A rendering for the Bonita Avenue townhouses that will replace the multi-family home at 1915 Berryman St. Credit: Gunkel Architecture

A three-unit, two-story home on Berryman Street that was the subject of a heated landmarking debate in May 2020 will be demolished and converted into a four-story townhouse building, the Zoning Adjustments Board decided last Thursday, Oct. 28.

The complex at 1915 Berryman will have 11 units, three of which will be affordable at “low income,” or 80%, of the area median income. The city was required to approve the new project under the state’s new density bonus law, which grants approval to any project with at least 20% low-income units (or other affordability options).

Under SB 330 (The Housing Crisis Act of 2019), the construction of three low-income units will allow for the demolition of three existing rent-controlled units, which are currently vacant.

Construction firm Lord & Boynton built the residence 132 years ago as a single-family home for William Payson, the co-founder of the First Unitarian Church of Berkeley. Two families owned it until 2019 when they sold the property to Sunnyvale developer Alon Danino.

Gunkel Architecture filed a proposal to convert the home into six townhouses with 10 units in May 2020, and local historian Daniella Thompson of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association soon after filed an application to landmark the home, rallied by local preservationists.

Side view of the Payson House
A side view of the Payson House from Bonita Avenue, built in 1889 by architects Carlos Reuben Lord and Ira Alton Boynton. Photo: Supriya Yelimeli Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

The neighborhood discussion gained viral interest after Robert Reich, prominent neighbor, former U.S. Secretary of Labor and UC Berkeley professor, sent a letter to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission arguing for its merits and preservation.

The well-worn, brown-shingled home tucked away on a quiet North Berkeley street became emblematic of the “neighborhood character” debate in the Bay Area’s housing crisis.

Some argued that it was a beautiful, historic presence that harkened back to the neighborhood’s “old timey feel” before the city grew, as well as being one of the oldest houses in the neighborhood and among the first of its architectural style. Others said this significance paled in comparison to the desperate, ongoing need for more housing in Berkeley — especially in neighborhoods that historically excluded people of color.

The landmarks commission and the City Council both ultimately shot down attempts to preserve the building, first in August 2020 then in January of this year, to the dismay of activists who sought to preserve the home.

The project ultimately changed shape from a 10-unit townhouse complex to an 11-unit townhouse complex, with four ground-floor flats, six townhomes above and one fourth-floor penthouse, at the corner of Bonita Avenue and Berryman Street.

At its meeting last week, the zoning board upheld the staff recommendation to approve the project, as well as the demolition and new construction at the Berryman Street property.

Staff reporter Ally Markovich contributed to this report.

Avatar photo

Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...