Comment: Why Berkeley must revisit its approval for new home construction on Rose Street

On January 28, Berkeley’s Zoning Adjustments Board approved an application to build a new home at 2707 Rose Street (rendering above). The application was made by Mitchell Kapor, the founder of Lotus Development Corporation, and would involve the demolition of a 2,477 sq ft homeand three outbuildings currently on the property. Below, Gary Parsons explains why he believes the approval should be contested.

The city’s Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) recently approved a use permit for 2707 Rose Street, a new, 6,478 sq ft house with an attached3,394 sq. ft. 10-car garage (bringing the developed total to nearly 10,000 square feet).  Concerned neighbors are appealing this decision.  Not much news there, right? Well, not so fast. Let me first state what the pending appeal isn’t:

• It isn’t just another squabble among the hill folk.

• It isn’t just another NIMBY outcry.

• It isn’t just an envious backlash against a superwealthy newcomer.

The appeal of ZAB’s decision is an indictment of a city process that has run amok. For this reason the appeal should be of interest to all Berkeley citizens, as the matter is very much about transparency, due process, and fair treatment under the law… or rather, the lack of it in this instance.

I should make it clear at the outset that I am not one of the authors of the appeal. The matter came to my attention when I heard talk of very uncharacteristic behavior at a ZAB meeting.

As many of us know, the city‘s building approval process can be both long and costly, but is usually fair. Concerned parties are usually given due respect and project reviews are routinely “continued” so that proponents and concerned neighbors can discuss matters and possibly work out a compromise. Sometimes all it takes is a single dissenting voice for the matter to be continued to the following meeting (and this can be quite frustrating for applicants). Nevertheless, the process, rightly, tends to err on the side of caution.

But not so the process for 2707 Rose.  At the ZAB public hearing, 28 letters of concern and several instances of testimony were ignored. The concerned, most of whom had just recently become aware of the project, merely asked whether the Board would continue the matter so that they could become better acquainted with available information. The answer was a resounding, and very atypical “NO.

Reports of this piqued my interest and caused me to look into the ZAB decision and the planning staff report. What I found was truly astonishing.

The staff report for this nearly 10,000 square foot building makes unsupportable statement after unsupportable statement, as if the repetition of such a blatant fictions would somehow turn the bizarre statements into truth.

Besides being a local architect, I happen to serve onthe City of Berkeley’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, so I was flabbergasted to read that staff concludes that there are no locally designated historic resources in the vicinity of 2707 Rose.  A walk of a minute or less puts one at Greenwood Common to the southwest or the LaLoma Park historic district to the southeast. To the north lie properties that appear on the State Historic Resources Inventory. Renown architects Maybeck, Wurster, Esherick, Olson, Schindler, Howard, and more are all represented in this vicinity. Spurred on by this glaring inaccuracy, I soon discovered that a thorough reading of the entire staff report would reveal a similar  pattern of consistent dissembling on issue after issue:

• The building clearly ignores nearly every aspect of the city’s General Plan; staff says that it meets every requirement.

• Staff says that the building fits nicely into its context and then says not to worry: vegetation will hide it.  A weird assemblage, no doubt, but neither part happens to be true.

• The architects say that the building meets the 35 feet maximum height limit (at exactly 35 ft).  Ignoring that the 35 ft is being measured from a newly constructed base that is as much as 20 feet above natural grade, the architect’s drawings clearly show that the maximum height, as staff usually measures it, is either 39 ft or 45 ft (the architect’s drawings are not consistent at this important juncture, though both the site plan and elevation drawings show a building in excess of 35 ft).  Staff states that the building is 35 ft tall.

• The Alquist-Priolo Act was passed so that large residential buildings in established earthquake zones would be held to a higher standard of research and construction than smaller buildings. To be exempt, a building can be no more than two stories and must be of wood-frame construction.  2707 clearly exceeds what anyone would consider to be two stories; below the two stories of living space is what staff calls a ‘third level’ one which could easily be enclosed to make habitable space at a later date; though no floor plan of this ‘third level’ is supplied, the elevation drawings show it to have a floor-to-floor height of 9′, precisely what a habitable floor would need. The expansive glass walls above and thin support columns below strongly suggest that the primary structural  system cannot be of wood.  Nevertheless staff calls it a two-story wood framed building and gives it a free pass at the expense of the owner’s and the public’s safety.  If this building isn’t subject to the requirements of the Act, what house would ever be?

• Staff calls this project ‘green’.  Although the ten car garage may be a good idea since there is no street parking on this narrow street, to call a nearly 10,000 square foot home green (especially when it is built only for a couple to inhabit) is absurd.  That the staff, the owners and the architects indulge in this kind of greenwashing only serves to make a joke out of Berkeley’s environmental aspirations.

• Story poles, which accurately delineate the height and bulk of proposed buildings are required in zone R1-H, the residential zoning which applies to this property. Although not allowed within the ordinance (which states only that story poles are required in zone R1-H, and must be be erected in other zones at staff’s discretion), staff saw fit to waive the story pole requirement for 2707 Rose, leaving the residents of the area with no real way to assess the nature of this extraordinarily large structure. (If constructed, it will be among the top two largest homes of the more than 17,000 in town.) If story poles aren’t appropriate for this house then when would they ever be?

There are many more instances of this type of astounding behavior exhibited in the report. These are discussed in detail in the 15-page appeal and in the many accompanying letters and exhibits (see link below). I don’t necessarily blame the author of the report; I know him and his work and respect both.  In my opinion this wasn’t his work. Once the document is read and understood, it becomes clear why ZAB had to rudely dismiss the concerned neighbors and dispose of the approval as quickly and as silently as possible.

That the staff report is an egregious fiction is one thing, that ZAB rubberstamped the approval of the project without criticizing any aspect of the report is beyond belief and is totally irresponsible.  One board member appeared to recognize some of this and abstained, the rest all signed on. The project proponents cling to this near unanimity as evidence of propriety; I believe that it is a symptom of a much bigger systemic problem.

While some commenters on blogs have complained about the K-Mart aesthetic of the proposed building, that is really out of bounds here (Berkeley has no residential design review requirement); others naively say that the proponents should be left to do as they please, whichis, of course, simplistic. Beyond assuring that the building truly satisfies the city ordinances that all of the rest of us are bound by, the residents of the neighborhood simply want to know what they are getting.  They want the process to run the way that they have had to endure it on their own projects.

No one has said that they don’t want the proponents to build a home, they simply want the city and the proponents to play by the same rules that are imposed on everyone else, whether in the flats or in the hills. They want to be heard and they want a process that is transparent.

The city council should overturn the ZAB approval of this project, demand that a revised staff report be prepared, and graciously allow ZAB to revisit its actions. Additionally, I believe, council and the mayor should initiate an inquiry into how staff and ZAB could turn such a proud city into what resembles a cheap fiefdom.

  • To read the ZAB application for the project, click here. To view drawings associated with the application, click here.
  • To read the appeal to this project, and its many letters and exhibits, please click here.

Gary Earl Parsons is an architect in Berkeley and chairperson of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.