The Berkeley zoning board is set to vote Thursday on whether to approve use permits for two new housing projects featuring more than 100 units between them.
Staff says the Zoning Adjustments Board should approve use permits for both projects — but the ultimate decisions will be up to the board, following presentations from the applicants, public comment and debate. How the board handles the applications may shed significant light on what could be in store for housing development in Berkeley for years to come.
Due perhaps to a quirk of scheduling, the only large project considered by the board since the November election has been a 6-story group housing complex at Telegraph and Haste (“housing for 238 people in 161 bedrooms,” and no parking) set to be student housing. No other medium or large projects have been on the docket for a use permit vote. That’s in contrast to last year when, according to a Berkeleyside analysis of zoning board minutes, the panel already had approved nearly 400 new units, in four buildings of at least 5 stories, and a 16-story hotel downtown.
On the agenda Thursday, July 27: In South Berkeley, a 5-story building — 44 apartments over ground-floor retail — at 3000 Shattuck Ave., which is currently the site of Berkeley Gas & Smog. And, over in West Berkeley, an application for a 6-story building at 2527 San Pablo Ave., just north of Blake Street. That’s proposed to include 63 apartments, including 11 below-market-rate units for tenants with disabilities, a restaurant on the ground floor, and parking for 50 vehicles at street level, too. That site is currently a vacant service station.
3000 Shattuck: Berkeley Gas & Smog
The project at 3000 Shattuck has been before the Design Review Committee twice this year. Thursday will be its first appearance at the zoning board, which is the body that grants use permits. Communal open space includes a courtyard on the second floor, and roof decks on two other floors, according to the applicant statement. Car share spaces are planned on site, along with secure parking for 60 bicycles. The building is .4 miles from the Ashby BART station. Eleven parking spots are planned for the commercial use, and just six for residential. Of those six, the applicant has proposed that 2-5 be allocated to a car share service.
“The project will include 3.9 affordable apartments at 50% of Area Median Income or an in-lieu fee for the required affordable units,” according to the applicant statement.
In correspondence to the zoning board about 3000 Shattuck, some local residents took issue with the analysis of the project’s potential impacts.
“I was struck by its rosy tone and its tendency to minimize impacts of this proposed building, which will be by far the tallest and largest residential building in this part of Berkeley,” wrote Les Shipnuck. “That this study dismisses this structure as having ‘less than significant’ affects on views from the street or people’s homes is patently absurd and incorrect.”
Other neighbors agreed that the project is too tall, and asked for more setbacks to address some of the issues posed by its height. People said they also are concerned about the removal of underground tanks from the gas station, and whether that will pose environmental risks. Others said not enough consideration has been paid to potential impacts on historic or cultural resources that exist or might be found during construction.
Another resident, Janice Greenberg, said the neighborhood is already struggling due to the number of cars around, and needs more parking enforcement as well as more streetlights, speed bumps and stop signs.
“I am already angry about CBCB that was ‘snuck’ in to our neighborhood,” she wrote. “We have had no help with parking, traffic,
and speeding issues. Now you want 5 Story buildings!? NO!!!!”
Not all commenters opposed the plan. Several people submitted remarks in support.
“Housing is … desperately needed and the process to obtain approvals is so slow that every opportunity must be used to the fullest extent reasonable,” wrote Adair Gerke. “Five stories is reasonable on this lot, and the building’s design takes care to not make its presence unnecessarily imposing.”
2527 San Pablo Ave.: Formerly Babbitt’s Tune Up and Brake Service
The project at 2527 San Pablo has already been to three Design Review meetings this year. It, too, is set for its first zoning board consideration Thursday. Those who think the project looks familiar may not be surprised to learn it’s been designed by Rony Rolnizky, the architect behind 3001 Telegraph Ave. (opposite Whole Foods) and 1935 Addison St. in downtown Berkeley.
A roof deck for residents will feature “outdoor furniture, landscaping and … great views of [the] Berkeley hills.” Parking is slated to be provided for 56 vehicles and 52 bikes. Plans include bike lockers for the public and one electric vehicle charging station.
Rolnizky writes, in his applicant statement, that the people behind the project hope to “promote the creation of a special integrated multi generational community” where people with physical and developmental disabilities can “live and thrive independently … side by side with their family and friends and members of the community at large.”
The project’s below-market-rate units will be set aside for tenants with physical and developmental disabilities, according to the applicant statement: “This is a population that is currently severely under-served for affordable housing, resulting in loneliness and community isolation.”
Approximately 10 people identifying themselves as local parents of children with disabilities, as well as several organizations representing people with disabilities, wrote to the city to share their enthusiastic support for the project.
“I can’t imagine a better model, and one that is so necessary,” wrote Anne Hare, who said she has a 31-year-old son with a developmental disability and autism. “What a wonderful addition for the Berkeley community, and one that I hope goes beyond providing sorely needed housing for individuals with developmental disability. I hope that everyone in the community knows of it, its mission, and will join in the spirit of the undertaking.”
Wrote Joe Towers: “We live in Berkeley because we love its diversity and its courage to experiment with new ways to do things. This project embodies these ideals.”
The building may be a tough sell for many in the immediate neighborhood, however, due to its size and proposed density.
A business owner across the street said the project is too big and that its tenants will be unlikely to shop in the neighborhood: “The tenants will go to work, and not patronize our stores, because we will also be closed, at the times they return,” wrote Melissa Rallis of Kiss My Ring in a letter signed by nearly 30 nearby residents and other business owners. “For us, it is another massive, soulless structure, that will loom high, and also block out our natural light, and the beautiful vista of the Berkeley hills.”
The Ecology Center, which is on the same block as Kiss My Ring, said in its letter that it has concerns about insufficient parking, environmental impacts due to the previous use on the parcel as a service station, and overall impacts on street life.
Wrote Martin Bourque, executive director of the organization: “We see that some development adds to the vitality of the street, while other buildings have a deadening effect at the street level. The proposed development uses every last inch of space, right up to the sidewalk and even an overhang of balconies. That greatly limits the possibilities of ground-level features that make a street come alive, such as planters, seating, or bike parking.… This new building has the potential to elevate the pedestrian culture of that side, but its current plans do not fulfill this potential.”
In the pipeline
There are currently about 17 other Berkeley applications or pre-applications in the system, for about 1,100 units, that could come before the board eventually. In recent years, the zoning board has been on an upward trend in terms of units approved annually in mixed-use buildings of at least 4 stories: 353 in 2014, 476 in 2015 and 509 in 2016.
Several large developments — including the 18-story tower proposed at the Walgreens site on Shattuck, 155 units with extensive retail space and a large parking garage at 1900 Fourth (the Spenger’s parking lot), and 39 units at 2556 Telegraph (“The Village”) — have received comments from the zoning board this year during preview sessions or environmental reviews, but the projects’ use permits have not been up for a vote.
This year, as of the end of June, six medium or large projects totaling 313 units have come in to the city, according to its public zoning applications log online. Last year, 684 units in nine projects were submitted, though some have reportedly been tabled already due to council policy changes that resulted in financial infeasibility.
Some older applications may linger, too: According to the city website, about 130 units from two mixed-use projects submitted between 2013 and 2015 are still under review. Those include The Village project noted above, and 92 units proposed in a 12-story tower on Shattuck that has been scheduled before the Design Review Committee seven times since April 2014. The project, which had aimed to be one of seven tall buildings approved by voters under the Downtown Area Plan, had a preview in 2014 before the zoning board, but has not returned since then for its use permits, leaving its future in Berkeley uncertain as of publication time.