Early high-rise plans lack inspiration, say commissioners

This 17-story, 355-unit development would take the place of the property that now includes The Shattuck Cinemas, Habitot Children’s Museum, and a number of small retailers like Starbucks. (Click the image for more information.) Courtesy: HSR Berkeley Investments
This 17-story, 355-unit development (shown above in light blue and tan) would take the place of the property that now includes The Shattuck Cinemas, Habitot Children’s Museum and a number of small retailers like Starbucks. (Click the image for more information.) Image: Courtesy of HSR Berkeley Investments

City zoning commissioners asked for more excitement and creativity from developers after a preview last Thursday night of a 355-unit 17-story rental high-rise planned for downtown Berkeley.

The Residences at Berkeley Plaza, at 2211 Harold Way, have been described by developers as “an environmentally sustainable, transit-oriented mixed-use development that will bring new vitality to the core of downtown Berkeley consistent with all of the policy and zoning standards set forth in the new Downtown Area Plan.” (Read more about the project in past Berkeleyside coverage.)

Amenities presented to the Zoning Adjustments Board on Thursday, March 14, included landscaped roof-top open spaces with heated trellises, a wide range of sustainable building features and a public plaza that would connect all four sides of the block (Allston Way, Shattuck Avenue, Kittredge Street and Harold Way).

A public plaza would provide a public through-way to cross the block. (Click the image to see a full presentation about the project.) Courtesy: HSR Berkeley Investments
A public plaza would provide a public through-way to cross the block. (Click the image to see a full presentation about the project.) Image: Courtesy of HSR Berkeley Investments

Project design team member Mark Rhoades, of the Rhoades Planning Group, told commissioners not to pay much attention to the unit floor plans, which are being redesigned to appeal to a more professional tenant base.


By and large, Zoning Adjustments Board members said the team has a long way to go.

Commissioner Elisa Mikiten described the building design as “pretty cold,” and lacking elegant proportions and materials.

“I would be freaking out if I thought that it was really going to look like that,” she said. “The task is pretty challenging, which is to do a high-rise that looks like Berkeley. That’s a tall order.”

Commissioner Bob Allen said the building’s 180-foot tower, which would rise above the existing Shattuck Hotel, needs more oomph.

“It doesn’t feel enough to me,” he told developers, after learning that the site was not “maxed out” in terms of allowable building limits. “The Shattuck Hotel is a really substantial, solid building. And, particularly the tower, just feels weak. It either needs to be smaller, tall, slender, elegant — or it needs to have a little more muscle to it…. I would feel very comfortable with more building on this site.”

Commissioner George Williams said he doesn’t yet see this project, as it was presented Thursday, as fulfilling the dream of the Downtown Area Plan, to bring beauty and vitality to the core of the city. He is also worried that the development, as proposed, would mean the closure of Shattuck Cinemas.

“I couldn’t be more disappointed in this project,” he said, as he bemoaned the proposed loss of one of the city’s most popular movie theaters. “That (theater) creates more life downtown than people going in and out of these apartments ever will.” Williams called the large public parking garage, set to include 308 spaces according to the project application, “a big mistake” and asked for an alternative design that might include a movie theater, even if it means a reduction in units.

Williams said developers need to put more thought into adding to Berkeley’s skyline and city center in a more memorable way.

“I’m a great believer in high-rise. I think if a building got built anywhere close to what is shown here, that would be the last high-rise building that gets built in Berkeley. Because I think people will look at it and say ‘Oh my god,'” he said. “I think you need to build an iconic building, not wrap around it with wide balconies that just simply add to the bulk. The building has no grace. And I know you’re very early in the process and I know I’m being very indiscreet… But I’m expressing a great frustration, because I’ve tracked the development of the downtown plan and I was looking for great things and I don’t think this is yet great.”

Commissioner Deborah Matthews agreed, and called for more “uniqueness” in the project. She described a recent visit to Toronto, and the experience of staying with relatives in a high-rise that had, on its lower levels, shopping, dining and entertainment options. She later suggested the possibility of providing free wireless internet in the downtown area as another attractive amenity. “If you can incorporate those kinds of ideas and implementation, that may be exciting and cutting edge for Berkeley.”

