A rendering of the apartment building proposed for 11965 San Pablo Ave. (at Macdonald) in El Cerrito. Image: Joe DeCredico

A proposal to build a 146-unit, 8-story apartment building with 10 affordable housing units next to a BART overpass and a Home Depot in El Cerrito has set off a firestorm of opposition from neighbors.

Baxter Creek Apartments, the proposed development, would be at 11965 San Pablo Ave., on a major bus corridor and an 8-block walk from the El Cerrito del Norte BART station.

The location would appear to meet the city’s goals of making the avenue more bicycle-, pedestrian- and transit-friendly to reduce auto dependence, and would be a step towards alleviating the area’s ongoing housing crisis.

But a number of local residents oppose the proposed housing because they feel it is too tall and will ruin their views.

The subject blew up on a Nextdoor thread with more than 230 posts that began in January and lasted half way through February, with some posters defending the proposal but the majority of them attacking it.

About half a dozen residents have also emailed the city to protest the development.

In a Jan. 24 email, El Cerrito resident Tracy Fortini wrote, “I am vehemently opposed to the plan for this building at 11965 San Pablo Avenue.” The building, she said, “will block the beautiful bay views for thousands of residents, as well as blocking the sun from Boulder Creek.”

“It would be the beginning of the end of our nice little city.”
— Tracy Fortini

Though Fortini said her own view wouldn’t be affected, she wrote, “If this passes, it’s only a matter of time before other similar projects are railroaded through, one of which may well block my view one day.” Fortini added, “The impact on the resale value of our homes will be significant.” She closed her note, “It would be the beginning of the end of our nice little city.”

In a Jan. 25 email to the city, Robert Hopeman of El Cerrito said of the proposed development, which would replace the long-empty shell of an abandoned Taco Bell in a lot currently filled with trash, “The introduction of a high-rise building in an area where none exist would forever negatively impact the nature of the neighborhood and community.”

Hopeman said, “This building would block the views thousands of residents as well as drastically alter and disrupt the skyline.”

“Absolutely not,” said Charlie Oewel, the Marin County developer of the project, in response.

Oewel estimates that the views of about a dozen to two dozen homes might be affected, “and that impact is minimal.”

Joe DeCredico, the Berkeley architect who designed the building, said nearly all the streets in the El Cerrito hills look down on the building.

“For nearly all the streets, the elevation of the street is higher than our building,” DeCredico said. “In order for something to block your view, it has to be higher than your eye-line. Otherwise you are looking down on it. In this case, most of the streets in El Cerrito are above the roofline of the building, which means they look down on the building and their views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the bay and (Mt. Tamalpais) are not obscured.”

In a visual simulation of the building created by the architect, viewed from a spot on Gatto Avenue in the El Cerrito hills, the building is visible but does not block any views (see above). Viewed from an elevated spot on Macdonald Avenue, a major artery and a nearby intersection, part of the building is obscured by trees, and no views are blocked. Viewed from a spot on Barrett Avenue, another major artery, the building isn’t visible at all.

“We worked with them to find locations that we thought would potentially be impacted from a view standpoint and that’s what (the simulations) were meant for, to evaluate points where there potentially could be blocked views,” said El Cerrito Senior Planner Sean Moss.

The immediate area around the proposed development is zoned for commercial use, and the nearest houses, on Key Boulevard, are about 450 feet away and have no views, DeCredico said.

The height of the building is a chief concern for Elizabeth Thorsnes, a 38-year resident of El Cerrito, told Berkeleyside. Many of the residents who posted on Nextdoor shared her concern about the building’s height. She said she is also unhappy about the cost of the units and traffic congestion.

“The traffic on San Pablo can be bad, especially down there. You might have to wait three or four times to get through a light down there,” Thorsnes said.

“That is a very typical objection neighbors have with an infill project going in,” said Ethan Elkind, director of the Climate Program at UC Berkeley’s Center for Law, Energy & the Environment, referring to concerns over congestion. “If it has affordable units for low-income tenants, studies show they are more likely to use transit,” Elkind noted.

“From a regional perspective it means overall decreases in driving if you are locating housing near a major transit line like BART, and also near job centers like Oakland and San Francisco,” Elkind said. “If they aren’t living in El Cerrito, the closest place they could afford might be way out of the Bay Area, which means more pollution from long driving times.”

Oewell, who has built a total of 864 units connected to transit around the Fremont, Union City and Pleasant Hill BART stations, owns the land where the proposed development is located. He is also applying for approval of two other El Cerrito apartment projects, one on the site of a vacant used car lot at 10167 San Pablo, and another at 921 Kearney Street.

All three projects are within walking distance of BART stations.

State officials have said California won’t be able to hit its target of reducing greenhouse emissions 40% below 1990 levels unless a huge number of new homes is built in job centers and near transit. According to climate and energy consultant Matt Lewis, “If you put a bus or train within a five- or 10-minute walk of someone’s house they will use it, and that is how you reduce pollution.”

