Workers are putting the final touches on two houses on a lot at 908 Cedar St. in West Berkeley, a project that sailed through the oft-arduous city approval process in just eight months, a surprisingly short time for proposed housing in Berkeley.
As is not unusual, neighbors opposed the project. But the two women behind the development prevailed because, first, they intended to live in the neighborhood, and second, they worked with neighbors and made changes in response to their concerns, housing officials said.
The story begins in August 2016, when John Newton of Design & Development in Oakland submitted an application to Berkeley on behalf of Neda Hamadani and Sepideh Ghafari, the property owners.
The proposal was to demolish the 732-square-foot, single-story, single family dwelling unit on the property, and to construct two new detached two-story, single-family dwelling units — of 1,854 and 1,883 square feet, respectively — on the parcel.
At least three neighbors objected to the project, citing familiar concerns: shadow impacts on 904 Cedar, the house next door on the west side, as well as building height, residential density and parking supply.
Similar complaints have been expressed time and time again regarding proposed housing in the city, and have often torpedoed proposed developments.
The complaints were reminiscent of another development, the infamous 1310 Haskell Street in Southwest Berkeley. Memorialized in the New York Times as an example of the difficulty of getting housing approved, it took two years, two lawsuits and a judge’s mandate to get City Council approval for that project.
In the case of 908 Cedar, there was some initial pushback to the application, according to Leah Simon-Weisberg, one of the members of the Zoning Adjustments Board who unanimously approved 908 Cedar St. “These two women bought the property and there was some resistance from neighbors. They hadn’t spoken with the neighbors,” she said.
In an April 11 letter to the zoning board, neighbor Sara Shumer said, “This project is the epitome of what is wrong with a blind, rigid misapplication of current R-1A zoning. Staff has recommended that ZAB approve 2 huge dwellings of 2 stories each, replacing a small much more affordable dwelling that may need some repairs.
“The new buildings overwhelm their neighbors and undermine the quality of the neighborhood. … This project should be rejected and only a more modest proposal, with a 1 story second building with more useable open space should be acceptable.”
Nevertheless, city staffers recommended that the board approve the application because of the project’s consistency with the zoning ordinance and general plan, and what it saw as a minimal impact on surrounding properties, according to the staff report.
The zoning board first met Dec. 22, 2016, to consider the application.
“When they came before the board the first time there was opposition from folks,” said Simon-Weisberg, who served as a substitute board member at both the December and April board meetings.
In response to the feedback from neighbors, the board continued the matter from December to April.
In the intervening four months, Ghafari and Hamadani reached out to the neighbors at 904 Cedar, who had been concerned that the former design threw a shadow on their front window, affecting their ability to get morning sunlight.
In response, the owners altered the design of the front house, moving it an additional eight and a half feet away from 904 Cedar.
At the April meeting, Hamadani and Ghafari addressed the board.
“We are first-time homeowners. We have always loved this neighborhood, and we want to live here and build a family here and have our lives here,” Hamadani said.
She continued, “Having a good relationship with our neighbors and having them be on board with what we are going to be building is very important to us. So, we did take that four months from when we had our original ZAB meeting until now in working with them back and forth and with our architect as well.”
Ghafari said, “We have been working closely with our neighbors, especially the neighbors right next to us. The shadowing will affect them, so we have been working with them, and we’re all getting along, as you can see.”
After the two spoke, Shoshana O’Keefe, who chaired the meeting in the absence of the chair and vice-chair, said of the rapprochement, “This is chicken soup for the ZAB soul.”
The next speaker was the neighbor at 904 Cedar, the house just to the west of 908.
“There was a big concern with the shading on our house, but considering the changes they have made, my husband and I agree that we accept it. We support the solution they are putting forward — and we also look forward to having these guys as our neighbors,” the neighbor, identified as “Jennifer” by the O’Keefe, said.
O’Keefe said, “I made a joke about this before … but this is beautiful. You’d be amazed how rarely we hear this.”
Only one other member of the public, a neighbor at 911 Cedar across the street, spoke at the hearing, describing herself as excited over the project and commenting that the two women had frequently visited her, sharing the changes they were making, over the last four months.
After the last comment, the board voted unanimously to approve the application.
“For me, the first time around they said they hadn’t talked to the neighbors and the second time around they did, they made an effort to communicate with people,” Simon-Weisberg said.
She added, “Part of the story is that people in Berkeley prioritize people who are going to live there versus developers who want to make money. I was moved by the women who are actually going to live there.”