In October, Berkeley’s Zoning Adjustments Board considered an application by Realtex Apartments for 2902-2908 Adeline and 1946 Russell. On that site, the Zoning Code allows a three-story, 16,792-square-foot building covering 45% of the lot. The state density bonus could increase that by 35%, to 22,670 square feet, allowing a fourth story and/or larger footprint.

Using Zoning Code section 23E.52.070.D.7, which gives it broad discretion to increase height and lot coverage, the ZAB approved a six-story, 50,657-square-foot building, with 50 apartments, four live-work units, and a small commercial space, covering 92% of the lot. Neighbors filed an appeal of this decision, which was heard by the City Council on March 7.

An hour before that hearing started, we reached a tentative agreement with Realtex to support the project if they made 20% of the apartments affordable. During the hearing, the City Council appeared ready to approve that agreement, until it came out that by 20% Realtex meant eight or nine units, not ten. The Council voted to continue the meeting, and it is on the agenda for April 4.

This too-hastily negotiated tentative agreement has serious flaws:

1. Displacement: The existing house and two apartments have a total of twelve bedrooms, which are or were last occupied by lower-income tenants. The plan approved by the ZAB would demolish those and build four below-market-rate (BMR) units with a total of only six bedrooms. The March 7 tentative agreement would increase that to ten BMR units with 13 bedrooms.

2. Demolition of existing units: State density bonus law requires replacement of any demolished units that are or were last occupied by low-income tenants with BMR units having the same number of bedrooms. In this case, to get a density bonus and related concessions, the project would need to replace the three existing units plus provide two additional BMR units, for a total of 15 bedrooms.

3. Misuse of concession: As noted in the staff report for the March 7 hearing, raising the floor-area ratio (FAR) limit to allow the building’s floor space to exceed four times the lot area did not reduce costs. Thus, even if the project had qualified for a state density bonus, Realtex’s request for this concession should have been denied.

4. Gentrification: 61% of Berkeley rental households are low-income, so to preserve our community’s economic diversity we need 61% of new units to be BMR. The plan approved by the ZAB includes only 8% (4 out of 50), plus a payment to the city’s affordable housing trust fund that would fund roughly two more units. The March 7 tentative agreement raised that to 20%, still far from enough.

5. Inappropriate giveaways: To minimize gentrification, discretionary increases in height or lot coverage should be reserved for 100% affordable housing projects. Market-rate projects should be limited to what is allowed by the state density bonus, reducing the inflationary effect of market-rate developments on land prices and helping level the playing field for nonprofits. At this site, the state density bonus could allow as many as 38 units, seven of which would be BMR, with a total of 18 BMR bedrooms. Why should we settle for fewer?

6. Height inconsistent with the neighborhood: The Design Review Committee voted unanimously that the height should be reduced. Its chairman Burton Edwards went to both the ZAB and City Council hearings to represent the DRC, since its recommendation was not accurately reflected in staff reports. On Adeline and on Shattuck south of Ward, there are only two buildings that exceed three stories, and both are 100% affordable senior housing.

Given these and other issues, and the complicated ways they interact, the Council should reverse the ZAB’s decision and send it back to the ZAB to sort out. This might also give time to bring a nonprofit partner into the project, perhaps allowing a higher percentage of affordable units without hurting Realtex’s profits. It may seem late in the game for that, but Realtex only started negotiating with neighbors on March 6.

If the Council instead chooses to modify the decision and approve it on April 4, the project must either replace the existing units or forego the state density bonus.

Robert Lauriston, one of 30 neighbors appealing the ZAB decision, has lived three blocks from 2902 Adeline for 20 years.
Robert Lauriston, one of 30 neighbors appealing the ZAB decision, has lived three blocks from 2902 Adeline for 20 years.