Mitch Kapor’s Berkeley home: The debate continues

Kapor home modelThis last few days, Berkeleyside’s inbox has been filling up with copies of letters from north Berkeley neighbors — addressed to council members and/or the city mayor — opposed to the construction of a new home at 2707 Rose St., the application for which, made by Mitch Kapor, has been approved by Berkeley’s planning board, but which is being appealed.

If this isn’t a saga, we don’t know what is. But it’s a live issue here in our city which many people feel strongly about. Hence our commitment to covering it as best we can. Here’s the story so far:

On January 28, Berkeley’s Zoning Adjustments Board approved a plan submitted on behalf of Mitchell Kapor to build a new home at 2707 Rose Street. The approval is being appealed. The zoning board is due to hear the appeal on April 27.

Berkeleyside first drew attention to this issue on Jan. 25. The original application can be viewed here and drawings associated with the application can be seen here. The full appeal can be viewed here. We published an explanation of the thinking behind the appeal, written by architect Gary Parsons, here.

A group of neighbors supports Mitch Kapor’s proposed home. You can read about their views here. These views are challenged by another group of neighbors, whose opinions can be read here.


The Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA) is supporting the appeal. Read BAHA President Daniella Thompson’s letter outlining BAHA’s stand here.

The letters we have received in the past few days touch on a variety of issues. Eight are published below (and you’ll understand if, for space reasons, we put a page break in this post).

Also worth noting: Berkeleyside has been in touch with Mitch Kapor himself who says he will not be making a comment at the moment as he doesn’t have anything to add to what Susan and Paul Opsvig, his potential immediate neighbors, and his architects, Donn Logan and Marcy Wong, have already contributed to Berkeleyside.

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To, the Mayor and City Council Members
c/o City Clerk
2180 Milvia St.
Berkeley, CA  94704


Letter in support of the appeal, 2707 Rose St. project

Dear Mayor and City of Berkeley Councilmembers,

I would just like to comment, that if this structure is built to scale as proposed,
the expenditure in materials, labor, transportation (including hauling – use of fossil fuels and
emissions) will be massive.

All for a “home” for 2 people?  Whatever happened to the principle,
of not taking more than one’s share (from the planet)?

If individuals like the Kapors, who have the means to build anything they want, cannot agree
to live somewhat modestly for the benefit of our environment, would the city of Berkeley
please develop an ethic of scale to protect the rest of us?


Thank you,
Lucinda Olney

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John Burritt McArthur

2712 Stuart Street

Berkeley, CA 94705


Tel (510) 649-0389

Email umacs1@aol.com

April 12, 2010

Berkeley City Council

c/o City Clerk

City of Berkeley

2180 Milvia Street, First Floor

Berkeley, CA 94704

Dear City Council:

I have lived in Berkeley  since 1994. I came to Berkeley to get a Ph.D in public policy from the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, a degree I received in 2003. I have also practiced law in the Bay Area, for most of that time as a partner of Hosie McArthur LLP in San Francisco. I should quickly add that I do not represent, directly or indirectly, any party in this matter, and my area of practice involves complex commercial cases, arbitration, and oil and gas, not land use or zoning. I am writing this letter solely in my capacity as a concerned, long-term Berkeley resident.


I am writing because of an issue that has given me a deep concern about an important aspect of Berkeley city government. A few weeks ago, I read a short article on SFGate about the almost uniquely large house approved by the Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) for 2707 Rose Street. The story and the house sounded so unusual that I began finding out more.

What I learned about the zoning approval process for the 2707 Rose Street house astounded me, is at odds with the way an open and transparent government would function, and is vastly at odds with the way Berkeley’s city government should function. My concern is not only procedural; there are major substantive problems with the report as well.

To mention a few of the substantive problems first, problems that show something has gone astray with the ZAB report: The Zoning Adjustment Board staff found that there are no “locally designated historic resources” in the vicinity. In fact, this huge house will be in the middle of one of the largest clusters of historic houses in Berkeley. (You can see this from three exhibits in the Appeal, Exs. H-1, H-2, & H-3).

