An early rendering of an 8-story building proposed by Realtex at 2556 Telegraph Ave. in Berkeley. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Berkeley zoning board members asked developer Realtex to rethink its plans for an 8-story, 39-unit building on Telegraph Avenue, which is slated to replace quirky indoor mall “The Village.” The 86-foot-tall building would include 3,200 square feet of ground-floor commercial, and one live-work unit on Blake Street around the corner.

The new project plans to use “The Village” as its name in homage to the eccentric shopping area at 2556 Telegraph that would be demolished if plans proceed. Thursday night, the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board got its first look at project plans, though designs have been circulating in the community since the project was submitted in 2015.

Community members and commissioners alike were largely unified in their feedback, saying the building is too tall and needs to fit in better with the surrounding neighborhood. Commissioners asked the developer to consider adding a loading zone, and perhaps some parking, to the project plans. They also asked for shadow studies, and a reconsideration of the unit mix.

Currently, 24 of the project’s units are proposed to include four bedrooms, which is a rare offering in Berkeley. Commissioners and community members said they believed many of those units would go to students. Some said they have no doubt the project will be a “mini-dorm” due to its proximity to UC Berkeley and its lack of proposed parking.

Developer Realtex said it hasn’t decided exactly who its tenants will be, but is aiming for a combination of young professionals, students and families.

The project is proposing three affordable units on site, and a payment of $714,000 into the city’s Housing Trust Fund, which Berkeley uses to build affordable housing elsewhere. Commissioners said they’d like to see more affordable housing on site, and fewer four-bedroom units. Commissioners noted that, though the unit count is low, the bedroom count is quite high, meaning neighborhood impacts would need to be carefully considered.

Commissioner Shoshana O’Keefe said she’d like to see plans for a 6-story building on the Telegraph side, stepping down to 3 stories on the west side of the property, so it might fit in better with the nearby neighborhood. Other commissioners said they were in support of that idea, too.

A number of residents of Chilton Way, a one-block street that runs north-south just half a block west of Telegraph, said they are very concerned about what an 8-story building would do to their neighborhood. They described their block as a unique microcosm of Berkeley, with a diverse mix of all sorts of tenants, and said they hoped the city would help protect their neighborhood’s character. Many said a tall building focused on one type of tenant — students — would not be a good fit.

“We don’t want to see Berkeley divided demographically, and we don’t want to see our neighborhood turned into a corporatized and ‘dormatized’ district,” said Lawrence Rinder, who lives on Chilton Way. He said the developer had also misrepresented the project’s scale in its drawings, making it look smaller than it actually would be.

Other neighbors said Realtex was “being deceptive about their intentions” about who would live in the building. A man who identified himself as “Tom,” a 30-year resident of Chilton Way, described the design as “hideous” and asked the zoning board to pay close attention as the process proceeds: “There’s just too many elements of this that are very fishy.”

Some neighbors said they were also concerned about a rooftop garden and the potential for loud parties every weekend.

Neighbors and commissioners weren’t the only ones to raise questions. The project planner told the zoning board he wasn’t sure how the applicant had come up with its calculation to reach 8 stories, and there was ample indication Thursday night that the board would not legally be required to approve it at that height. When the project was first submitted in 2015, it came in at 7 stories, which many also said was too tall.

Some commissioners questioned the lack of parking and were told by staff that, though the district does not require parking, the board does have the discretion to ask for it as part of the approval process.

Some people said they would be sad to see the closure of The Village indoor mall — home of restaurants like Finfiné, Norikonoko and Fondue Fred — and said they hope the new retail space would be neighborhood-serving and welcoming to the community. In June of last year, the city’s landmarks commission denied landmark status to the mall, but many have said they believe it’s a special place that will be missed. Commissioner Charles Kahn said he’d like the developer to consider breaking up the new commercial space so smaller, family-owned businesses could “make a go of it.”

Commissioner Denise Pinkston said she saw the proposal as an example of “millennial dorms” or “shared living spaces” where people essentially rent by the bedroom and pay $1,000-$1,500 a month for the area they’re getting. She said she’d seen dozens of similar designs, regionally, in the past few years as people try to come up with creative solutions to the Bay Area’s high housing costs.

“There are Cal students who are homeless who are sleeping in the buildings on campus,” she said, adding that not every project needs to include family housing or feature extensive parking. That’s especially true, she said, for housing near UC Berkeley, which has historically not provided sufficient housing for students.

“I think this is that kind of cutting-edge new building,” Pinkston said. “It isn’t going to look like anything we’ve seen before.”

She and others said they wanted a lot more information about how the affordable units would be managed, given the potential complexities of having multiple tenants who were essentially independent, while needing to comply with affordability rules.

Other commissioners said the city does need to prioritize family housing. Commissioner Leah Simon-Weisberg said Berkeley should not be “forcing adults to live” in such close proximity to each other, and that it should not be the case that people making $100,000 a year “can only afford to live in 5-bedroom apartments with five other adults or 10 other adults.”

Simon-Weisberg said the city has already lost too many teachers and families “because we’re building student housing that the students can’t even afford.”

“This cannot be the new norm,” she added.

The project is set to come before the city’s Design Review Committee in April, and could come back to the zoning board in several months though no date has been set.

Coda: The meeting began, during public comment, with a poem by Paul Matzner called, “We Berkeleyans.” It appears below.

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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 of the Year...