A proposal for a five-story, 57-unit building in South Berkeley has come back in its latest iteration after a failed attempt in 2013 to get city approval.
The project, at 2701 Shattuck Ave., at Derby Street, has faced significant neighborhood opposition due to concerns about height, privacy and loss of sunlight, among other issues.
Thursday night, a representative for the property’s new owner told the Zoning Adjustments Board that significant changes have been made to respond to neighborhood concerns. But the few neighbors who spoke, along with the majority of the board, said the project is still too big and still poses too many problems for existing residents. The meeting was a preview only, to provide feedback to the development team rather than to vote.
“This is an insane invasion of privacy to the folks who live next door. This is not how we do things in Berkeley,” said Commissioner Carrie Olson, who is Councilwoman Kate Harrison’s appointee to the board. Olson said the project would block too much light for the immediate neighbor to the east. “Berkeleyans depend on the afternoon sun. It’s what we live for.”
Stuart Gruendl spoke to the board on behalf of the property owner, identified only as Cupertino-based 2701 Shattuck Berkeley, LLC: “We are not the past developer that had the past proposals,” he said. Gruendl, of BayRock Multifamily, LLC, said he used specific 2013 staff recommendations to reshape the project “to come up with a more compatible design.”
The current proposal is for a five-story mixed-use building that’s 62 feet tall with 57 units — including five for very-low-income tenants — along with a 600-square-foot café on the ground floor, 30 vehicle parking spots and room for 46 bikes.
The new proposal would also put nearly $1 million into the city’s Housing Trust Fund, staff said Thursday. It would feature 46 studios, six one-bedroom units, two two-bedroom units and three two-level townhomes. According to the staff report for Thursday’s meeting, the developer shaved about 2,000 square feet off the overall gross floor area of the building. The prior project had proposed 67 studios, a nearly 2,000-square-foot full-service restaurant at street level, and 32 parking spots.
Gruendl told the board the property owner had also gotten a demolition permit to remove a structure on the lot that had “basically became a rooming house” for transients. He said the property owner had “deleted that public nuisance.”
He described 2701 Shattuck as an “intelligent smart-growth project on a major transit line” that is sensitive to neighbors and “not trying to jam in the maximum development standards.” The studios — which the developer is calling “junior one-bedrooms” — range in square footage from the mid-300s to the high-300s. Most of the units have Murphy beds, which fold up into the wall.
Gruendl said the units are “affordable by design,” and will be aimed at “students, millennials, and people coming into the market” who can’t afford the larger units that have been built downtown.
The immediate neighbor to the east, Todd Darling, told the board the plans for 2701 Shattuck would negatively affect his property’s access to “sunlight, air and solar potential.” He urged the board not to allow local concerns from current residents to be “demonized as NIMBY.”
“Developers always seek to neutralize the locals,” he said.
Another neighbor said she’d like to see the developer allow public access to the project’s open space, and questioned plans for sidewalk usage, at the proposed café, for outdoor seating. Another said she is concerned about the townhomes on Shattuck, because it limits the retail on the parcel and is too close to the property line.
Gruendl told the board the sidewalk seating would be open to the public, and that the project would also improve the bus pad and benches to activate that corner of the street. New planters and trees are also part of the proposal.
“Today it’s a pigsty,” he added, of the sidewalk, and said it’s being used as a staging area for the construction of a 22-unit Patrick Kennedy building next door at 2711 Shattuck. (Berkeleyside has an update on that project coming soon.)
Gruendl also assured the board that the property owner would be willing to accept less-than-market-value rent for the commercial space for the right neighborhood-serving tenant: “That’s just not a dealbreaker. That’s just smart development.”
The board went down the line and offered feedback to the 2701 Shattuck team. Only six commissioners were in attendance, and some were substitutes for permanent members of the zoning board.
Commissioner Patrick Sheahan, appointee of Councilwoman Cheryl Davila, said he didn’t think enough had changed from the failed 2013 proposal, and that the “building is still excessive.”
“The design revisions are extremely small in terms of the real impact on the neighborhood,” he said. “I think it’s simply too big, too large, and I object to the manner in which the density bonus is applied.”
Commissioner Olson said the project has too much open space, and questioned the need for the roof deck, based on a tour she had taken previously of roof decks in Berkeley.
“Those who own dogs take them up there to poop, so you better make provisions for that,” she said.
Olson said “the homeless” are likely to use the new open space on the sidewalk, as well as the entrances to the townhomes.
“I always say, we need to have more places for the homeless to live. They’re going to be on the front doors of those townhouses,” she said. “I like the idea of ground-floor units, I just don’t like how this is being presented to us. I just don’t think this is safe.”
She and other commissioners suggested removing most of the parking from the project to see if that might bring down the height of the building.
Commissioner John Selawsky said he agreed with the suggestions from Sheahan and Olson, particularly about reducing the parking and the concerns about the massing of the building. He said he wanted assurances from city staff about whether the open space on the sidewalk would actually be public.
Toni Mester — a substitute commissioner — said she saw the problem, largely, as the location itself.
“There’s no way you can build a large building there without devaluing private property,” she said. “I see several single-family homes I think are going to lose their value.” She said she’d like to bring down the mass and reduce the height of the parking garage, along with other changes.
Mester said she thought the project would be “basically student dormitory rooms” for “a transient population.”
Mester also said the same unfortunate philosophical issues seem to come up again and again with new housing projects in Berkeley, particularly in the context of the state’s housing crisis: “I don’t know how Berkeley’s going to manage this kind of thing. People say, ‘Poo poo, it’s more important for people to have the housing than for the NIMBYs to have their values or whatever.’ That is such a devaluation of human life. I mean people really do need their sunlight for health.”
The only commissioner who seemed to indicate full support for the project was substitute Steven Donaldson. He said the townhomes on Shattuck, as well as the balconies on the building, put eyes on the street and would create a nice mixture on the block. He said the rear of the building had been scaled back in response to neighborhood concerns.
He said the commissioners should remember that Berkeley housing is “very mixed everywhere.” He pointed out that the scale of the building “all makes rational sense” when compared to the storage building next door and other structures nearby on the commercial corridor.
“You’ve done a remarkable job with a very tight space,” he said. “We have to remember: This is Shattuck. This is a gateway entry into the city.”
Commissioner Igor Tregub and others on the board said the Housing Accountability Act and state density bonus law limit what the city can control. (Tregub is Mayor Jesse Arreguín’s appointee to the board.)
“As long as there is no clear detriment or health and safety [issue] that’s found, the concessions and waivers do have to be approved,” he said. “So that leaves us with very few things that we can do. And I’m very interested in exploring what those are.”
He said the townhomes might work better “in the rear” of the lot, and that the developer might want to remove an outside ladder that he called “an interesting accent” that also “contributes to the feeling of bulk.” Tregub suggested a possible parklet and other open space that would be accessible to the public.
“I know that, as a city, we can’t require that,” he added, but described it as “a welcome gesture,” particularly as the “immediate neighbors are giving a lot up to accommodate this.” He said he’d like to see a “relief map” showing how the building would compare to others nearby.
Tregub said he thought the project could probably work, eventually, but said further changes are needed, particularly in response to the neighbor’s concerns about losing the light of the western sun: “I do think the ingredients are there,” he said. “There is little that the city actually has in terms of a hammer.”
The project received use permits from the city in 2007 for a 24-unit version of the building, but those permits have been little discussed in the context of the latest two proposals.
[Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the representative for the developer. The representative was Stuart Gruendl of BayRock Multifamily, LLC. The story has been corrected to reflect this.]