ZAB staff approved the maximum allowable height of 35 feet, yet portions of the house are higher than. The house sits on a new artificially raised plinth, as much as 20’ tall, that the owners intend to build. In fact, the house is over 55 feet high in parts when measured from the current grade. This is a whopping house, a huge new structure, that will affect the look of this part Berkeley for all residents, not just its neighbors. It makes no sense that it could be approved without ZAB accurately describing and analyzing the break in the character of the neighborhood and allowing fair comment and discussion.

Perhaps most inexplicably of all, faced with a mandatory story-pole requirement of the hill section (the applicable regulation reads, under Story Poles: “Required for new buildings and stories in the “H” District, or as determined necessary by the project planner” – a phrasing that only makes sense if poles are mandatory in the hill district and discretionary in other areas), staff exempted the house from that mandatory requirement. It is my understanding that the ZAB often requires story poles even on relatively small additions on homes. It is inexplicable that ZAB would not require poles on a huge new building, one far larger than its neighbors or almost any house in Berkeley, in one of the most historic districts in the city. Even were it true that the requirement is discretionary in the hill district, this house will present the most extreme change possible in the area. If any house should have to put up story poles, it is this house.

The procedural problems with this project are just as severe. In my understanding, ordinarily when neighbors express concerns about a house, ZAB routinely continues the hearing to allow the parties to attempt to work things out. This time, a few immediately bordering neighbors wrote letters of support, but 28 neighbors wrote letters of concern and opposition. Yet the opposing letters were not presented to the Board until the day it had to vote on the application, and they were ignored. Coupling that procedural problem with the substantive errors in the report, there is every appearance of a double standard for this particular project. It is being pushed through regardless of neighborhood concern in a way that would not happen with the average homeowner applying to build or modify his or her house.

I want to stress that this is not just a Rose-Street-area concern. The fair and equal application of zoning regulations are a major part of the quality of life for all of us in  Berkeley. If relatively small changes in houses receive detailed scrutiny, as they often do, but the largest house built in decades, one of the largest houses ever built in Berkeley, is rubberstamped without allowing meaningful citizen participation, it would be a sign that the zoning board is not ruling even-handedly on applications that come before it.

This issue is of great concern to many, like me, who live in other parts of the city. The concern will multiply many times over if a house of such dramatically different size and appearance is allowed to be built before having to consider and perhaps incorporate real neighborhood concerns, and if this tall a house can be built in the hill district, near so many historic houses, without even requiring story poles so that everyone can see the effect on the landscape and then comment. Rejecting the appeal would send the message that Berkeley has no effective zoning regulation, or that it has regulations but they only apply to some Berkeley residents, and not others.

To write frankly, it is also a great concern that after ZAB disregarded the large group of letters from concerned neighbors, the city council is now restricting discussion– in a matter that involves fundamental policy questions about the zoning review process, neighbors’ rights, and historic neighborhoods –by allowing only seven minutes of presentation per side on this matter. As a practical matter, this means that the ordinary citizen like me who is gravely worried about the failure of the review process will have no voice in the appropriate public forum.

I urge the council, first, to grant the appeal and reject the thoroughly flawed ZAB report.

Second, because it is hard to see how the ZAB staff could act objectively on the application given the errors in their existing report, I urge the council to require the homeowner to consult with neighbors, but then to itself hold a hearing on this application. At that hearing, the council should allow much broader comment and consider the legitimate concerns of Berkeley residents before taking final action on this matter.


Sincerely,

Your browser may not support display of this image.

John McArthur

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Click here to see a letter and supporting documentation from Stephen Twigg in a PDF format.

