view of new development near Berkeley's Aquatic Park
Berkeley Commons as seen from Addison Avenue and Bolivar Drive. Credit: Gensler

The Zoning Adjustments Board last week unanimously approved the construction of a major R&D development by Aquatic Park, one that will not only bring two state-of-the-art all-electric LEED Gold buildings to West Berkeley but a repaved Bolivar Drive, new bicycle and pedestrian paths, a public strolling garden with native plants and an outdoor prayer deck and medicinal garden for the Ohlone people, among other amenities.

The project, developed by LB2 of Tiburon and Lane Partners of Menlo Park and built on 8.67 acres of land leased for 99 years from the Jones family, will bring 1,500 people a day to the site, create 400 to 500 union jobs during construction as well as 75 apprenticeships and pump millions into Berkeley coffers. The developers will pay $2.5 million to the housing trust fund, $1.5 million toward public art and $500,000 into a childcare fund, as well as paying taxes and as much as $10 million in fees, according to Curt Setzer, a managing partner of LB2.

“We think it’s important that Aquatic Park get some love,” said Setzer, who has deep roots in Berkeley. His father grew up here, attended UC Berkeley and developed multi-family buildings in the city. Setzer also attended Cal and worked for a time off Fourth Street, which is when he first noticed the Jones property, he said.

The project, formally known as Berkeley Commons and located at 600 Addison St., 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. The two buildings, totaling 462,000 square feet, will be 45 feet high or three stories. There will be two parking garages.

Approval of the project, however, means that one of Berkeley’s best-known life science companies, Plexxikon, will have to move as it occupies one of three buildings on the site that will have to be torn down. Plexxikon, a drug discovery company, will relocate to South San Francisco. It had hoped to remain in the East Bay but could not find the right space, according to Gideon Bollag, Plexxikon’s CEO. The other businesses affected include Berkeley Research Company, Fathom Energy and Open ROV. American Soils currently uses four acres of the site to store mounds of soil.

Once Berkeley Commons is completed, however, it will help address the shortage of manufacturing space for life science and biotech companies in the East Bay, the shortage that Plexxikon ran into while looking for new space.

“There is a significant supply/demand imbalance for life science space in the Bay Area and no more so than the East Bay,” Setzer said in an email.

LB2 and Lane Partners, which is developing about 7 million square feet around the Bay Area, according to Setzer, first submitted a design to the city in December 2019. The pushback was immediate, however, and the project has evolved greatly since then because of community feedback. Charles Kahn, an architect and the current chair of ZAB, commented about the community engagement process at ZAB’s May 27 meeting. “I have never seen any project where an applicant has made such significant changes in response to community concerns and it’s a remarkable project,” said Kahn.

“Our initial design proposal missed the mark,” said Setzer. “It was too big and unwelcoming. As a result of the approval process, we benefitted greatly from the input from the city and the public. We believe the final design is the result of a very successful collaborative effort that we are very proud of and hope the residents of Berkeley will be as well.”

He declined to share the cost of construction.

One of the major changes was in the siting of the buildings. The original plan did not have any setbacks between the two R&D buildings and Bolivar Drive, nor did it have public space. Setbacks were not required as the district is zoned for mixed-use light industrial.

Berkeley Commons as seen from Addison Street and Bolivar Drive. Credit: Gensler

After conferring with community members, the Confederated Villages of Lisjan, the Golden Gate Audubon Society and various city commissions (numerous times), the approved plan now provides more than 75,000 square feet of public space. The developers also reduced the buildings’ footprint by about 60,000 square feet, a 10% change. The developer will repave Bolivar Way from Addison Street to the Dreamland playground, install a raised pedestrian crosswalk and create a communal drop-off area.

There will be a “strolling garden” along Bolivar Drive, planted with 15,000 mostly native plants. There will also be a second-level plaza along Bancroft Way that can serve as a prayer deck for the Native American community. There will also be a medicinal garden at Addison Street and Bolivar Drive for Ohlones, along with interpretative plaques detailing their long history in West Berkeley.

“We have far more appreciation of the property dating back to the Ohlones,” Steve Weindel of Gensler, the architectural firm designing the complex, told ZAB commissioners.

Corinna Gould, tribal chair of the Confederated Villages of the Lisjan, said that state law, AB 52, requires developers to confer with native people when projects are built on native cultural sites. Before the Eastshore freeway (Interstate 80) was constructed in the 1930s, the bay shoreline was at the eastern edge of what is now the Aquatic Park lagoon. Bolivar Drive was probably a path for the Ohlone people as it sat between the enormous shellmound in Emeryville (now covered by the Bay Street shopping area) and the West Berkeley shellmound.

“Our ancestors have had fishing villages along there,” said Gould.

The property stands directly across from the Golden Gate and that is where the spirits of people who have died leave, said Gould. That is why it was important for Ohlones to get the prayer platform as it provides a clear view. Since Ohlones don’t have any land of their own, giving natives a medicinal garden will give them access to native plants they can use, as well as taking a step toward healing the earth.

“The developer really tried to work hard to meet the needs of the tribe,” said Gould.

The approved plan will also preserve a coast oak and five redwood trees.

Since Aquatic Park is home to many bird species, the developers will make from 90% to 100% of the glass on the western façade bird safe. Shades in those windows will automatically lower at dusk to avoid attracting birds into lighted-up windows.

The area is subject to flooding during heavy rains, in part because of the deteriorated state of the city-owned tidal pipes that control water flow into the lagoon. The developers will update stormwater drainage in the area, which will improve the quality of water runoff into the lagoon. They will also install bio-retention systems around the property.

The developers will also improve the shoreline along the lagoon, paint the BORP, Berkeley Boathouse, and Waterside Workshop buildings and add fencing. They will also contribute $48,000 per year for 10 years toward maintaining the landscaping at Aquatic Park.

Rendering of development at Aquatic park showing view from Bolivar Drive
A view of the Berkeley Commons project from Bolivar Drive. Credit: Gensler

The project has many transportation elements. Located right by I-80, the complex will include two garage structures to hold 942 parking spaces, 286 bicycle parking spaces, shared bikes for employees, bike lockers, and two shared car spaces. Employers will be required to offer mass transportation passes. An Amtrak station is 0.1 miles away. The developers will run a morning and evening shuttle between the campus and the North Berkeley BART station, as well as building a new railroad crossing. They will also install a traffic signal at the intersection of Sixth Street and Bancroft Way.

The demolition of the three existing buildings means that 5,120 square feet of protected manufacturing space will be demolished. Berkeley law requires a builder to replace the lost manufacturing space before construction on a new project begins, but the developer and city staff were not able to find similar space in West Berkeley. ZAB voted to grant the developers a variance on this rule since the manufacturing space will be recreated in the new structures.

In addition to R&D space, the complex will have offices and warehouse and manufacturing space.

Construction is slated to begin in September and is expected to take two years.

The project “will provide a needed post-pandemic shot in the arm to the West Berkeley retail community and will generate many new jobs,” said Setzer. “It will also complement Aquatic Park and we are very excited about being a part of improving the park via our community benefits package.”

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...