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.

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]

Berkeleyside publishes many articles every day. To see all our stories in chronological order, and read ones you may have missed, check out All the News.

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  • Bored with Sharkey

    My, aren’t you a nasty boy?

  • The_Sharkey

    Or we could just ban the antisocial behavior they engage in. But I guess the Anti-Measure S folks would rather just keep downtown “as sh**ty as possible” as you so elegantly put it.

  • Bored with Bored with Sharkey

    My, aren’t you a boring troll?

  • PragmaticProgressive

    “It’s the vibe of the thing.”

  • bg

    All this talk about how the building will look, but what about what the building is – a high rise apartment building catering to high tech workers with a few affordable units. How does that meet the needs of Berkeley? How does an apartment building bring “vitality to the core?” How exciting can an apartment building be? It really offers nothing to anyone who doesn’t live in it. It is designed to attract high-salaried high-tech workers, which isn’t going to help the folks who are here now and need a place to live. What it will do is jack up rents, eliminate a movie theater to does “bring vitality to the core” and begin turning Berkeley into Emeryville. I recently heard a developer make the comment that “Berkeley is open for business.” So here’s the future. Let’s be as concerned about what it is as how it looks.

  • foo

    Well, we need to start by getting rid of all present and future public amenities. This means park benches, grass, parks, water fountains – anything that a homeless person might conceivably find attractive. Of course this means no WiFi, because homeless people LOVE WiFi.

  • serkes

    Wow … so glad I didn’t realize that I didn’t know that Berkeley’s cited sited building weren’t in the Art Deco Style when I did my photo walk.


    Adding to Berkeley sited California Theater, Valley Life Sciences Building already cited by Eric, I can add the Kress Building (WIB photo), United Artists, Berkeley High School (the Murals on MLK are superb), Farm Credit Building on Center (Berkeley Offices), City Hall on Milvia, Berkeley Public Library, Paul’s Shoes (neon), Berkeley Community Theater (1950 but in the style), Edwards Stadium, The Buddhist Center on Fulton/Durant, The Magnus Building, and the new UC Berkeley Printing Plant (soon to be University Art Museum).

    And I’ve not strolled west of MLK, south of Durant, or north of University.

    Though there are some superb examples Art Deco buildings which use metal and lots glass, off the top of my head the one thing they often have in common is the use of stucco (California), terra-cotta, brick or perhaps concrete. The International Style brought in the glass and metal.

    As the Berkeley High School Mural Says … “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free”


    Ira .. perhaps one day I’ll do that book of Art Deco Photographs I’ve been planning for years.

  • serkes

    Can I get in the contest?

  • serkes

    Be sure to go INSIDE the Chrysler Building and Empire State for breathtaking examples of decorative art … and many Art Deco buildings have wonderful details on them; most use sculptural details (rules of 3, frozen fountains, etc.) as the art work.

    If you’re traveling and interested in architecture, there’s a good chance I can create a custom map for you with an emphasis on the Art Deco style.

    Perhaps I’ll lead another Downtown Berkeley Photo Walk (much shorter this time) with Deco as the prime focus (though I tend to use zoom lenses)


  • serkes
  • Sharkey, you may have come up with a new area of study for Cal — “Berkeley Math.” Students getting a degree in Social Welfare http://socialwelfare.berkeley.edu could round out their degree with a Minor in “Berkeley Math” and be better prepared for the workplace ;-)

  • guest

    gutter punks camped out in front of starbucks with laptops on shattuck every day

  • ml

    “A thriving retail scene” Has anyone looked at the vacant storefronts all around Berkeley? I would guess that at least 50% of the ground floor retail spaces on new buildings have never been rented to retail.

  • Charles_Siegel

    “large public parking garage, set to include 308 spaces according to the project application, “

    The large public parking garage belies the developer’s claim that this is “an environmentally sustainable, transit-oriented mixed-use development.”

    I am sure that garage would not be able to pay its own way. There would be higher housing costs for the residents to subsidize this parking. And some of the height is also required to subsidize this parking.

  • Erik Schmitt

    “I think you need to build an iconic building”. Commissioner George Williams said. Commissioner Deborah Matthews agreed, and called for more “uniqueness”. The commissioners appear to be struggling to articulate what Berkeley needs in this location. At its core the design process is the act of problem solving. All this talk of how things look and what style they should be is missing the point and leading to a purely subjective conversation. ”The task is pretty challenging, which is to do a high-rise that looks like Berkeley. That’s a tall order.” said Commissioner Elisa Mikiten. Again, an emphasis on looks. The commissioners need to refer to the design brief in order to vet design presentations. This feedback is meaningless and will lead to mediocrity as the designers attempt to get into the heads of the commissioners and apply style to the structure rather than solving the stated problem.

  • EBGuy

    Thanks for highlighting the view corridor issue; this was news to me. For those who are interested, this photo give you a general idea of the alignment.

  • guest

    The UC doesn’t own the view of the Golden Gate.

  • Tizzielish

    I know you kid about the ‘three people decision’ remark. Architecture done by good process, with expert faclitation holding space for true dialogic communication does not have to be prone to disaster.

    Having said that, I think of some of the most exciting buildings I can recall — buildings by Frank Gehry, I.M. Pei or whoever designed the building in Milwaukeek set on its great-lake waterfront that literally has wings that open and close, evoking the soaring beauty of art and human aspiration . . . maybe we need to trust genius artistic visionarires to design important public buldings.

    I don’t think the problem is rooted in architecture by committee, however. I think the problem is rooted in architecture and development based on maximizing quick profit to the developers and not genuinely committed to enhancing the shared commons that every single person who ever walks through our main downtown area forever after this building is built will experience. Prioritizing profit, quickly throwing together a building to cash in quickly on our stupid new downtown plan will yield an ugly building that will stain our shared commons space forever (or at least all of our lifetimes — maybe skyscrapers will eventually crumble like ancient mayan cities?)