Owell said, “In years past, I’ve worked closely with BART and I understand their view that if you place housing within a half-mile of their stations, it will capture ridership and bring people out of their cars and onto the bike path to get to BART and on BART to get to work.”

Oewell built 360 housing units at the Pleasanton BART station in 1990. Ads for the rentals featured a photo of a commuter with a briefcase heading for BART, and the response was “amazing,” Oewell said. “The onsite manager fielded the response to the ads which ran for months as the project leased up at a rate of 30-40 units/month,” the developer said, adding, “The transit orientation was a very important factor in the success of the project.”

Regarding Thorsnes’s concern about the cost of the units, El Cerrito senior planner Moss said: “The 10 affordable units will be affordable to households at the very low household level — no more than 50% of area median income,” Moss said. “Very low income” is $32,550 for one person, $37,200 for two people and $41,850 for three people in Contra Costa County.

Thorsnes said that for her and other neighbors who posted on Nextdoor, it was not about the view. It’s looking out and seeing this huge tower. It’s going to kill the whole skyline, the light, everything is going to be impacted. The idea of that eight-story structure sticking out there is appalling.”

The proposed building would be located next to a BART overpass in an area zoned for commercial use, next to a Home Depot (see three photos of the location, above, taken recently by the author). The square footage of a typical Home Depot is around 100,000 feet. There are no adjacent residential uses within the shadow line, according to the architect. The building would not cast shadows beyond the curb line, DeCredico said.

“Part of the amenities and benefits for the public are the provision of additional public open space” in the development, Moss said. “There’s a plaza next to the building along San Pablo Avenue and another public space area and both those areas will be open to the public. There’s a public plaza and a courtyard which will have a parcourse [fitness trail] in it.”

“These days, it’s not uncommon for people to try to block housing by throwing out all these reasons that seem benevolent.”
— Greg Magofna

Thorsnes argues that 10 affordable units is not enough. She said she would support the project if it was completely dedicated to senior housing.

“These days, it’s not uncommon for people to try to block housing by throwing out all these reasons that seem benevolent,” said Greg Magofna of East Bay for Everyone, a pro-housing organization. “She’s throwing in this concern about affordable housing, but it would be very interesting to see how she would react if it were a 100% affordable housing project.”

He added, “We have lost touch with our sense of helping others. (The 10 affordable units) are an improvement for some people, so we shouldn’t transpose our values onto them. If that helps them out of homelessness, it’s better than being on the streets.

“If the building was built and she met those 10 families, I’m sure she wouldn’t have a problem, because it was affecting actual lives. It’s much better for them to live there in a really great community than to commute three hours from the exurbs of the Bay Area,” Magofna said.

Some residents commented on Nextdoor that they weren’t sure how the developer was “pushing through” what they characterized as a large development.

Under state law, projects that provide affordable units qualify for what is known as a “density bonus.” In the case of Baxter Creek Apartments, the 10 affordable units allow it to rise as high as 85 feet, Moss said.

After dozens of public meetings and collaboration with residents, in 2014 the El Cerrito City Council voted unanimously to pass a comprehensive development plan for San Pablo Avenue, the city’s main business corridor, moving it away from its traditional auto-oriented identity. The development is in conformance with that plan, according to city officials.

Under The San Pablo Avenue Specific Plan, Oewell’s projects are considered Tier II developments, meaning they will only need to be approved by the city’s Design Review Board, although approval of the designs can be appealed to the Planning Commission. Planning Commission decisions can be appealed to the City Council.

“This tendency to slow and stop housing [has been] a Bay Area custom for decades, and it has caught up to us.”
—Matt Hoeft

The debate over the 146-unit apartment building comes at a time of continuing crisis for housing in the state and the area. As of early 2o16, the Bay Area economy had added 480,000 private-sector jobs over the previous five years, but only 50,000 housing units, according to the San Francisco Planning Urban Research Association.

The lack of housing has sent rents and home prices skyrocketing, forcing some residents to commute long distances or leave the area altogether. The lack of affordable housing has contributed to homelessness, according to leaders at social service agencies.

Not everyone on the Nextdoor thread opposed the project, however. Matt Hoeft of El Cerrito commented, “…For every project that gets downsized, that’s fewer homes available for people who want to live here, resulting in higher rents and housing prices for all.”

Hoeft added, “This tendency to slow and stop housing [has been] a Bay Area custom for decades, and it has caught up to us. It’s benefited some, and it’s hurt anyone that wants to move here, or who lives here and needs a house with more room, or one that is closer to work.

“It has pushed commuters farther and farther away from the job centers making traffic worse and worse,” Hoeft said. “El Cerrito is a fine place to live, I love it here, and that’s why I completely understand why more people want to live here, and I encourage it.”

Janis Mara has worked at the Oakland Tribune, the Marin Independent Journal, the Contra Costa Times, Adweek and Inman News, an Emeryville-based national real estate trade publication, winning California...