Local developers have set their eyes on South Berkeley and put forward their vision for at least two new buildings where Walgreens and True Value now operate.
Nathan George and Xin Jin, the founders of NX Ventures, held a community meeting Monday to get feedback on their plans before submitting their proposal to the city in the next few weeks.
Dozens of neighbors crowded into the former location of Gio’s Pizza & Bocce on Shattuck Avenue to hear about the plans and weigh in. The city requires developers to hold a community meeting before an application can be submitted.
One woman seemed to sum up the sentiment of most attendees in the room when she shouted at the developers, “You’re destroying our neighborhood!” Many who had gathered made it clear that they were angry about the proposal and would fight it all the way.
As the developers and architect Steve Rigor of Arris Studio Architects presented their plans, neighbors frequently interrupted them to challenge the proposal. Originally, the project was set to include three buildings in South Berkeley, but Rigor said one of them is now on hold due to “a little snafu.” George said the project team would most likely only submit two of the three to the city at this time, and that they would be submitted as a single package.
As proposed, one of the buildings would be located at the Walgreens site at 2801 Adeline St., bordered by Stuart Street, Shattuck Avenue and Oregon Street. According to a letter from Arris inviting neighbors to the community meeting, the seven-story mixed-use building would have both a 215-room “dual brand” hotel and 84 residential units. There would be underground parking for 160-200 vehicles and 32,000 square feet of retail.
Walgreens would ultimately return to the site with a smaller footprint, about half its current size, the project team said. An agreement with Walgreens is part of the deal that’s being developed, they told attendees.
The second site described Monday was 2900 Shattuck Ave., at Russell Street, where hardware store True Value Eastern Supplies operates. The new six-story building would have 90 units, and “at least half (45) will be affordable,” according to the letter from Arris. That site would have a surface parking lot and 7,500 square feet of retail.
Residents said they were very concerned about the fate of the hardware store and want it to stay in the neighborhood.
“I’d hate to see them leave,” one man said. “I’ve been going there for 25 or 30 years.”
The project team said it would like to find a way for that to happen but have not yet determined what retail in that building might look like. The hardware store will have first crack at the space, they said.
Jin — who said he has lived in the neighborhood for 22 years and worked previously as a contractor — told attendeees that he has been in “constant communication” with the hardware store to keep them apprised of plans.
“We definitely want to see them come back in if they want to,” he said.
The third site, which was not part of Monday’s presentation and is currently on hold, is at 2821 Shattuck Ave., where the Buggy Bank, a car dealership, now operates. That project is proposed as a five-story building with 67 market-rate units and about 8,500 square feet of retail.
When the project team said there could potentially be a coffee shop at 2900 Shattuck, neighbors balked.
“We’ve got plenty of coffee shops,” one person called out.
“Too many!” another quickly agreed.
The new buildings could take two or three years to get their permits and another two or three years for construction, developers said. They would be built in phases, starting with the Walgreens site. Developers said Walgreens would move its pharmacy to the True Value site during construction, then move back to 2801 Adeline when work is complete.
George also noted that the project team is “providing a solution” to Walgreens, which wants to downsize so it can stay in the neighborhood while paying less rent.
Neighbors told the project team that the last thing South Berkeley needs is a hotel. One person said she had called around to local hotels and found plenty of availability.
“What makes you think anyone wants a hotel at that location?” a man asked. “That seems like the craziest idea of many.”
Rigor said their market research had found that providing rental housing and hotel rooms “would be kind of the best mix.” Jin said there are no reasonably-priced hotel rooms nearby, and that rates at the Hotel Shattuck Plaza and the Claremont can be too high.
George also noted that hotel guests would help support local restaurants because they are more likely to go out to eat and spend their money in the city while they visit. He said one reason Gio’s had closed was the lack of foot traffic in the neighborhood. (NX Ventures holds the master lease for the Gio’s site.)
He also said Berkeley real estate has tended to be “completely one-dimensional,” and said office space and hotel rooms would be a boon to the city.
One woman asked whether it would be possible to dump the hotel idea.
“A housing project does not work right now in this economy,” George told her.
Neighbors said there are no other buildings in the area that would be as tall as the ones proposed, aside from an affordable housing complex for seniors. When one person said the city’s zoning would not allow six stories, a member of the project team replied, “We’re working with the city.”
One six-story project is already planned in the neighborhood, at 2902 Adeline, but there has been no obvious action on it in recent years, despite assurances from developers that it is still moving forward.
A woman who said the new buildings would bring too many new people to the neighborhood also said she was concerned the city infrastructure cannot support the influx. She asked if pets would be allowed. The project team said they likely would be.
“They’re all going to come to my house and poop on my lawn,” she said. “I’m going to lose all my sun and privacy.”
There were a number of tense moments. Jin said the buildings would bring “new amenities” to the neighborhood, such as shops and restaurants, and said there isn’t much happening there now. One woman told him: “That’s what makes it peaceful. We like it that way.”
Others said there are plenty of restaurants and places to shop as it is.
“You’re entitled to your opinion,” Jin said.
George said there’s so little activity on the southern part of Shattuck and in the area of Walgreens that “it’s not a place that I would want to walk.”
“Go to Danville,” someone called out. “We don’t give a fuck!”
A local chef who was in the room — who is planning to open a new business at Gio’s later this year — tried to defend the development team. He didn’t get far. The chef tried to describe how NX Ventures had supported his efforts to launch a new business and explain how he plans to make his new place a tribute to Berkeley institution Giovanni’s, which was closed by a fire in 2015.
“We don’t want to hear about your restaurant,” one person called out, interrupting him. “We will organize a boycott of your restaurant!”
“You guys are wasting our time,” another person shouted.
When one woman — who identified herself as a member of community activist group Friends of Adeline — said the developers needed to “get a grip” and “find out what we want here,” she also said the team needed to be sure to avoid cheap materials and “stuff developed in China.”
Jin, who is Asian, told her to “keep the racist stuff off the table.” When he asked whether people in the room would stand for the slurs, he got no visible support.
Developers also tried to tell neighbors, in response to a question about why they should support the new projects, that their property values would go up as a result.
“We care about our community,” one person replied, “not our home value. We don’t want to sell our homes. We want to live in our homes.”
Some neighbors also asked why the developers couldn’t wait until after the Adeline Corridor plan — which has been in the works since 2014 — is complete. The project team noted that it isn’t clear exactly when that might be, particularly as the plan has been marked by numerous delays, so they are moving forward under the current zoning rules.
Once the project is submitted in the next 30 days or so, George said, he anticipates several months of review, then another five to nine months before a zoning board or Design Review Committee hearing. When the project is approved, he said, it would likely be appealed to the City Council, and that hearing could take several more months to schedule. If a lawsuit follows, that could delay the project even more.
It will be “three-and-a-half to four years before any shovel goes in the ground,” he said.
As currently planned, George said, the Walgreens site would be the first phase of the project, while the True Value building would use modular construction — which takes less time to put up — so that both buildings could ultimately be done around the same time.
Neighbors also wanted to know whether George plans to keep the properties or sell them once they have their permits.
“I do not sell projects,” he said. “Our intent is to keep these and hold onto them.”