Acheson Commons: Large change for downtown

View of the proposed Acheson Commons looking NW, including, in foreground, a proposed new 10-story UC Berkeley office building. Rendering: courtesy Equity Residential/Kirk E. Peterson Architects

One of the first projects to be built under Berkeley’s recently adopted Downtown Area Plan will be Acheson Commons which will transform the entire city block bordered by University Avenue, Shattuck and Walnut streets, and Berkeley Way.

The project, which has been under discussion for some time, was the subject of a rare joint meeting of the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Design Review Committee on March 29.

The proposal for the area sees the creation of 205 new residential units and above-ground floor retail space. The developer is Equity Residential, of Chicago which builds and owns rental housing projects nationwide. EQR previously purchased the Bachenheimer Building at 2119 University Avenue from local developer Patrick Kennedy, and subsequently bought the adjacent properties.

The historic Acheson Building, currently used as offices, will be adapted for residential occupancy and its exterior will be restored. The landmarked exterior of the ACE Hardware building will be incorporated into a new six-story building. The two brown shingle duplexes on Walnut Street will, it is hoped, be relocated to a new site. Habitat for Humanity is exploring the possibility of receiving these structures.

Aerial perspective of the project from the NE. Rendering: courtesy Equity Residential/Kirk E. Peterson Architects

The all-new Walnut Building will occupy the northeast corner of the site — parking for the project will be located in the Walnut building entered from Berkeley Way — and there will be live/work units on the ground floor.

To the west of the existing Bachenheimer Building, a new MacFarlane Building will incorporate the existing landmarked façades.

Acheson Commons is a very large project by local standards. The City’s SOSIP (Streets and Open Space Improvement Plan) will guide changes in the public rights of way, and sidewalk and street adjacent to the project will be reconfigured according the SOSIP.

Just to the north of Acheson Commons is UC’s new Helios Building. To the east of the site, where Mikes’ Bikes is now, UC plans to build a ten-story office building.

Kirk Peterson, the project’s architect, said he believes these new large institutional buildings will act, in effect, as a new edge to the campus. “They will offer a strong contrast to the smaller, fine-textured residential buildings of Acheson Commons,” he said.

Acheson Commons will transform the block bordered by University, Shattuck, Walnut Street and Berkeley Way

The Acheson project has its detractors, and key concerns raised to date include what was perceived to be a lack of affordable housing within the development, the overall density and character of the apartment units, and the prospect that union labor might not be used in construction.

At the March 29 meeting, Steve Finacom and John English, both members of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, commmented on the treatment of the existing landmarked façades. Finacom has been documenting the meetings held to discuss the Acheson plans for the Daily Planet. The owners of Sombrero Taqueria at 2101 University expressed concern over the impact of the project on their family business. The effect of the project on Ace Hardware was also discussed, as was the possible eventual closure of Walnut Street.

“Various speakers were concerned about parts of the project, but the general massing and aesthetic of the design seemed to be well received,” said Peterson, who attended the joint session.

The public process for the review of Acheson Commons has provided an opportunity to air many issues relevant to the development and growth of Berkeley’s downtown generally, including density, historic preservation, and accommodating growth without sacrificing character.

More meetings to discuss the project, with DRC and LPC, are planned, after which it will come before the Zoning Adjustments Board. An EIR is being prepared for the project, and it will be discussed in upcoming hearings. Members of the public, who have been actively participating in discussion of the plans so far, will have further opportunities to participate in the ongoing review process.

For more details, view the latest design plans for the site, and visit the city’s Zoning Adjustment Board, and Landmark Preservation Commission.

Newly cleaned up downtown hopes to attract more retail [04.04.12]
Room with a view: Designer charts two new Berkeley buildings [04.03.12]
After seven years Berkeley gets a new downtown plan [03.21.12]
Taller buildings, open spaces on cards for downtown Berkeley [03.09.12]
The big clean-up of downtown Berkeley begins [01.10.12]
Downtown PBID passes overwhelmingly [06.29.11]

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  • Toni

    Families require a minimum of two bedrooms, even a single parent family. And many parents telecommute some work days, so add another room for the office. And then they need common areas and nearby day care for the younguns. Condos that are family oriented would surely sell if there’s adequate open space and sufficient bedrooms. Condos give the developer an immediate payback on the investment; whereas student and yuppie apartments require constant management. A community forum on family housing would start the discussion rolling.

  • Toni

    There are benefits and problems; that’s why a mix of districts and at-large candidates may alleviate the current system where people stay in power way too long. Lobbyists will work any system. Another community forum topic.

  • Hyper_lexic


    University at MLK:

    Berkeley Way at MLK:

    I agree it’s better – definitely less busy than the University side, or than Bachmann or Gaia.

    but I think the development (don’t know by whom) at Sacramento and University is much better:

    At least in terms of surface design it’s better – it has enough variation to be interesting but isn’t cluttered like the others we’re discussing. In terms of structure, I find the carve-out for the 7-11 incredibly awkward.

