$241M life sciences campus takes shape in West Berkeley

Renovations to three buildings on Fifth Street mark the start of a developer’s ambitious plans for a 3-acre project that could host nearly 600 workers.

Workers renovate 2222 Fifth St. in West Berkeley, turning the building into a new life sciences work space called theLAB. The renovation is the first phase of developer SteelWave’s plans for a 3-acre campus spread across two blocks. Credit: Nico Savidge

A San Mateo real estate firm has started work on a renovation project that marks the first piece of a $240.7 million plan for a new life sciences campus spread across two industrial blocks in West Berkeley.

Crews are working to transform three buildings on the 2200 block of Fifth Street, between Bancroft Way and Allston Way, into what developer SteelWave calls “ultra-sleek, amenity-filled office, light manufacturing and laboratory spaces.”

SteelWave is now seeking city approval to build a five-level, 415-space parking garage next door to the three renovated buildings. Then the firm wants to remake the next block to the west by building a new three-story research and development facility at the corner of Bancroft Way and Fourth Street, renovating an existing building on the Allston Way end of the block, and adding another parking area.

If every phase of theLAB gets city approval, by early 2024 nearly 600 employees could work at the campus that covers just over 3 acres. Nine structures currently standing on the two blocks would be either demolished or moved to make room for the project — including a 144-year-old home on Fifth Street.

Steve Dunn, who oversees Northern California real estate for SteelWave, said the project aims to draw on the life sciences talent pool at UC Berkeley, and allow East Bay workers who “otherwise would have commuted elsewhere” to stay closer to home. SteelWave plans to lease space in the development to multiple companies, Dunn said, with two tenants, Bolt Threads and Conception Bio, signed on so far.

Berkeley Planning and Development Director Jordan Klein said the renovation phase of the project is proceeding after it received an administrative use permit, while the plans for demolition and new construction will require a hearing before the Zoning Adjustments Board, which has not yet been scheduled.

A rendering shows the view from Fourth Street of the proposed new three-story life sciences facility SteelWave wants to build at 787 Bancroft Way. The building would be the largest piece of theLAB, a 3-acre development proposed for West Berkeley. Credit: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP

SteelWave hopes to finish the renovation project next month and gain city approval for the rest of its plans in the summer, then start work on the parking garage and western block’s new structures this fall.

The company, which describes itself as a “full-service creative life science, creative office, and industrial real estate management firm,” owns several properties around Northern and Southern California, as well as Seattle, Denver and other western cities. It acquired the West Berkeley site in January 2021 and is pursuing four major life sciences projects around the Bay Area, with two more theLAB campuses planned in Emeryville and Foster City, plus another development in South San Francisco.

Several large new life science and biotech campuses are in the works around Aquatic Park in West Berkeley. SteelWave’s proposal joins the 462,000-square-foot Berkeley Commons project at the north end of the park that gained city approval last summer, and a San Francisco developer’s plans for a 187,000-square-foot project on the 700 block of Grayson Street. Berkeley leaders also approved a new 30-year development agreement last year with Bayer under which the pharmaceutical giant could double the workforce at its nearby campus.

A Google satellite image shows the two West Berkeley blocks developer SteelWave wants to transform with its project. On the eastern block, facing Fifth Street, the company is renovating three buildings and wants to build a five-level parking garage. On the western block, it has plans for a new three-story research and development facility, plus another parking area and renovation project. Credit: Google

Mix of old and new across campus

While SteelWave’s renovation project aims to create sleek and modern facilities, the buildings at 2246 and 2222 Fifth Street will keep their distinctive concrete grid-form facades, a detail found on several West Berkeley buildings in which glass bricks create a latticework pattern in the concrete.

“We’re trying to maintain some of the character of the area in the project,” Dunn said.

Those two buildings, plus a third that sits between them, would combine to offer nearly 90,000 square feet of space, with plans for a gym, outdoor mezzanine and other amenities to go along with the new work spaces.

On the project’s west block, SteelWave’s plans put more emphasis on the new: The company wants to demolish five industrial buildings to make room for the campus’ largest structure, the building at 787 Bancroft Way, which will offer 162,000 square feet of space.

Plans for the parking garage on the east block are facing some resistance, however.

Among the three buildings SteelWave is seeking approval to demolish to clear space for the structure is a vacant Italianate Victorian house built in 1878 at 2212 Fifth St. To spare the house from the wrecking ball, SteelWave is offering to sell it for $1 to any buyer who can relocate it to another site in Berkeley. Dunn said the company hasn’t gotten any takers on the offer, though.

This vacant house at 2212 Fifth St., built in 1878, could be demolished to make way for a five-level parking garage. Developer SteelWave is offering to sell the house for $1 to anyone who can move it to another site in Berkeley. Credit: Nico Savidge

Preservationists sought to have the home declared a landmark, arguing that it merits protection as one of West Berkeley’s oldest structures and an “outstanding example” of the architectural style. Berkeley’s Landmarks Preservation Commission denied their request last year, however, finding that the structure “adds no exceptional value to the West Berkeley neighborhood fabric.”

Several neighbors are also objecting to the parking garage, which would sit across the street from homes and apartments, saying they are worried about the noise, traffic and pollution caused by hundreds of cars pouring into the neighborhood each day.

Dunn said the company has been holding meetings with neighbors and is adding green space on the side of the garage that faces their homes to make the structure more attractive. In its application materials, SteelWave also wrote that it plans to implement strategies to reduce the number of people who drive to the campus, such as by requiring tenants to provide subsidized transit passes to their employees.

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