A rendering of 1601 Oxford St., at Cedar Street (looking southeast). Image: HKIT Architects

A new affordable housing project for seniors, on land at Oxford and Cedar streets donated by — and next to — All Souls Episcopal Parish, won unanimous approval Thursday night from Berkeley’s zoning board.

Satellite Affordable Housing Associates (SAHA) is working with the church to develop the new facility, to feature four stories of 34 below-market-rate rental units for seniors above a lobby and parking garage. The property will also have a manager’s unit and two units for use by the church.

The $25 million project budget includes about $6 million from the city, a $3 million land donation from the church, and an estimated $2.6 million in Alameda County Measure A1 money, as well as other funding sources, according to a recent report from the city’s Housing Advisory Commission. The city also gave SAHA a $25,000 predevelopment loan in December, from the city’s Housing Trust Fund, to help get the project moving.

Supporters of the project told the board Thursday it will get vulnerable people off Berkeley’s streets and let local seniors age in place and thrive in a safe, walkable neighborhood. The director of Hearts Leap, a preschool at 2220 Cedar that is a tenant of All Souls, said she supports the project and the opportunities it will create to allow seniors and children to come together for songs and stories and other types of interactions. Parishioners of All Souls said the project has widespread support among its membership, which has been meeting with the community since last year to develop its vision for the land.

“There’s no question that Berkeley needs projects like this to address the affordability crisis,” project architect Rod Henmi of Oakland-based HKIT Architects told the board. He said another Housing Trust Fund project in Berkeley, Harper Crossing, had 16 seniors apply for every available unit it had to offer. And three-quarters of the people who moved into that South Berkeley building, he added, already lived or worked in Berkeley.

The view from above: the project site to the west (south of Cedar) and All Souls to the east. Image: Google Maps

Phil Brochard, All Souls rector, told the board church leaders and members had been discussing the project for three years.

“We did look at this potentially being market rate,” he said, which “would have been a much more lucrative path.” But “the rising tide of housing costs” was clear even three years ago, he said, “so we decided to go this direction…. to partner with people who live in Berkeley and know Berkeley and want Berkeley to succeed.”

Those who expressed concerns about the building said they supported the project’s goals despite impacts to views and traffic. They asked the board to do what it could to minimize those impacts. One neighbor asked the board to delay approval until there was a clearer plan for traffic and congestion related to the site. He also said he was worried about what sort of precedent a five-story building would set for UC Berkeley as it looks to develop the nearby Oxford Tract parcel into housing.

Carrie Lutjens of SAHA, project manager for 1601 Oxford, told the board Thursday that the Zoning Adjustments Board approval needed to happen that night because of a looming deadline in December to seek county funding. SAHA submitted the project to the city in February, she said, and had a zoning board preview in July. The board’s decision could still be appealed to the City Council, and the project cannot seek county money until that appeals period is done.

Of the project’s 34 studios for seniors, 21 would be affordable to very-low income households and the rest would be affordable to those at the low-income level. An existing three-story 10-unit building — that’s reportedly seen better days — would be demolished.

Commissioners were largely in agreement about their comments regarding the building, but some differences did emerge during their discussion.

Commissioner Patrick Sheahan, appointed by Councilwoman Cheryl Davila, asked if the architect could look at moving the entrance onto Cedar so it wasn’t partially underground. He had some support for the concept, but other commissioners pushed back.

“I don’t want to make them pay to redraw this building again on very limited resources on a tight deadline,” said Commissioner Denise Pinkston, Councilwoman Lori Droste’s appointee to the board.

“I don’t like us micromanaging design at this level, especially when a project has come before us as a preview already,” agreed Commissioner Shoshana O’Keefe, Councilwoman Sophie Hahn’s appointee. “I think we should just approve it and keep our hands off of it.”

The zoning board ultimately approved the project as submitted while also asking the project team to do everything it could to bring down the building height and roofline even slightly, including working with the Fire Department to minimize the structures it needs on the roof for safety. Board members asked for clear signage in a three-vehicle drop-off and pick-up area on Cedar with a white curb, and for the project to do what it could to include wheelchair-accessible showers on the ground floor, and more if possible.

They also agreed to ask the project team to consider whether it might be possible to move the entrance so it’s in line with the drop-off zone, but said this was not a requirement and would not need to come back to the board if the architect finds a way to do it.

“I’m in support of the project and, although perfection might be the enemy of the good, I think even the good can be better,” Sheahan said. “And that’s what I would push for.”

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...