  • Hyper_lexic

    I don’t have any comments on the structural reform questions – not really the direct question at hand – but I’d definitely agree that a mix of different kinds of housing downtown is important to me, and i agree 2-bedroom is a minimum for families.

    With the Arpeggio (whatever it’s financial situation, I’ve lost track) there are multi-BR units.  Granted, it’s ‘luxury’ so not priced for most people.  But at least this building (assuming it’s for students) is a different focus, so it’s adding to diversity.  Hopefully the next one will include more middle-income family housing.That said, given how much multi-bedroom housing there is in Berkeley, I’m not sure if families WANT to live downtown vs. their other choices.

  • Hyper_lexic

    “How do you all have so much time to blog?  It’s fun reading.”

    In my case I had some free time day before yesterday, and this topic is something I have some passion about.

    We’ve had a lot of discussions of language and modern vs. traditional, which wasn’t the intent of my comments. I’ll strip any theoretical justification off my my comments (since I don’t see to be winning anyone over on them) and leave it as this: while I definitely support the basic goals of this project, I’m concerned about the design on a personal aesthetic level.  I don’t like the designs your firm has done for other projects downtown – I find them to be cluttered and unappealing (unlike, like I said, what I like about your smaller projects).  Given the scale of this project I’d really like to love the design and this has me concerned.  

    Obviously we’ve only seen a brief preview through this article, and I can’t really tell how this one will turn out; so I’ll have to sign off for now until we see the next iteration of the design.

  • Hyper_lexic

    I’ll let you have the last word this time! Nice trading thoughts without any of us going full ad-hominem.

  • devi

    Hideous architecture aside, this project doesn’t seem to have any sort of urban strategy regarding a lively pedestrian experience. The scale is bulky – couldn’t it go taller and thinner in some parts? Even the renderings only show cars, not people.

  • Charles_Siegel

    As I said in an earlier comment, the SOSIP calls for widening the sidewalks of University Ave between Oxford and Shattuck by narrowing the roadway to one lane.  Studies have already shown this will work in terms of traffic.  And I have heard that the developer has offered to pay for this.

    If  this goes through, it will create the best pedestrian experience in Berkeley, something like a European city with storefronts facing the sidewalk, and with wide sidewalks and sidewalk cafe seating.

    Note that all the traditional European cities that people love to walk in have this same “bulky” scale.  Haussmann’s Paris has this bulky scale and – horrors – it also has “hideous” traditional architecture.  I expect you prefer La Defence, which has taller and thinner buildings with modern architecture – and which does not attract pedestrians. 

    This project’s urban strategy is the same strategy that has successfully created an attractive pedestrian environment for many centuries in traditional European cities. 

  • Prinzrob

    I don’t think your examples are entirely relevant, as going from the affordability of a 2 bedroom apartment to a yacht or mini-mansion is a pretty big leap.

    I think what John was just trying to say is that the type of housing built in the city should be generally in line with the types of wages offered. Otherwise we are forcing workers to live outside of the city and commute in, which has implications both on transportation spending as well as on building strong communities. Plus, the people who occupy the expensive housing units will often be commuting out, creating a disconnect between the daytime and nighttime populations and misrepresenting the interests of the non-residential population at the ballot box.

  • Hello

    well I don’t regard haussman as a good urban designer – he literally cut through huge swaths of the historic city fabric with no regard for what existed there before, all for his monument-centered, napoleon-aggrandizing plan. I’m sure that would’t fly today…

  • Charles_Siegel

    As I said before: “This project’s urban strategy is the same strategy that has successfully
    created an attractive pedestrian environment for many centuries in
    traditional European cities.”

    I guess you not only dislike Haussmann but also dislike all traditional European cities. 

  • Chris Gilbert

    I’m just a layman and don’t mind the Moorish style of the Gaia and Bacheheimer (sic) buildings except that the way the stucco is done with the horizontal and/or vertical lines which break up the ‘skin’ makes them look cheap.      Original buildings in this style would have been of stone, no?  The stucco makes me think of cheap 50’s architecture.  If cost is the issue, then maybe pick a different style?  

  • Chris Gilbert

    Also, isn’t the Chicago developer the same company that purchased the L.A. Times and the Chicago paper using large amounts of debt, then went bankrupt after hollowing those out?  Can’t a local developer do this?

  • Brad

    1) Ace is pricey, but a treasure nonetheless. I hope they can save the character in the new space.

    2) Public parking. Public parking. Public Parking……and PUBLIC PARKING.

    3) Public parking.

  • EastCoast

    Putting a “traditional revival” facade on a modern steel skeleton is not a new idea; the first half of the 20th century was famous for these kinds of buildings, with architects like Stanford White and Cass Gilbert. True, you could say that traditional architecture was not developed with the 20th century and mind, but those architects’ understanding of classicism made it possible for them to adapt the vernaculars successfully enough for their works to become canonical; for example the woolworth building in NYC.