Two different West Berkeley development proposals from two different developers have taken two distinctly different turns in their quest for city approval.
Ten townhouses, four live-work units and one office proposed by architect David Trachtenberg at 739 Channing Way got a green light when a neighbor dropped an appeal of the project last week after negotiating a compromise with the developer. Trachtenberg estimates they’ll be built and leasing in 18 months.
In contrast, a proposal for four single-family detached homes at 1446 Fifth St. is still hung up in the approval process after more than a year, after being hit with two appeals and a dramatic last-minute, expensive, discovery that could torpedo the project.
Getting a housing development project approved in Berkeley is an arduous and often contentious process, as proposals frequently face vigorous opposition from neighbors.
In the meantime, the state and the Bay Area continue to struggle with an ongoing housing crisis. As of early 2016, 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.
In the San Francisco metro area, which includes Berkeley, the median rent now requires almost half of the median income – 42% – according to real estate site Zillow. Mortgage payments require a larger share of income than they did before 2000; the share is 41% today, compared to 38% historically.
The application process
Building new housing in Berkeley involves several steps. The first is applying for a use permit, preceded by neighborhood outreach, such as a meeting. Next, staffers send the application to the Design Review Board, then the Zoning Adjustments Board.
An appeal of board decisions can delay the process — and such appeals happen often.
Trachtenberg, who got the Channing Way project approved in less than a year, attributed his success to a number of factors, including being flexible and working with neighbors.
“It’s a contact sport trying to develop projects in Berkeley,” said Trachtenberg, who has designed numerous structures in Berkeley, making his work a known quantity. His designs over the years include the KPFA building, Saul’s Deli, the Premier Cru building on University Avenue, as well as the Aquatic apartments at 800 University Ave. “There’s a lot of engagement. You have to love that part of it.”
By the time Trachtenberg submitted the application to the city on behalf of Kyle and Dennis Karlston in July 2017, the two had already made a change in response to neighbors’ concerns, he said.
“We had a meeting with about 25 neighbors,” Trachtenberg said. Notifying neighbors is mandatory before a developer can submit a project. “Initially, the residential units were going to be four stories, but the neighbors said that was too tall, so we scaled back to three stories.”
In West Berkeley, there are mixed uses on a single block
The project passed design review in September and was approved by the Zoning Adjustments Board in November. But Daniel Baker, president of Poly Seal Industries, which sits adjacent to the project, and Rick Auerbach, the staff at West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies, or WEBAIC, filed an appeal 10 days later. They expressed concern that Trachtenberg’s design did not do enough to minimize the impact of Poly Seal on the residential units, and future conflict might result. That block is zoned part light industrial, part residential so the issue “is baked into Berkeley zoning,” Trachtenberg said.
“You have residential butting up against industrial leases,” said Trachtenberg. “When you sign a rental lease, people have to sign a release form that you know this is a neighborhood that is noisy. But the manufacturers are concerned that people will be upset and say, ‘I’m paying an arm and a leg for rent and I don’t like the trucks backing up in the middle of the night making noise,’ and try to get rid of the industrial uses.”
“It can get very contentious because the longstanding industrial uses that have been there are feeling threatened by people living next to a factory,” he said.
Auerbach described the situation in almost the same words — a testament to the close collaboration between the developer, the architect and the neighbors.
“When you have people living close to industry, they complain, and the police get called and the manufacturers may eventually have to leave, and you lose those good jobs,” Auerbach said. “So you want to avoid those conflicts.
“We wrote the West Berkeley Plan (generally the area west of San Pablo Avenue) to try to mitigate conflicts and avoid incompatibilities,” said Auerbach, one of the authors of the plan developed in 1985-1993 that rezoned all of West Berkeley. The plan designated certain areas for industrial uses, certain areas for residences, certain areas for mixed uses.
While the many community members who crafted the West Berkeley Plan over many years endeavored to separate residential and industrial, there was one exception: artists.
“We realized artists and industry were natural allies,” said Auerbach. “Most artists are makers. They are welders, they have saws, they are creating dust, they are using solvents. Artists are good neighbors with industry and they also needed space.”
For this reason, in much of West Berkeley, live-work for artists and light industrial were allowed to coexist in one of West Berkeley’s industrial zones.
This is the issue that came into play with the application for 739 Channing Way.
The plan for the development is three rows of buildings. The row of live-work units is on the property line between Poly Seal and the developer’s property. The complex faces the Poly Seal factory — and there is, or was, the rub.
“Poly Seal has been operating in West Berkeley for 45 years,” Auerbach said. “It has 10-12 employees. Most are people of color, and some live in Berkeley.”