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Dear Council Member Wengraf,

I write as a constituent of yours and someone concerned with environmental and historic preservation in Berkeley.  I’m a member of the Hillside Club and I admire enormously the efforts of its women founders to engender respect for Berkeley’s natural beauty and to preserve the hills from inappropriate building, street layout, tree-cutting, and other destruction so often wreaked by thoughtless development. The natural beauty of the hills, such an important value in our city, was preserved from the sort of blanket development that has devalued large areas of our neighboring towns. As you no doubt know, the Hillside Club was founded in 1898 to “protect the hills of Berkeley from unsightly grading and the building of unsuitable and disfiguring houses.”

Which brings me to my concerns with what seems an inadequately reviewed proposal to demolish an existing home of 2500 square feet at 2707 Rose Street to build a nearly 10,000 square foot building on this very narrow block, the house and 10-car garage requiring, as I understand it, zoning waivers for both height and setback from the street.

There was less-than-successful communication with the neighborhood, some neighbors only finding out just a few days before the 1/28 Zoning Board meeting about the very large scale of the project.  There were no story poles placed on the site to give people an idea of the size of the project.  I’m concerned about what trees would be cut down to allow for construction of such a large structure.  Older trees absorb much more carbon than new trees, so taking down old ones should be avoided (as should demolition) if the city is aiming to be environmentally responsible.

Berkeley city government wishes to present our city as respectful of the environment and committed to reducing energy use and automobile traffic, and to slowing global warming. Thus for the Zoning Adjustment Board slip through with evidently little serious examination a proposal to build a greatly out-of-scale building in a neighborhood of relatively small houses,

on a hillside adjacent to an earthquake fault and in a potential slide area seems, at the least, irresponsible. The only apparent explanation is that the prospective owner is very wealthy.

I would like to think our city employees are capable of better judgment than the ZAB approval of this project without regard to concerns of the neighborhood would seem to imply.  Thus, I urge that the project be remanded to the ZAB for more careful consideration and more even-handed recognition of the concerns of the neighbors and all those of us who want the city to ensure that new building on Berkeley’s hills is done responsibly, with consideration of both the built and the natural context.  Obviously, little heed was paid to these concerns when the ZAB granted their waivers for this huge building.

Thank you.

Charlene M. Woodcock

2355 Virginia Street

Berkeley

cc: city council members

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Susan Cerny

860 Keeler Avenue

Berkeley, California  94708

April 16, 2010

Mayor Bates & City Council

2180 Milvia Street

Berkeley, CA 94704

Re: 2707 Rose Street—Appeal of Use Permit #09-10000038

Dear Mayor Bates & members of the City Council:

I  support the appeal of Use Permit #09-10000038, approved by the Zoning Adjustments Board on January 28, 2010. I support the appeal because of historic preservation issues and on errors and omissions in the project application.

Four use permits were issued:

 

  • Use Permit to demolish an existing dwelling unit;
  • Use Permit to construct a dwelling unit;
  • Administrative Use Permit to allow a 35-foot average height limit for a main building (28 feet is the maximum); and
  • Administrative User Permit to reduce front yard setback to 16 feet (20 feet is required).


These types of issues are commonly aired at public hearings because concerned neighbors request more information, but because of the geographic nature of the subject site, not all affected property owners were notified of the proposed project.

Furthermore, the application claims there are no designated historic resources

in the vicinity. In the immediate neighborhood there is a high concentration of historic resources including:

• Greenwood Common, a City of Berkeley Landmark (designated in 1990)

developed by William W. Wurster, with landscape design by Lawrence Halprin

and eight houses designed by important mid-century architects.

• La Loma Park Historic District (designated in 2002), comprising 13 properties,

including two designed by Bernard Maybeck, one by Ernest Coxhead, one by

Henry Gutterson, and one by John Ballantine.

• Rose Walk, a City of Berkeley Landmark (designated in 1975), designed by

Maybeck and lined with houses and duplexes by Henry Gutterson.

The proposed project overlooks Shasta Road, where there are two properties listed on

the State Historic Resources Inventory and rated “appear eligible for the National Register of Historic Places” —one is essentially next door and the other directly across the street.

