This week, the Berkeley City Council approved a West Berkeley zoning change that may allow Kaiser Permanente to open a new medical facility at Parker and 10th streets.
The vote was not without its controversies, as members of the public and some council members questioned whether Kaiser is actually committed to opening in Berkeley and what the zoning change might mean for property owner Wareham Development and the neighborhood.
At Tuesday’s council meeting, Mayor Jesse Arreguín said he had talked with Kaiser several times, and been assured of its intentions: “They absolutely are committed to moving to this building if the city allows medical office use,” he said, adding that the zoning change applied to just half a parcel. Arreguín said medical offices are allowed under the West Berkeley Plan, and that it would be in the public interest to let Kaiser move in.
Plans feature a nearly 61,000-square-foot medical office with adult family medicine services, pediatrics, mental health care, a pharmacy and other outpatient offerings, project rep Christopher Barlow, of Wareham Development, told officials Tuesday. Negotiations remain underway between Wareham and Kaiser, but Kaiser submitted a letter of intent to the city in April about its wish to create the new campus.
The council vote Tuesday night was solely to decide on the matter of the zoning change, from “mixed use — light industrial” (MU-LI) at 10th and Parker to commercial. Kaiser has said it needed the zoning modification to carry out its plans. The late-night 6-3 vote to grant the request saw opposition from council members Kate Harrison, Sophie Hahn and Cheryl Davila.
Harrison said Tuesday that a medical facility would be a good fit for West Berkeley, but that she was worried about the strength of Kaiser’s commitment.
“I’m concerned about the likelihood that this will not occur,” she said, “that Kaiser will not happen and then we will end up with housing here.”
Under the MU-LI zoning designation, that would not have been possible. But the zoning change to mixed-use commercial could potentially allow for residential development one day. The neighborhood and city have fought for years to protect its industrial uses and history.
Davila, who represents West Berkeley, expressed a similar sentiment to Harrison’s qualms: “We don’t really know that Kaiser is going to move in. There’s lots of things we don’t know. I’m just really concerned that changing the zoning will give an opportunity and a message that we might not want to convey.”
Harrison made a substitute motion to use a zoning overlay, rather than the zoning reclassification, to modify the parcel. Hahn said that would have been more a “surgical” approach, adding, “no pun intended.” Had her motion succeeded, the item would have had to go before the Planning Commission and then come back to council for another vote. The motion failed due to lack of support.
According to Kaiser’s letter of intent, the project would “employ over 200 people and bring services closer to our many members who live in the city.” The site’s proximity to public transit on San Pablo Avenue, and the West Berkeley shuttle and BART, “are particularly attractive since it provides our staff and members with the opportunity to access the building without the need for an automobile journey,” Kaiser wrote in April. That is the only letter Kaiser has submitted to the city, staff said Thursday.
Kaiser is seeking its use permit for the project separately. That hearing, before the Zoning Adjustments Board, was supposed to take place Thursday night. It has been postponed to 2019, according to city documents and staff.
The Kaiser plans also include an off-site parking lot, on Carleton Street between Ninth and 10th streets, that will take the place of several neighborhood business. A number of those business owners and workers have spoken before council and the zoning board in recent weeks to plead for help.
Barlow told council Tuesday night that those businesses would be allowed to remain on site, on the nearby Pardee block, through Oct. 31, 2019 — though their leases all included a clause about the possibility of early termination with much less notice, he said.
Berkeleyside has sought comment from Kaiser and will update this story if it is provided.
Update, 6:10 p.m. Kaiser Permanente Northern California’s Mark J. Tortorich, vice president of National Facilities Service, provided the following brief statement about project plans: “As our membership in the Bay Area continues to grow, we are exploring possibilities for expanding access to our high quality, integrated care. We don’t have additional information to share at this time.”
[Note: Berkeleyside added a paragraph about Harrison’s proposed zoning overlay after publication because it was relevant context. Stay tuned to Berkeleyside for much more in-depth coverage of the project as it moves through the city permitting process.]