Dan Baker, the second-generation president and CEO of Poly Seal, sat down with Kyle and Dennis Karlston, the father-and-son team who own the land, along with Auerbach and Trachtenberg, to hash out an agreement. The negotiations stretched over four months.
To accommodate Baker and Auerbach’s concerns, Trachtenberg changed the position of the top floor units’ balconies. They used to face west, to capture views of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. But those views also faced Poly Seal, which would have had residents and industrial uses facing one another closely.
After discussion, Trachtenberg and the developers flipped the balconies to face east, away from the factory. That was a big concession since a view of the Golden Gate Bridge can add tens of thousands of dollars to the price of a home, according to local real estate agents.
While the eventual occupants of the units won’t be able to sit on their decks and gaze at the bridge, they will be able to see the East Bay hills from the decks, a view that is also attractive, Trachtenberg noted. The occupants will also have western views of San Francisco Bay through their windows.
In the negotiations, the developers also agreed to install windows on the Poly Seal side that do not open. The windows and walls will get acoustical features to attenuate any noise from the Poly Seal factory, Auerbach said.
In addition to the concessions, Trachtenberg said a number of other factors led to the favorable outcome.
“It’s all a function of what neighbors you happen to get, and what you are proposing,” he said. “You have to be reasonable, you can’t be too aggressive and you have to be willing to listen to people’s legitimate concerns. Everybody doesn’t get what they want.”
“I think very often, during this process, as painful as it can be, generally the buildings get better.”
The architect has a long track record in the area. His office has been on Fourth Street in West Berkeley for 30 years, half a block from the site. Trachtenberg knows his neighbors and is no outsider.
“I think very often, during this process, as painful as it can be, generally the buildings get better,” Trachtenberg said. “The scheme that is approved now is better than the one we proposed and I give the credit for that to the neighbors.”
Acknowledging that these projects can often be sources of “enormous conflict,” he added, “they can be a source of bringing together and healing a neighborhood.”
1446 Fifth Street
“Healing” is not exactly the word Matthew Wadlund would use for the sequence of events accompanying his application for 1446 Fifth St., between Page and Jones streets.
“From the first day, the neighbors disagreed” with the proposal, he said. “The neighbors said, ‘What gives you the right to do this?’”
Wadlund’s proposal is for four residences. A 12-foot driveway would run the length of the lot near the southern property line to provide access to off-street parking for four vehicles; the three dwellings closest to the street would each provide an off-street parking space in an attached garage, and the fourth residence near the western boundary would have provided one uncovered parking space. Wadlund later changed the uncovered space to an attached garage.
The story began in the fall of 2016 when a group of investors, including Wadlund, bought the lot. He applied for a permit in December — the normal first step. As with 739 Channing, Wadlund first held a community meeting in the fall, per the city’s regulations. About 15 people came. Most had objections that neighbors often state, about parking, about density, about changing the character of the neighborhood, he said. They also wanted some affordable housing included.
“This project is on a lot the city described as ‘vacant.’ One of the neighbors said, ‘It’s not vacant, there are trees and a parking lot on it,’” Wadlund said.
The developer completed two other similar projects a block away in Berkeley with four houses on smaller lots.
“This project is on a lot the city described as ‘vacant.’ One of the neighbors said, ‘It’s not vacant, there are trees and a parking lot on it.”
On June 5, the use permit and design review application were approved. On June 15, neighbor Niels Traynor appealed.
The Design Review Committee held a public hearing July 20, dismissed the appeal and unanimously approved the application, with conditions. On Sept. 14, the Zoning Adjustments Board held a public hearing, dismissed the appeal and approved the application, with eight “yes” votes and one abstention.
On Oct. 2, neighbors Jeffrey Spahn and Paul Bontekoe appealed the decision. The City Council called a special meeting in order to hold a public hearing on the appeal Feb. 6.
As the hearing approached, Niels Traynor, the neighbor who filed the first appeal, in concert with at least one other neighbor, made a discovery.
“We did our homework and discovered this, and the city wasn’t aware of that, they didn’t catch on to it,” said Traynor, who was speaking as a representative of the Oceanview Neighborhood Council.
“This” was a technicality that could torpedo the project.
Traynor and at least one other neighbor discovered that because the lot was large enough to accommodate five houses, Wadlund would have to pay a housing mitigation fee in exchange for only building four houses. That fee is likely somewhere in the neighborhood of $500,000 to $600,000, an amount that would make the project impracticable for Wadlund.
