Co-housing project for South Berkeley voted down by zoning board

A much-revised proposal for 3000 Shattuck Ave., which features dorm-like larger units, was rejected by ZAB on June 28 — its third time before the board.

A proposed development at 3000 Shattuck Ave. (at Ashby) was rejected by Berkeley’s Zoning Adjustments Board on June 29. Rendering: Devi Dutta Architecture

The third time turned out not to be the charm for a proposed co-living project at Shattuck and Ashby avenues is South Berkeley.

The debate-sparking project was rejected by the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) last month — its third time before the board in a year. The ZAB is charged with granting building use permits.

The proposal for 3000 Shattuck Avenue, which featured dorm-like larger units, was tweaked through the ZAB process, based on input from board members and the public.

But not enough to win approval.

In the end, on a 7 to 2 vote, a majority of zoning board members found it simply wasn’t a good fit for the site, currently home to a gas station, and car repair and smog testing shops.

The main concerns included:

  • The project’s lack of a vehicle loading/drop-off zone, which was viewed as especially relevant given that it had no parking for residents, which would likely generate a lot of Uber and Lyft type car-share traffic
  • Too tall and large for site especially given its location at a busy intersection where Shattuck is two lanes
  • The co-sharing dorm-like concept’s fit with Berkeley’s affordable housing requirements, which are based on number of units
  • Numerous residents expressing a strong desire for inclusive affordable units within the development

Referring to the affordable housing issue, ZAB member Charles Kahn, said at the June 28 meeting: “It’s the 600-pound gorilla in the room… There’s a concern that there’s a gaming of the system, that’s the term being used. I don’t know if the system has been gamed or not. I have to confess that it looks like it to me too.”

“It’s the 600-pound gorilla in the room… There’s a concern that there’s a gaming of the system… I have to confess that it looks like it to me too.”
— Charles Kahn

Under Berkeley’s affordable housing ordinance, developers of new rentals must include affordable units equal to 20% of the total units.

In lieu of including units, developers can pay an affordable housing mitigation fee of $37,000 per unit to the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund, which is used to finance low-income housing.

The 3000 Shattuck applicant — NX Ventures who are being represented by planner Mark Rhoades —  had decided to pay the fee, rather than include affordable units.

When the project was first presented to the ZAB in July 2017, it wasn’t a co-living concept, but called for 44 living units of primarily studios, one- and two-bedrooms. It also called for 17 car parking spaces.

The latest version had evolved to 23 residential units ranging from studios to six bedrooms. A majority of the units were larger including six three-bedrooms, five four-bedrooms, six five-bedrooms, and one six-bedroom.

The larger units were designed more like dormitories than full-service apartments, with bedrooms as the main focus and relatively smaller shared kitchen-living areas. The complex also included a central communal room with kitchen and shared courtyard.

It had no residential car parking, but 48 bicycle parking spots and six commercial spaces for a planned ground-floor café. The site is less than a half-mile from the Ashby BART station.

The application statement said in part: “3000 Shattuck will provide an essential combination of pricing affordability, an amenity-rich neighborhood, and easy access to public transit — key considerations for the modern workforce renter.”

The most recent tweaks, presented to the ZAB in June, included enlarging the common kitchen/living areas in the complex, and in the larger apartment units, based on board feedback.

Reducing the units from the initial 44 to 23, reduced the project’s affordable housing contribution to the city’s housing trust, since the requirement is based on the number of units in a development.

The affordable housing mitigation fee would have come to around $850,000, a little more than half of what it would have been in the initial design.

This was a sore point for some ZAB members.

“Personally, I think it’s terrible the way the law is written, it shouldn’t be based on the number of units, but based on square footage, “ Kahn said at the meeting.

Rhoades defended the design as a legitimate way to offer affordable options, with tenants paying per bedroom, and getting the benefits of shared common areas and other amenities. People renting a room in the co-housing design would pay 20% to 30% less than if they rented a studio apartment in Berkeley, he said.

Similar designs are being developed in San Francisco and as UC student housing.

“This is a way to actually get it built and provide the city with close to a million dollars into the affordable trust. That’s the choice. Or the city can continue to have a gas station.”
— Mark Rhoades

“This is a creative way to try to get to our affordable housing problem,” Rhoades said at the meeting.

“This is a way to actually get it built and provide the city with close to a million dollars into the affordable trust,” Rhoades said. “That’s the choice. Or the city can continue to have a gas station.”

There was also discussion about whether the project’s larger units would fall under the city’s Group Living Accommodation (GLA), a special regulatory category applying to some shared housing such as large group homes, co-ops and fraternities.  Under a GLA, the project’s affordable housing mitigation fees would have been substantially greater, among other different requirements.

A couple of board members were prepared to continue the review for a fourth time, with more suggested changes.

ZAB member Teresa Clarke, who supported the project, said she was fine with the scale, but agreed it needed drop-off parking improvements and more janitorial/maintenance space.

“I know this neighborhood very well, and I know this corner well,” said Clarke, who lives in the neighborhood. “I disagree that this isn’t an appropriate size for the neighborhood. I think this is a very appropriate size for this neighborhood. This is where we need this type of density.”

She called the project well-designed, and said an apartment building could improve traffic over a gas station, where cars frequently go in and out from the streets. “I think this will be a benefit to the neighborhood, it will provide a lot of great housing.”

But the votes to approve or continue weren’t there.

“There is a fundamental problem with it,” said ZAB member Patrick Sheahan.

“It’s simply the wrong site for a project of this scale… It’s simply too tall, too big, too dense. And it’s not a matter of all or nothing. It’s a matter of what works for the site.”

The majority of public testimony at the May meeting objected to the project. Traffic was a big worry. Many residents also said they wanted affordable units included in the project, rather than payment to the city’s housing trust, as a way to help maintain neighborhood diversity. They cited diversity and affordable housing as priorities of the city’s South Berkeley Area Plan, a blueprint for development.

A few speakers supported the proposal as innovative approach to urban affordability that would encourage less car ownership and driving.

The ZAB’s decision can be appealed to the City Council for a final ruling.

Berkeleyside reached out to Rhoades for information on the owner’s next steps but hadn’t heard back by press time.

Kate Rauch, a Bay Area native, has been contributing to Berkeleyside for almost 10 years, and in journalism for many more, with a few other interesting gigs along the way.