1900 Sixth St. could one day feature multiple stories of affordable housing for seniors. Image: Google Maps

The Berkeley City Council voted Tuesday night to analyze the possibility of service-rich senior housing on the parcel now occupied by the West Berkeley Service Center.

Councilwoman Susan Wengraf originally had asked the city, in 2016, to review all the properties it owns to determine which might be the best fit for affordable housing. That evolved into a proposal, the next year, to explore the concept of senior housing at three senior centers, in North Berkeley, West Berkeley and South Berkeley. Council ultimately put the West Berkeley Service Center, at 1900 Sixth St., on its “high priority” list for senior housing.

The idea, according to the staff report for Tuesday’s meeting, is to build senior housing with on-site services, “maximizing the number of affordable units.” The council vote Tuesday gives the city manager the authority to look at a range of possible “build-out scenarios” for a three- to seven-story project.

Although the vote took place as part of the consent calendar, which meant there was limited discussion about the item, several council members expressed excitement about the idea.

“I think it’s a wonderful location for us to be considering building senior housing,” Wengraf told her colleagues. (Wengraf took part in Tuesday’s meeting by phone.)

The West Berkeley site is promising, according to the city, because of its proximity to transit, shopping and existing services for seniors. And its zoning already allows for multifamily development. By contrast, the senior centers in North and South Berkeley have more restrictive residential zoning. In addition, the proximity of the BART tunnel to the North Berkeley Senior Center limits what can be built there.

A 2017 analysis of the site by the city found that, while nearby buildings are just one or two stories tall, there are four- to five-story buildings on University Avenue a block away. The staff analysis found that “changing the zoning could help maximize the site’s development potential,” while also noting that “Demolishing and replacing the service center … would add significantly to the cost of housing development at the site.”

Councilwoman Sophie Hahn thanked Wengraf for bringing the item forward, and thanked Mayor Jesse Arreguín for his work to develop the idea over time. She said the consent calendar item was a testament to the fact that council’s new committee structure — where several council members hash out items in smaller groups before bringing them to the full council for a vote — is working.

“The mayor was very patient and took a lot of input from the commission and from staff,” Hahn said. “It was a good item when it came to us [on the committee], but I think it’s even better as it came through and as we see it now on our agenda.”

While the ultimate height of the building has yet to be determined,  all “scenarios should also incorporate space on the ground floor for resident amenities, supportive social services, and community space,” according to the staff report. The ideas that come from the staff analysis will go before the City Council and Planning Commission, among other stakeholders and city bodies, for review.

Council says senior housing should be a priority, in part, because that segment of Berkeley’s population is “expected to skyrocket over the next decade,” according to Tuesday’s staff report. In 2000, adults 65 and older made up about 10% of the city’s residents. The city says that number is expected to double by 2030.

Meanwhile, as with other segments of the population, the housing supply has not kept pace with the demand. According to the city, “Affordable housing is particularly limited with wait lists for some senior housing projects between 6-8 years.”

The West Berkeley Service Center, at Sixth Street and Hearst Avenue, is located on a 31,000 square-foot parcel. The site has “plentiful” access to public transit “with several high-frequency AC Transit routes and Amtrak located within half a mile.” The Fourth Street shopping area is nearby, as are a number of community health care facilities, according to the city.

As currently conceived, the project would focus on universally designed, affordable housing for older adults; incorporate the latest in technology; offer services and provide a community hub; have an assisted living and memory care component; and seek to maximize sustainability and energy efficiency.

Tenants currently located at the site include the city’s Aging Services staff, the Black Infant Health Program, Public Health Nurses and the Meals on Wheels program. In addition, services from the North Berkeley Senior Center are being provided at the West Berkeley site until 2020 while the North Berkeley center undergoes renovations.

The city initially planned to update the West Berkeley Senior Center as a Measure T1 project but later determined that “what this site needs is beyond an infrastructure upgrade, and its history as a hub for senior services presents an opportunity,” according to the staff report. “West Berkeley has an extremely limited number of affordable housing units for seniors, despite being in a location that is easily accessible to various medical and aging services.”

The city says the new project would likely be funded by Measure O, along with tax credits and other sources, and could become “the gold standard for aging in place in our community, and the region.”

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...