After Traynor discovered the technicality, he and another appellant, Jeffrey Spahn, as well as other members of the Oceanview Neighborhood Council, met with City Council members before the Feb. 6 hearing to inform them of their discovery.
It was only then that Wadlund himself found out about the issue. Until then, he had been unaware that because the lot was large enough to accommodate five houses, he would have to pay a mitigation fee in exchange for only building four houses. The purpose of the mitigation fee is to make up for not building affordable housing.
The developer said he had completed two other similar projects a block away in Berkeley with four houses on smaller lots. He said he was not aware that the Fifth Street lot was large enough to accommodate five homes.
“The $600,000 is so prohibitive he may not be able to afford the project,” Traynor noted.
At the hearing, Elisa Mikiten, speaking on behalf of Wadlund, asked the council to return the application to the zoning board for consideration because of Wadlund’s concerns about the mitigation fee. The council voted to do so.
“Usually this isn’t such a big deal because usually there isn’t such a big discrepancy between four and five units, said Berkeley Planning Manager Steve Buckley. “With smaller projects, it’s a close call as to which rules apply.”
While the fee depends on the price the units sell for, and hence can’t be precisely predicted, “We can somewhat predict the amount,” Buckley said. “He’s (Wadlund) probably right; it might be $500,000 or $600,000 for condos. Because these are high-value units.”
Now the project is in limbo.
The zoning board meeting hasn’t been set yet, and Wadlund is reconsidering how to design the project.
The crowning frustration
This latest development is a crowning frustration for Wadlund. He said the appeal process is blocking attempts to build housing that would ease the housing crisis that has plagued the city, and the Bay Area, for years.
“Appeals are filed, not on merit, but on the grounds of obstruction: ‘If we oppose this long enough, the developer will go out of business and the housing won’t be built,’” Wadlund said.
In an earlier interview, Trachtenberg noted, that appealing a project “is a huge deal for the people who are proposing things, but it’s a nothing-burger for those who appeal. It only costs $100. It gums up the works for City Council,” the architect said.
Wadlund said, “The opposition of the project is diametrically opposed to what they say they want. They say they want affordable housing. But when the city could be working on new housing proposals, instead they are working on appeals.”
“Every step in the appeal process takes away staff time and council time that could be spent on developing and approving affordable housing,” Wadlund said.
“I would say that just sounds like if he had planned affordable housing from the beginning the staff would not have had to spend all that time and an appeal wouldn’t have happened.”
Traynor said he does not oppose the project, despite having filed an appeal against it in June 2o17. However, he has a number of concerns including how the project will reduce parking for Fourth Street businesses. He also thinks the project is out of scale with the neighborhood and doesn’t fit in with the mixed-use atmosphere that includes artists. Wadlund’s are mostly high-end residential or high-end condos, said Traynor.
There may be another reason behind Traynor’s concerns: he noted that Wadlund owns four parcels on Fifth and Page Streets — 1444 and 1442 Fifth Street and 776 and 770 Page — and wants to develop them all.
“So there’s a potential for 14 high-end residential units total,” he said.
Asked how he knew Wadlund plans to develop the entire block, Traynor said Wadlund had shared this plan at the community meeting held in 2016. Traynor did not attend that meeting.
“To get out of affordable housing requirements, he is developing one lot at a time,” Traynor said. “We are afraid we will be overrun with large developments.”
Traynor said he would not be opposed to the construction of a couple of two-story buildings. But Wadlund said that size would not be financially feasible.
“I would like to emphasize that I would like to work with Matt at this point,” Traynor said.
Asked if he had reached out to Wadlund to request a meeting at any time, Traynor said, “No.”
He said to the best of his knowledge, none of the neighbors have done so either. Traynor said his main goal is to get affordable housing added to the project.
Death by a thousand cuts
Greg Magofna of East Bay for Everyone, a pro-housing organization, had a different perspective.
“People are worried that Berkeley is becoming unaffordable — and it is — but it’s cases like this where wealthy people oppose every housing project that help make it this way,” Magofna said.
“They are very smart. They know about death by a thousand cuts. So they know all the different ways to appeal projects, saying they’re not following an obscure part of an ordinance, and they will use all of those weapons against new housing,” Magofna said.
With regard to Traynor’s parking concerns, “It’s really interesting that for almost every development people would rather have housing for cars than housing for people,” Magofna said.
“Berkeley had the tenth highest income inequality in the country in 2014, and it’s getting worse. People appeal these projects, ostensibly with concerns about social inequality, but their history of appealing projects is what has made our community so inequitable,” he said.