With 26 stories, McDonald’s corner could one day have Berkeley’s tallest building

The project team is hoping to lock down the fifth and final tall building slot allowed downtown.

Developers have submitted plans for 1974-1998 Shattuck Ave. in Berkeley. Credit: Trachtenberg Architects

Familiar names in Berkeley housing development are seeking to turn the corner of Shattuck and University avenues, now home to a low-slung McDonald’s outpost, into a gleaming 26-story apartment tower where rooftop restaurant patrons will enjoy views of the Golden Gate.

The project team, which includes Rhoades Planning Group, NX Ventures and Berkeley design firm Trachtenberg Architects, hopes to snag the slot for the fifth and final tall building allowed under the city’s Downtown Area Plan. As designed, the high-rise would reach nearly 280 feet.

The team submitted the pre-application for the entirely car-free project on Tuesday under SB 330, a 2019 state housing law that streamlines the permitting process by limiting local control over developments that are at least two-thirds residential.

The existing structure — home to the historic Spats bar, Missing Link Bicycle Cooperative, Turkish Kitchen and McDonald’s — would be demolished. The project team hopes to bring Spats back in a different form and plans to talk with the other businesses about whether they want to return.

Nathan George, of NX Ventures, and Mark Rhoades (Rhoades Planning Group founder) own the Spats business, although the property itself is owned by someone else.

“We’d like to preserve it and try to bring it back,” Nathan George told Berkeleyside on Wednesday, of Spats. “We’ll save all the relics, as much as we can, in storage and see what we can do.”

The plan is to keep the “community orientation of the ground floor” and make as much of it as possible available for retail, in line with the spirit of the busy pedestrian block at the heart of downtown Berkeley.

Rhoades described Shattuck and University, just across from the newly opened 205-unit Modera Acheson Commons complex, as what is, in effect, Berkeley’s “Main and Main Street” intersection.

“This will be the building that really marks that gateway,” he said Wednesday, of the new high-rise. “This project provides an opportunity to place a beautiful and appropriate scale of transit-oriented density at the intersection of Berkeley’s two most important streets.”

Young professionals are the target tenants

As designed, the new building would have 297 units, including 66 two-bedroom apartments, 23 one-bedrooms and 208 studios, as well as about 13,500 square feet of ground-floor commercial. The rooftop restaurant would span 5,000 feet. On the north side of the 12th floor, there will be a roof deck for residents.

No car parking is planned, but the project, at 1974-1998 Shattuck Ave., includes 135 spots for bicycles. The project will target young professionals, although it is likely also to be attractive to the university community given its proximity to campus.

Current zoning allows for up to 18 stories in downtown Berkeley, but the project team says a state density bonus could get the building up to 26 stories under the proposed configuration. If history is any indication, this is likely to provoke significant community resistance.

Under the current plans, the building will have at least 30 very-low-income units to get that density bonus. Developers will also pay some amount, yet to be determined, into the city’s Housing Trust Fund to fulfill the rest of its below-market-rate housing requirements.

The team hopes to have project permits by fall 2023 and to start construction, which is expected to take about 18 months, in 2024.

A project team with Berkeley roots

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McDonald’s restaurant at University and Shattuck avenues. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/Catchlight

George, who moved to Berkeley in 2004 to attend grad school at Cal, described the entire project team as “very Berkeley-centric.”

“I don’t do development anywhere else,” he told Berkeleyside. Nearly all of the investors on his team have Berkeley ties, he said.

“They’re all basically friends and family,” he said. “It’s not any of these big investment funds, big capital, trying to get into the Berkeley market. We are all small investors. That’s been our MO all along.”

“It gives us the freedom to make our own decisions,” he continued. “We’re able to make the decisions on the ground with Berkeley and the project’s interest in mind. And we take some liberties to do some additional things that may not always be the most cost-effective — but that we feel make a better project on the whole.”

George’s first housing development in Berkeley, The Overture on University Avenue, was approved in 2014. The partnership between George and Rhoades dates back to those early days.

Since then, NX Ventures has submitted plans to build about 1,500 units in Berkeley across seven projects on Shattuck, University and San Pablo avenues.

Meanwhile, Trachtenberg Architects has designed at least 11 other significant Berkeley apartment complexes, with more than 800 units among them.

George said the development team is now under contract for the McDonald’s parcel but is not allowed to disclose any of the terms of the deal as per that agreement.

The project team has been working in some form for eight years — since George and Rhoades bought Spats in 2014 — on what would eventually become the current plan for 1974-1998 Shattuck Ave. There were early discussions with the family who owns the McDonald’s parcel, but the parties couldn’t initially reach a deal.

That preliminary effort stalled. But conversations revived in recent years and appear to have been more successful.

“Our vision from the very beginning was to shape that whole corner into being more of what it should be,” George said Wednesday. “Now it’s finally coming around.”

What about downtown Berkeley’s other tall buildings?

The city of Berkeley’s Downtown Area Plan, which was adopted in 2012, allowed for the construction of three 180-foot buildings, including a hotel, and two 120-foot buildings.

Ten years later, the 17-story Residence Inn Berkeley, which opened in December at 2121 Center St., is the only non-university project to have been completed. (Its 12th-floor rooftop bar, which faces east toward campus and the Berkeley Hills, opened in March.)

Meanwhile, work is underway on a 12-story building at 1951 Shattuck Ave., from developer Grovesnor Americas, that was approved in 2019. Several storefronts at Shattuck and Berkeley Way were demolished in the spring, marking the start of work.

Last August, Chicago-based Core Spaces put in an application to build 17 stories of “student-oriented” housing just across from campus at 2128 Oxford St. If it wins approval, the 283-unit project would transform a popular stretch of eateries on Center Street. Rhoades Planning Group is working on that application, too.

In February, Georgia-based Landmark Properties put forward new designs for the 25-story building it hopes will replace the downtown Berkeley Walgreens at 2190 Shattuck Ave. An earlier 18-story design fell through when the finances no longer penciled out, according to a spokesperson for the project team.

As of February, according to materials on the city website, the application for the high-rise, also designed by Trachtenberg Architects, remained incomplete.

Under the Downtown Area Plan, UC Berkeley was granted slots for two additional 120-foot structures. One, Berkeley Way West at 2121 Berkeley Way, was completed in 2018. The other is Anchor House, a 14-story, 772-bed student apartment under construction on Walnut Street.

Emilie Raguso is Berkeleyside’s senior editor of news. Email: emilie@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: emraguso. Phone: 510-459-8325.