Even the existing house, proposed for demolition, has historic merit. While the 1917 building permit submitted with the architect’s Structure History report, clearly shows A. Appleton as the Architect of 2707 Rose, the application claims there is no architect of record. As it turns out,  Abraham Appleton (1887–1981) was an important figure in Bay Area architecture. His client, Lucia Dunham, was a well-known mezzo-soprano with a teaching position at the University of California, where she was a collaborator of Prof. Charles L. Seeger, who was also a close-by neighbor on La Loma and Buena Vista. (Seeger’s house, which is still standing was designed by Bernard Maybeck.)

There is so much history and so many cultural connections that today have a physical and tangible presence in this neighborhood the project should have been brought to the attention of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Yet the City staff update sent to the LPC concerning this project defined it only as a new construction, without mentioning the demolition or the historic context of the neighborhood.

Other issues of concern include the extensive grading, removal of soil, and the reconfiguration of the lot, as well as the scale, massing and color of the proposed house in this historic neighborhood.

The proposed project should be sent back to City staff and to the applicant for

preparation of an accurate and complete application, followed by a new hearing before

the Zoning Adjustments Board, with input from the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Sincerely,

Susan Cerny

Former Chair of the Landmarks Preservation Commission
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04.13.10

Mayor and Members of the Berkeley City Council

c/o The City Clerk

2180 Milvia Street, First Floor

Berkeley, California  94704

Re: 2707 Rose St.; Appeal of the ZAB decision of 01/28/10; Use Permit # 09-10000038

Dear Mayor and Councilmembers,

In the last weeks I have met with some of you regarding ZAB’s approval of the project proposed for 2707 Rose Street.  All of you will have met with concerned neighbors prior to the appeal hearing.  While the neighbors in the vicinity have every right to be concerned, I am writing because I believe that this issue represents a problem of city-wide importance.  The process as it has unfolded for this project has been so unlike that endured by other less significant projects that questions regarding preferential treatment, systemic bias and equal treatment under the law must be raised.

As a local architect I must be able to describe and characterize the city’s approvals processes to my clients.  During the past decades I have been able to describe to them a process that, if not quick and if not inexpensive, has been fair and evenly applied.  Berkeley’s process has at its root an assumption that community members should be informed and invited into the process, and that those voices are important.  The process that we have witnessed for 2707 Rose seems to be the opposite of inclusive and fair; in fact it leaves me unable to explain to my clients what treatment they may be able to expect at ZAB.  Does the ease or difficulty of attaining approvals vary if the applicant has a lot of money? if the applicant describes himself as the world’s nicest guy? if the applicant is a philanthropist?  In the case of 2707 Rose it appears that these attributes make approval both quick and certain, justify a very sloppy staff report, obviate the need for any meaningful discussion, and make any community involvement nothing more than a nuisance.

When ZAB heard this item, they had in front of them 28 letters of concern from the neighborhood.  Additionally, ZAB heard polite testimony from concerned neighbors asking for two things 1) a month’s continuance to better understand the proposed project (most had only found out about it less than two weeks prior to the hearing), and 2) the installation of story poles so that the scope of the project, one of the largest houses ever built in Berkeley, could be understood at full scale.  ZAB did not read the letters and summarily dismissed the requests of the concerned neighbors: no continuance, no story poles.  This result was shocking to the neighbors but may be even more shocking to those who are familiar with the city processes. ZAB usually errs on the side of caution and routinely grants continuances so that productive conversations can take place amongst neighbors and project proponents.  ZAB has done so countless times before the 2707 item was considered and has already done so after it.  In the case of 2707 there was no discussion of the project, and no evaluation of the staff report, just

obsequious kow-towing to the prominent applicant and rudeness to the concerned neighbors.  All of this falls well below the minimum standard that every citizen has the right to expect of city boards and commissions.

