A project currently in its early stages could add a new academic building and housing units at Hearst and La Loma avenues. Rendering: UC Berkeley/Solomon Cordwell Buenz/American Campus Communities

Update, Feb. 21, 2019: UC Berkeley is forging ahead with its plans for a one-acre residential and academic complex at the top of Hearst Avenue, now entailing the demolition of the entire parking lot currently at the site.

The university hopes to start work as soon as September, contingent on the UC Regents’ approval and the finalization of a new draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Review, where the project plans are fleshed out. The SEIR doubles as a proposed update to the 2020 Long Range Development Plan.

Previously UC Berkeley said the “Upper Hearst” project would be built partially above an existing three stories of parking at the corner of Hearst and La Loma. Now the plan calls for full demolition, including the elimination of a sports field on the roof, and the reconstruction to the north of around 200, or half, of the parking spaces and 52 bike spaces.

The result will be 150 new residential units and a new academic building for the neighboring Goldman School of Public Policy.

The public policy school has said the project will accommodate a student body and faculty that are overflowing from the current facilities, and the draft SEIR says the school is planning for an average of 30 additional students and five new staff on campus over the next few years. The number of master’s degree students could increase from 35 to 100.

The work will require the removal of 49 trees, according to the SEIR. That collection includes two redwoods and a historic Camperdown elm in front of a fraternity. 

The scale of the project is much larger than the surrounding Northside neighborhood’s, and it’s generated some concern from residents and city commissioners. UC Berkeley is not beholden to Berkeley’s zoning rules, however. The project does not actually fall within UC Berkeley’s own designated Housing Zone, but the site does meet other university development criteria, both because it expands the housing stock and because it is located within a mile of the campus center, according to the SEIR.

Original story: July 13, 2018: UC Berkeley wants to convert part of a parking lot at the top of Hearst Avenue into a one-acre residential and academic complex.

The “Upper Hearst” project, a public-private partnership between the university and a national developer, is situated between Hearst and Ridge Road, with La Loma Avenue to the east and the Goldman School of Public Policy (GSPP) to the west.

The project would expand the public policy school’s classroom and office space, with a new, 32,000-square-foot building, and would add 132 units to the university’s housing stock. The one- and two-bedroom apartments would house faculty, and post-doc and graduate students.

“The project chiefly responds to the need for teaching and collaborative research space for GSPP, while also answering the need for housing for campus affiliates,” wrote planners in a project document.

Currently, the public policy school’s sole large classroom is occupied day in and out, and the “living room” of its 1893 building on Hearst is often crammed with 40 graduate students providing lectures and office hours at the same time, said Kyle Gibson, spokesman for UC Berkeley Capital Strategies, in an email. He said the Goldman School has to rent space elsewhere on campus to support the overflow from its own buildings.

The Goldman School declined to provide its own comment on the project at this point, saying the dean’s perspective was reflected in the statements sent by Gibson.

The project still needs to go before the UC Regents for discussion and approval — likely early next year — but initial designs have been drawn up. The financial estimates for the project are still in development, Gibson said.

The proposed design would shear off the top level of the four-story parking lot at the corner of Hearst and La Loma, and demolish another portion, leaving 224 of the 325 spaces intact. No new parking is proposed with the residential units, but developers would pay UC Berkeley in-lieu fees for the spaces that are removed, Gibson said.

Because the housing units would be built on top of the parking lot, the buildings will add significant height to the site, reaching up to 82 feet at the tallest point, and 60 feet at the shortest.

Architecture firm Solomon Cordwell Buenz has designed the new structure to earn at least a LEED Silver certification, and aims to use materials that complement the aesthetic of the existing public policy buildings.

The new four-story academic building, as currently designed, also features an event space with a 450-person capacity, and a large atrium with a vaulted ceiling.

The Upper Hearst project would expand the Goldman School of Public Policy’s footprint at the site. Rendering: UC Berkeley/Solomon Cordwell Buenz/American Campus Communities

UC Berkeley held a community open house in March to present the proposal to the public, and recently brought it before the city of Berkeley’s Landmarks Preservation Commission and its Design Review Committee.

Those bodies have no official authority over UC Berkeley construction, but the university presents its projects to commissioners as a courtesy, and receives their informal feedback.

Christopher Adams said he was among some Landmarks Preservation commissioners who were critical of the scale and design of the project.

“My objection to it, which I articulated, is there’s no way you could make a design that would be sympathetic to its setting with the enormity of the project the university proposes to build,” Adams said. He noted that a private developer in the same neighborhood would be required to comply with various zoning regulations — over height, parking and open space — that, he said, this design violates. The city zoning code doesn’t govern UC Berkeley property.

Adams said he’s critical of public-private partnerships because he believes they could encourage the university to make concessions to developers in order to secure funding for desired construction projects.

The developer working on the Upper Hearst project is Texas-based American Campus Communities, the largest developer and manger of student housing in the country, according to its website.

If the UC Regents approve the project, American Campus Communities will build the entire complex and operate the apartments, receiving rent revenue to “support the cost of the housing construction and the costs to reinforce and reconfigure the parking structure,” Gibson wrote. The university will continue to manage the parking lot. The Goldman School will be responsible for the debt service for the academic building.

“The Goldman School has worked closely with American Campus Communities to define its programming needs, such that the scope and design of this project should meet the needs of this prestigious school for several decades,” Gibson wrote. “The ability to provide housing for the underserved populations…proximate to campus is also of great benefit.”

The same developer built David Blackwell Hall, the undergraduate dorm set to open in August, adding 750 beds on Dana Street, between Bancroft Way and Durant Avenue. The university has identified a need for about 7,000 new student beds, which would nearly double its existing housing supply. The Blackwell project represents the most significant progress made in reaching that goal so far.

This year, UC Berkeley also announced controversial plans to build housing on the historic People’s Park, and is eyeing other spots, including the Oxford Tract, which is facing opposition as well from students and faculty who say the tract is a critical research site.

The 49th anniversary celebration at People’s Park, where the university has announced plans to build student housing. Photo: Ted Friedman

Limited space is not the university’s only constraint when it comes to boosting its housing supply.

“Due to UC Berkeley’s current financial situation, the campus has limited options to fund new projects and service debt,” Gibson wrote. “Public-private partnerships with experienced developers minimize the amount of equity the university needs to invest upfront and in an ongoing manner, so the facilities critically needed by our students and faculty can be built.”

UC Berkeley has also entered into master leases with private developers in the city, renting out entire existing buildings for student housing.

In June, the Berkeley City Council urged the university to prioritize the development of new student housing over master leasing, saying the leasing practice takes units out of the already impacted general rental market, burdening the renting public in Berkeley.

UC Berkeley houses the smallest percentage of students — 22% of undergraduates and 9% of graduate students — of any campus in the UC system.

Although the campus has increased student enrollment significantly in recent years, UC Berkeley planned a reduction for 2018-19, and is set to welcome about 5% fewer freshmen this fall.

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Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...