hoped to sell the entire portfolio because it was shifting its focus to high-end urban properties rather than university-related ones, said John Hyjer, first vice-president of investment for Equity Residential.

Equity had a buyer (and more than one bidder) for the portfolio but the sale fell through because of “lease issues,” said Hyjer. He did not elaborate on those issues. However, Berkeleyside has reported on issues in a complex on Acton Way, where a broken elevator trapped some disabled residents in their apartments.

Equity has since withdrawn its Berkeley portfolio from the market but may put it back on in 2017, said Hyjer.

But Equity decided to sell Acheson Commons separately to Mill Creek Residential since it had not yet been built, said Hyjer.

“We could easily carve that out because it was not an operating asset,” said Hyjer.

While Mill Creek Apartments is based in Dallas, it has has a strong presence in the Bay Area, said Overman. The local principals have been constructing apartments here for 20 years, he said.

Mill Creek Residential was started in 2011 and has developed 16,000 apartments in 90 communities and expects to build 5,000 more in 2016, according to its website.

Equity Residential to sell 8 Berkeley apartment buildings (11.16.15)
Berkeley home moves across town, a slice of history is saved (02.24.11)

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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...