I have personal experience of a 20 square foot addition  (yes, 20) which received far more staff scrutiny than this project has seen.  Make no mistake about it: this project consists of nearly 10,000 square feet of contiguous built area; even more if you count the massive terrace upon which it sits.  Although the proponents always refer to only the area of the house, obscuring the true size of the project, I feel sure that a builder would charge them for the 3,500 square foot garage as well, so I would suggest that we call a spade a spade.  This will be one of the largest houses ever built in this city and the rubberstamping of its approval with little or no real scrutiny amounts to nothing more than arrogance and sycophancy.  The call for story poles is entirely appropriate; the scale of this structure is completely unlike anything around it; to imagine that lay people might be able to infer something so massive and so different by only consulting a tiny drawing is absolutely unrealistic.

There is no doubt that ZAB’s approval should be vacated; the staff report is riddled with errors and misstatements, and ZAB’s unwillingness to review the staff’s work is truly negligent.  As I understand it, Council has three options: 1) uphold ZAB’s decision (I believe that this would be legally untenable), 2) uphold the appeal, vacate the approval, and remand the item to staff and to ZAB, and 3) uphold the appeal and hold the item over for public hearing at the City Council.  As unattractive as the third option may be, I believe that it offers the only responsible way forward.  Staff and ZAB have shown themselves to be incapable of operating in good faith when it comes to this application; remanding it to ZAB may end up with a process that resembles the norm, but to hope that ZAB would be self-policing and self-correcting is far too much to expect.  Council should seize this opportunity to explore how a city board could act so brazenly and so contrary to their trust, and then Council should implement the changes necessary to re-establish that trust.

It is worth pointing out that the concerned neighbors have not once attempted to dictate an architectural solution; however, I would be unfaithful to my profession if I didn’t offer a critique.  From an architectural point of view, the building is very disappointing. It is an example of the bland and featureless modernism that propagated once the founding principles were eroded.  True modernism is lyrical, artful, forward-thinking, and engages its context (both physical and cultural) in a meaningful way; this building is none of these things.  Charles Keeler and Bernard Maybeck clearly outlined the principles of good hillside building; sadly this building violates every one of them.  I wonder if the owners realize that they will be identified with a banal and awkward building, an energy dinosaur in the era of global warming, a true white elephant exemplary of backward thinking.  The New York Times article that questioned whether such mansions could ever be ‘green’ used 2707 as a negative example; others in the article espoused a trickle-down technology alibi, stating that energy efficiency and green building will of course be pioneered by the rich and will then make its way down to the common folk.  As bizarre as that idea may be, it should be pointed out that 2707 does not measure up as a green building in any way.  Its score of 91 on the Build It Green Checklist sounds great, 91 out of 100 is excellent, right?  Well really it is 91 out of 250 for a score of 36%, a failing grade in any test.  The building avoids the more rigorous LEED certification process, as it would not come close to a high rating.  I wonder if the owners know how much better they could be doing?  Beyond being used as offices for philanthropic work, the building itself could champion admirable values such as sustainability, efficiency, and contextual sensitivity, and could be a beacon for future projects. It could be a game-changer. Instead it just lowers the bar at a very critical time. One might ask why such a monster of a building is being forced on this community. If the proponents built a house half the size (still well in excess of the average house size in the neighborhood) and spent some of the capital saved to create an exemplary zero-net-energy building (and then simply donated the rest of the savings to the underprivileged rather than re-raising that money through wasteful fundraising), then perhaps we would have a win-win-win situation. As it is, we have the intrusion of a baronial estate into a quiet neighborhood, peasants be damned.

