proposed development in Berkeley
Berkeley Commons project. Rendering: Gensler

A pair of Bay Area developers plans to transform an 8.67-acre site fronting Aquatic Park into a state-of-the-art R&D and office complex that would accommodate 1,600 workers and 1,044 cars.

The Zoning Adjustments Board is scheduled to discuss tonight the proposed design of the two-building complex located on land long owned by the Jones family. The developers submitted the project in December, but it still has a way to go before it is approved, including doing a CEQA review.

The project at 600 Addison St. requires the demolition of three buildings that currently house Plexxicon, Berkeley Research Company and Fathom Energy, and Open ROV. The project is bordered by Bolivar Drive on the west, the Union Pacific railroad tracks on the east, Addison Street on the north, and Bancroft Way on the south. It includes the land that houses American Soil.

The developers’ architect, Gensler, called the area “a diamond in the rough,” in one of its communications to Berkeley and said the construction of LEED gold buildings with solar panels, bio-retention systems and extensive planting of native plants and trees would make the area more inviting.

“The Berkeley Commons project will bring new life to Aquatic Park, dramatically improve the entryway to the city, strengthen the Fourth Street retail district and provide a thriving work environment in one of the premier campus environments in the Bay Area,” wrote Gensler on behalf of the developers, Lane Partners, based in Menlo Park, and LB2, based in Sausalito.

The project will remove “dated and architecturally unappealing buildings, unsightly piles of soil, and cyclone fencing” and replace them “with new Class A buildings.”

Curt Setzer, the principal of LB2 Partners, declined to talk to Berkeleyside at this time.

“I would like to wait until we have aggregated initial feedback from DRC, ZAB and the public,” he wrote in an email. “I believe the direction of the project may be clearer at that point.”

The proposed development of the land comes after earlier failed attempts to develop it. The property is owned by the Jones family, although it is currently held in the name of the Aquatic Park Science Center II LLC, according to the Alameda County Assessor’s office. Charles Jones bought the land in 1978 and his son Jason currently manages it. The family put the land up for sale in March 2019 but, at the time, Jason Jones said he was not sure if the family would sell the land.

The Joneses appear to be involved in the development of the new project, according to documents filed with the city. It is not their first attempt to develop it. In 2016, Jason Jones applied to the city for a master permit for the land in order to build 500,000 square feet of R&D space or up to 420 residential units. Jones withdrew the application in 2018 after the Zoning Adjustments Board indicated it wanted to see more specific plans before approving the development.

Toni Mester, a former Parks and Waterfront commissioner who knows a tremendous amount about Aquatic Park and the problematic tidal pipes that control water flow into the lagoon, said she intends to share her concerns about Berkeley Commons tonight with ZAB. Mester believes the buildings are located too near the water and could be swamped when that area floods, as it does during heavy rains and high tides. (The property goes from 5 to 30 feet above sea level). Until the city resolves the issues with the pipes, no one can know for sure what the future configuration of the shoreline will be, she said.

“Building next to Aquatic Park is nuts,” said Mester. “Building an expensive building on an unstable shoreline is questionable.”

Erin Diehm, who sits on the parks and waterfront commission, but who was speaking as a private citizen, wrote to ZAB to express concern about how rising sea levels could impact the project.

“The buildings are very close to the shoreline,” Diehm said in an email. “Should any project even be built here? Other cities have decided to not build along their shorelines. The EIR must include a robust and realistic assessment of the impacts of rising sea level, flooding and groundwater inundation”.

Gensler, in its letter to Berkeley, said most of the site is “elevated approximately 10-15 feet above Bolivar Drive.”

If the buildings were moved east, it could also open up land that could be used by the community, said Mester. The current architectural configuration puts the legally required open space in a plaza between the two buildings.

drawings of proposed development in Berkeley
Site map for Berkeley Commons project. Rendering: Gensler

Highlights of the proposed Berkeley Commons project as outlined in the architectural plans:

  • There would be two buildings, side by side. One will be reserved for R&D. The other will also have R&D but might have office space as well. Building A on the north portion of the lot will be three stories, 45 feet high, and have 293,790 square feet of space. Building B on the south side will be the same height and will have 228,790-square feet.
  • The buildings can hold from 1,300 to 1,600 workers.
  • The project plans call for two parking lots to be built next to each building. Both would be 45 feet high. The parking structure next to Building A would hold 588 cars. The parking structure next to Building B would hold 456 cars. The nearest off-ramp in the University Avenue off-ramp on I-80. There is also a bus from a BART station. The plan cites some AC Transit lines that could bring workers to the site, including the 80 line which AC Transit has announced it wants to eliminate.
  • The project would pay $7 million to the city of Berkeley in its first year, according to Gensler, which said Berkeley’s office of economic development calculated the figure. That includes $2.4 million to the Housing Trust Fund, $428,000 to the childcare mitigation fund, and  $4 million for public improvements to Bolivar Drive and the shoreline, and $1.3 million in annual taxes. Another $1.5 million will go to the public art program.
  • The project will remove 61 trees on the site, including 10 redwoods, but will move a coastal oak with a 19-inch circumference elsewhere on the site. It will add 84 new trees and native and drought-tolerant plants.
  • There will bio-retention systems to slow and clean stormwater.
    There will be photovoltaic panels on the roofs of the parking structures.
  • The projects are all-electric. There will be no combustion on site. There will be on-site renewable energy generation, “thereby achieving a net-zero energy.”
  • The buildings will be LEED Gold.
  • The buildings will be designed to prevent birds from flying into the glassy exteriors. In addition to special glass, there will be projecting terraces and trellises to divert birds and fowl.
  • The project will upgrade the sidewalks in the area and add some along Bolivar Drive.

Update, 4:16 p.m: This article originally stated that Goldman Sachs was funding the project, as reported in the San Francisco Business Times. Setzer of LB2 said this is not the case.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...