2701 Shattuck has been approved again in South Berkeley. Image: HDO Architect Planners

Zoning board commissioners somewhat regretfully approved a new five-story building in South Berkeley on Thursday, noting that state law largely tied their hands as far as changes they could make to the project.

The development, at 2701 Shattuck Ave. (at Derby Street), has come before the board in many forms over the years. A 2007 iteration, with some amount of neighborhood support, was approved but never built. The board rejected an attempt to redesign the project as micro-units in 2013. The latest iteration is a 62-foot mixed-use building with 57 units and a 600-square-foot café on the corner.

Five of the units will be made available to very-low-income tenants, with approximately $1 million going into the city’s Housing Trust Fund to build affordable housing elsewhere in Berkeley. The city allows developers to choose whether to include low-income units on site, pay the fee or do some combination of both.

Shortly before the vote to approve the project 7-1, board members and the development team took time to redraw the plans to take out some parking and make more space between the neighbor to the east and a large concrete wall at the base of the building.

It was “a rare moment where we can do a little good on a density bonus project,” said Commissioner Charles Kahn (appointed by Councilwoman Susan Wengraf). He said the change was likely “cold comfort” to neighbors, however.

“As long as they’re within the allowances of that [density bonus] law, all we can do is make minor adjustments,” Kahn said, of density bonus projects. “But we can’t make them take a story off the building. We can’t make them reduce the number of units. We can’t make them reduce the mass.”

The project on Shattuck backs onto smaller buildings and a single-family home to the east. Thursday night, board members and the development team agreed to reduce parking and create more space (not pictured here) between the home to the east and the back of 2701 Shattuck. Image: HDO Architect Planners

Todd Darling, whose family lives on Derby just east of the project site, said Friday he has not decided whether to appeal the zoning board’s decision. Darling told the board Thursday that project plans had only been made available seven days prior, which was not enough time to review the documents thoroughly. He urged the board to reject the application.

Darling told the board the proposed project would create a “significant financial detriment” for his property, blocking sunlight to his solar panels, increasing noise and decreasing privacy. Friday, he said he appreciated the board’s discussion but wished it had voted differently.

“I thought the members of the board displayed sympathy toward our point of view and made those minimal changes as best they could,” Darling said, of the parking reduction and the shifting of the concrete wall. “I’m pleased that they were sympathetic. I’m not pleased with their inability to stand up to the state.”

Stuart Gruendl, of applicant Bay Rock Multifamily, LLC, told the board it had been “very difficult to lay out an intelligent building on this site” because of its shape.

“We feel we’ve done that now,” he added. Gruendl represented property owner 2701 Shattuck Berkeley, LLC, of Cupertino, at Thursday’s meeting.

2701 Shattuck. Image: HDO Architect Planners

The project has three two-level townhomes as well as the apartments, which include 46 studios, six one-bedroom units, and two “one-bedroom plus den” units. The average unit size is 372 square feet.

Gruendl told the board this is because it’s “an affordable-by-design proposal,” though it’s not geared toward students, he added. He said the project will feature a removable parklet and public art, along with decks, extensive planters and rooftop open space.

During public comment, John Bajek, the owner of Johnny B’s Café, which used to be at 1250 Addison St., said he would like to open in the new space at 2701 Shattuck when the time comes. He said he’d offer healthy baked goods, organic food and panini-style sandwiches made from scratch, as he did when Johnny B’s was open.

Multiple neighbors spoke against the project due to its size, density and bulk. They said they would like to see housing built — but not this project.

One man, who described the project as an “oversized battery cage” — a reference to the cages used in animal production — said he recalled the days in decades past when Christmas trees were sold on the lot: “I’m not opposed to the concept of building on that ugly vacant lot …  but I don’t think this is the thing I would like to see there.”

“Berkeley is being used as a cashbox by investors and developers,” one woman said. “It’s oversized and inappropriate for the lot and the neighborhood.”

“You’re talking about taking away light from people who live in back of that building who have worked hard to be contributors to this community for five decades,” another woman told the board. “It’s too damn big. It’s not livable and it’s not going to create a community feeling where we have worked for decades to create a community feeling. These apartments are little rabbit holes.”

The parklet proposed at 2701 Shattuck. Image: HDO Architect Planners

Members of the Zoning Adjustments Board said they heard the concerns from the neighborhood but had little discretion.

Commissioner John Selawsky (appointed by Councilmen Ben Bartlett) noted that 2701 Shattuck was one of those “classic examples” in Berkeley of the tension that arises when the city’s need to add density on transit corridors conflicts with the interests of nearby neighbors in single-family homes.

“We are impinging on the neighborhood. We are impinging on neighbors. Their quality of life is going to be impacted and I take that seriously. I can’t just throw that away and toss it aside in the interest of housing,” he said. “I’m here to be critical about how we develop this city. That’s a ZAB member’s job. We’re not here to rubber stamp. If we were, this would all be administrative.”

Commissioner Teresa Clarke (Councilwoman Linda Maio’s appointee) tried to put the project in perspective. She noted that city zoning would allow a 50-foot-tall building on the site, and wasn’t sure if the shading impact created by adding another 12 feet would be significant. She also said the project “steps back” from the eastern property line numerous times to try to reduce the impacts and push much of the mass to the Shattuck Avenue side of the building.

As the night wore on, commissioners suggested several changes the development team might make to lessen the project’s impacts. Commissioner Denise Pinkston, who suggested many of the changes, pushed hard to win support for the suggestions.

Ultimately, Gruendl agreed, among other changes, to remove three parking stackers — nine spots total — and pull the eastern side of the building farther west so it’s 18 feet away rather than 8 feet. A parapet wall will also shift west.

The parcel at Shattuck and Derby. Image: Google Maps

Commissioners said the Design Review Committee should look closely at screening on the property, including on an exterior stairway, and make any changes possible to improve privacy. The DRC will also review proposed plantings to the same end.

Commissioner Patrick Sheahan (appointed by Councilwoman Cheryl Davila) was the lone no vote on the project. He raised several concerns about the project but also took issue with the city’s interpretation of the density bonus law in general. Sheahan said there can be significant negotiations and other decisions made before the board has a chance to weigh in, which leaves too many open questions.

“One of the difficulties for myself as a board member is understanding not only the density bonus law but the extent to which how concessions and waivers are applied to a project is negotiable,” he said. “And I think there’s a lot of space in there that I don’t understand how to address. And it tends to fall to staff — and then these come as complete proposals to us for an approval or disapproval.”

Commissioner Dohee Kim (Councilman Kriss Worthington’s appointee) was absent Thursday.

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...