As a veteran of many runs through the city approval processes, I can attest that it can be quite a delicate matter to balance the interests and input of all concerned parties.  Badly done, the process easily becomes corrosive and toxic; sometimes applicants and neighbors become soured on each other and on the neighborhood as a whole.  Done well, with open channels of communication and a design team that is responsive and accepting of neighborhood concerns, the process can, and has, led to better projects and closer relationships within the neighborhood.  The 2707 project is a case study in how NOT to address the process.  So far, a sense of entitlement and in-crowd privilege has prevailed, leading to widespread alienation and distrust.  When asked if he would entertain a month’s continuance for the sake of educating the neighborhood about the project, the owner simply stated that such a thing would be “inappropriate”.  One wonders what is appropriate in this case; one would think that when moving into an established neighborhood, and building a very large, ostentatious and intrusive building, it would be appropriate to reach out and inform the neighbors as much as possible, to hear their concerns and take them to heart.  After all, these people will be one’s neighbors for a long time.  Apparently what is thought to be appropriate here is to manipulate the system and ignore any concerns but one’s own.

There is no doubt that the building would be improved through a more community-based process. A building this big and so willfully out of context with its architectural environment will effect that community negatively for generations. The community should have something to say about it; once the story poles are erected I’m sure that the already significant level of concern will increase, and rightfully so. It is too bad that it will take council action for the applicants to supply their future neighbors with the information that they have been asking for during the past few months. If the project is remanded to ZAB, the improvement of the building will take care of itself IF AND ONLY IF ZAB affords the concerned neighbors equal treatment, AND if ZAB knows that it is under close scrutiny from here on out.  Certainly concise and pointed council instructions would be a crucial part of any remand.

I look forward to looking back on this sad set of events as an aberration that allowed the city to recalibrate one of its most important boards and re-establish the kind of caring community-based process that represents the city so well.

Sincerely,

Gary Earl Parsons, AIA

Born in Berkeley, UCB ’76 and ‘82

Berkeley businessman since 1987

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I want to weigh in on the proposal to tear down the beautiful (albeit
dilapidated) house at 2707 Rose Street and build a 6478 square foot
single family home with a 3,394 square foot, 10-car garage on Rose
Street overlooking Shasta Road.

This is a most inappropriate building for this neighborhood that I could possibly imagine, and I wish to go on record as opposing it.

I am also concerned about the violations to legal process that the ZAB seems to have exercised in order to push this design through the City. The violations of due process have been delineated by others in this effort, so I will not repeat them here. Suffice it to say something seems a little bit fishy and it appears shortcuts were taken.

I am concerned about the protracted noise of construction, potential traffic congestion on Shasta Road, potential for soil erosion, and the change of scenery that this house would produce on that corner of Shasta road which is just down the street from my house. Although property values might be increased by the existence of this new house, I suspect that the reverse would be true. This neighborhood has a number of historically-significant homes in it.

I believe in property owners’ rights to develop their land as they wish, within reason. I am on record as having written a letter of support to David Shapiro and his wife Diane to build their very large house behind my house, on Northgatr. And I myself own an empty lot next to my house at 2692 Shasta Rd. So, I am not opposed to new building, nor do I want to support onerous restriction. However, new construction has to be within reason, fitting into the existing neighborhood appropriately.

Thank you.

Bob

Bob Cowart
2692 Shasta Rd
Bob@cowart.com
510-540-6667
www.cowart.com
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Robert and Gertrude Allen

Berkeley, CA 94708

COPY

March 30, 2010

Councilmember Susan Wengraf

Dear Susan:

We are writing to you about the proposed house at 2707 Rose Street.  I hope that the City Council will send the proposal back to the Planning staff and ZAB for further review.  The neighbors were not properly informed of the proposal.  While I realize that design considerations are pretty much outside of the permit process, I would like to call your attention to a strange (we believe) finding by the staff that “No locally designated properties exist in the vicinity.”  In fact, the house immediately adjacent to the property and the one adjacent to that were both designed by Warren Callister, an architect of some renown.  In addition, the Gregory house designed by John Galen Howard is within a block, as is Greenwood Common, a landmarked area.

The point of some concerned neighbors is not to stop the project, but to make sure that it is properly reviewed.  Other neighbors are addressing issues in which we feel that the planning staff was remiss.

I’ll take this opportunity to mention that we very much appreciate your monthly e-mail newsletters.  They keep us well informed.

Sincerely,

Bob and Gert

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