A rendering of The Residences at Berkeley Plaza as seen from Shattuck Avenue. Courtesy of HSR Berkeley Investments
A rendering of The Residences at Berkeley Plaza as seen from Shattuck Avenue. Image: Courtesy of HSR Berkeley Investments

The developer plans to market the apartments to professional high-tech workers, although 32 of the units will be set aside as affordable housing. The developer promises to transform the east side of Harold Way, which is now mostly a blank wall, into a thriving retail scene. Guests at the Hotel Shattuck Plaza would be able to use the new structure’s parking garage and athletic facilities. Preservationists and movie lovers have already expressed concern that the developer does not plan to keep the movie theaters; Rhoades said Thursday that the future of the cinema isn’t something he could discuss publicly at this time and “may be beyond this developer’s control.”

Rhoades told Berkeleyside in December that the lease held by Landmark Theaters, the owner of Shattuck Cinemas, is scheduled to end in 2014. The company was already planning to reevaluate that space even before news broke of the proposed highrise, he said.

The project is expected to cost $75 million to build.

Commissioner Igor Tregub urged the design team to speak with groups like the Sierra Club to ensure that a range of interests are taken into account as plans move ahead. He said he hopes the developer will offer a living wage to construction workers associated with the project. But he also said he appreciated the inclusion of affordable units in the proposed complex.

“I do see some promise in this,” he said, adding that he’d like to see more thought put into the public plaza. “Perhaps one way to think about it is to help accentuate a downtown that brings many different people from all walks of life, all communities in Berkeley, rich or poor, to come and feel that this is really a public space that can benefit them in some way.”

Commissioner Sophie Hahn said she looks forward to seeing the updated floor plans, and asked developers to approach them with a spirit of inclusion: “You have a real opportunity here to design with great diversity in mind: Old and young. Young single professionals. Families. Students. And I think that you would be doing really a great service to the community by showing that everyone is going to be invited into downtown, not just students.” She asked for more “inspired” thinking both in the architecture and the lifestyle concept. “It’s lucky for you. You’re being told here: ‘Go for it. Do something great.'”

A detail view of project elevations. (Click to see a more in-depth presentation.) Image: Courtesy of HSR Berkeley Investments
A detail view of project elevations. (Click to see a more in-depth presentation.) Image: Courtesy of HSR Berkeley Investments

Chairman Michael Alvarez-Cohen thanked the development team for “trying to be bold and doing something different” by presenting an alternative to what the board sees often (“student housing, no parking”). “Maybe you should be the place where professionals want to live … and that’s your complimentary addition to the city. And you’re the place, if you want to park, you can park there. And I think that’s great.”

Design team member Matthew Taecker, a former city employee who helped develop Berkeley’s Downtown Area Plan, said the team is looking closely at other historic architecture downtown to “understand the context and come up with an appropriate gesture” for the building. He described the project as “a complicated piece of architecture” that he said is “evolving.”

Rhoades, too, said the current designs should be regarded as somewhat of a placeholder, as developers put a premium on getting the application submitted by the end of 2012 so as to not have to wait another six months or a year for consideration. (Rhoades said the demands of “crazy time limits” set up by city ordinances forced the team to rush in their materials.)

He said developers had been busy collecting extensive community comments along with feedback from the Design Review Committee and the Landmarks Preservation Commission, all of which will be taken into account in addition to Thursday’s comments. Rhoades noted the many demands for the project, some of which conflict with each other.

“We’re going to go take a good hard look at the building again and I think the next iteration that you see will be, probably, quite different,” he said. “It is very early in the process. We’re looking forward to the design process. And I think that, by the time we’re finished with this, everybody here will have a project that they can be pleased with.”

The portion of the Zoning Adjustments Board meeting that pertains to this project begins about four hours and eight minutes into the archived video. See it here. See more project documents on the city’s website.

Related:
Berkeley zoning board approves 78-unit Durant [03.15.13]
1,000 new apartments planned for downtown Berkeley [02.7.13]
First high-rise in 40 years proposed for downtown Berkeley [12.21.12]
Large downtown property changes hands [11.28.12]
Council sets fee for affordable housing mitigation [10.18.12]
Acheson Commons: Large change for downtown [04.12.12]
After seven years, Berkeley gets a new downtown plan [03.21.12]
Parker Place wins council approval [01.18.12]

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