Apartment building could rise at former site of Albatross Pub

The proposed 44-unit project aims to take advantage of Berkeley’s move to eliminate parking requirements at new apartment buildings.

An architect’s rendering shows the project proposed for 1820 San Pablo Ave. Credit: Gunkel Architecture

The West Berkeley building that was home to the beloved Albatross Pub and an infamous marijuana dispensary could be mostly demolished to make way for a 44-unit mixed-use housing development.

Plans for the project at 1820 San Pablo Ave. aim to take advantage of Berkeley’s move earlier this year to abolish the requirement that developers include on-site parking at new apartment buildings. The proposed five-story structure, which sits a few steps from two of AC Transit’s busiest routes and less than a mile from the North Berkeley BART station, would not include any parking spaces — residents would get transit passes and bike storage instead.

San Pablo Avenue is likely to see more buildings like it in the coming years, as the city’s housing plans aim to continue shifting the boulevard from a low-slung strip of storefronts and repair shops to a transit-rich corridor lined with new apartments.

“We’re going to embrace this new outlook of Berkeley,” said Brad Gunkel, whose Emeryville firm Gunkel Architecture designed the project. “This is exactly where we want residential density — we want it on major transit lines, within a quick walk to BART.”

Application materials submitted to the city earlier this month call for keeping the current facade of the commercial building between Hearst Avenue and Delaware Street, but otherwise demolishing the two-story structure, which was built in 1925. The building has two current tenants, plumbing supply store The Sink Factory and Reuse Arts and Crafts.

The former home of the Albatross Pub, at 1822 San Pablo Ave., is now vacant. A developer has proposed a new five-story apartment building at the site. Credit: Nico Savidge

The space at 1822 San Pablo Ave. has been vacant for nearly a year, since its tenant for more than five decades, the historic Albatross Pub, closed its doors. The business — known to locals as “The Bird” — began as a gathering space for members of the free speech movement and quickly became a destination for nearby residents and UC Berkeley students.

Also vacant is the building’s second story, which once housed the ​​Forty Acres Medical Marijuana Growers Collective. The dispensary was the subject of a years-long battle with neighbors and Berkeley officials, who said the operation was illegal and declared it a public nuisance before it shut down in 2015.

Apartments in the proposed building, which would rise to a height of 60 feet, range from studios to three-bedroom units, with a total of 68 bedrooms in the project. Commercial tenants would occupy the ground floor.

Plans submitted by the property’s owner, Ton Ogi-Robbins of Fremont, call for reserving four of the apartments for renters considered “very low income,” meaning they make between 30% and 50% of the area median income. City officials have informed Ogi-Robbins that he will be required to pay the affordable housing mitigation fee of nearly $40,000 per unit if he doesn’t include more affordable units in the proposal. Berkeley requires developers of projects that size to pay the fee unless they set aside 20% of their units for low or very low-income renters.

Ogi-Robbins and Gunkel said they plan to challenge that requirement, which they claim threatens the viability of the proposed project. The building has not yet been scheduled to go before the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board.

“I can’t afford to give 20% to low-income housing,” Ogi-Robbins said. Between the affordable housing requirement and the mandate to provide transit passes for tenants — which was another component of the City Council’s 2020 move to eliminate parking minimums — he said, “the math doesn’t work out.”

If the project does move forward, plans call for it to include a bar or café on the first floor. But, while the Albatross may yet see a revival, don’t expect that to happen at the site of its former home.

Albatross co-owner Andrew McGee said he is still searching for a new location for the Bird, and has both the funding and “the fire” to reopen the bar elsewhere.

“We’ve visited a few places but nothing has really jumped out at us,” McGee said. “We haven’t found a place that feels like the Albatross.”

Interim Nosh Editor Eve Batey contributed to this report.

Nico Savidge is Berkeleyside's senior reporter covering city hall. Email: nico@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: NSavidge.