  • Tizzielish

    I lived in an art deco apartment building in Minneapolis during the three years I was in law school. There were no mirrors. the art deco appeared in all kinds of design choices that were integrated into how doorways, nooks, crannies and fixtures were designed or chosen. No air conditioning either: windows that opened! It was not 17 stories, tis true, but it was an art deco jewel with no mirrors in the lobby but anyone who glanced at the building from any direction could see it was art deco: how the bricks were bricked, how the windows alongside the entry door were shaped, the mailboxes — a required essential — were art deco, shiny brass, the only shine in the very art deco lobby.

    art deco does not have to be bad for the environment And it is just one style, but one many seem to love I would like to see analysis of why so many have affection for it.

    Instead of writing about what we don’t like, how about people write about what they would like to see. Does anyone know of an apartment tower, anywhere, that they admire for its architecture? I have to think about that.

  • Tizzielish

    back off, guest. Eric wrote respectfully and did not claim to be speaking definitively on behalf of any style or person or organization. He was sharing his thoughts, telling us buidlings he admires to seed positive discussion. If there are no buildings to love in berkeley — I can think of none in Berkeley that thrill me the way many buildings around the world can — one pretty much has to leave Berkeley to find beautiful architecture. And what is wrong with pointing to world icons in NYC? It’s a conversation, not an academic paper.

  • Tizzielish

    I agree. Their guidance was mostly negative with little constructive indication of what would meet their standards.

  • Tizzielish

    um are you referring to the young humans who are down and out who do regularly seem to hang out in front of Starbucks? I think I walk by that Starbucks several times daily and have never seen a laptop amongst the young panhandlers who are, tis true, seemingly always outside that Starbucks. I go by so often none of them ever approach me about money. I have ignored them long enough, I guess.

    They are people. have you read the statistics for unemployment among white h.s. grads with no college degrees? it’s worse for nonwhites, of course (at least latinos and blacks, anyway) and add in homelessness and geez, those humans have a right to exist and have to exist somewhere.

    Shame on you for calling them gutter punks. they are humans.

  • Tizzielish

    My landlord provides free ethernet internet to my six story apartment building and charges market rate rents. I assume the numbers work for the landlord?

  • Tizzielish

    I have lived in Berkeley 4+ years and the California has validated parking for those 4+ years. Maybe they should promote that amenity, eh?

  • Tizzielish

    No, we the people own that view. It is immoral to destoy the layout, which clearly intended to share the view of the golden gate with californians for a long, long time and then to sell that view out, which belongs to all of us, to allow an apartment tower?

    We can degrades our shared, publicly finances spaces, and the campanile and its view of the golden gate is one of them. But we shouldn’t.

    The University of Washington has a breathtaking, casdading highly built up campus but there is a central line of clear view from the highest point on campus so everyone, including all taxpayers who helped make that campus possible, in a time when public representatives required that publicly financed institutions served the commons, can see Mt. Rainier. It is such a lovely surprise to be walking on that campus and then to come upon the stunning view (when it is is viewable – fog and clouds block it, which makes its appearance even better) or Mt. Rainier.

    Beholding majestic beauty, and having that experience open to and shared by all, matters a very great deal. It matters more than this development’s profit margins.

  • Tizzielish

    I thank Steve Finacom for bringing the campanile’s view of the Golden Gate to the attention of the commissioners and the clueless developers. That’s some great design team they have if they didn’t do any research on what view would be lost with their design.

    and I think the person who brought Finacom’s contribution to my attention in this thread.

  • Biker 94703

    Leasing agreements can include various amenities: appliances, furnishings, water, power, cable-tv, internet. All are a matter between the landlord and their prospective tenants.

    But I was referring more to the ridiculousness of “what about public wifi” as feedback to a proposal for a 17-story building that destroys the best movie theater in town and blights a currently successful block for 3 years.

    It’d be as if I said “let’s get married” and you replied “what sort of bulbs will you plant in the median strip?”

  • serkes

    Great question … these are much taller but at least from a distance I like them. Carnegie Hall tower seems a bit too high


    And Buck Rogers in NYC

    He lived here


    And worked here



  • Tizzielish

    if 50% plus one got to vote on the design, i.e. all residents of Berkeley, I could choke down an ugly tower too. But such decisions are made by self-serving, self-aggrandizing public servants who, as soon as their generous public pensions vest, go to work for the people inflicting profit-driven ugly buildngs on our city.

    It’s nice to see the ZAB show some gumption for a change, though, eh?

    I hope a beautiful new building gets built on the site. any architecture style is okay for me, esp. if it is designed by a gifted, artistic architect with vision. Whoever designed the Trader Joe’s building cobbled together elements to sell his design — it was not an intrinsic work of art, as any building could actually be.

  • guest

    does berkeleyside allow personal attacks now?

  • Greg

    It looks like maybe you missed “West Bezerkeley’s” point: The “free wifi” ultimately would be paid for by the tenants.

    This is the give away: “…oh wait, they’ll probably suggest implementing a new tax on the property owner that can’t be offset by a surcharge in the rent!”

    It is not possible to implement a tax that can’t be “offset by a surcharge in the rent” for a building built after 6/30/1980.

    Now, if by some twisted reading of the rent stabilization exemptions these new units are considered to be created by ‘conversion’ or ‘rehabilitation’ even then no tenants would be able to avoid paying for this “free wi-fi”, provided such a tax was implemented before the building leased any units.

    And…even if the tax were implemented after the building was occupied eventually the cost would be passed on to all tenants. For buildings built before that vacancy decontrol assures that only tenants whose leases pre-date the implementation of such a tax would avoid paying for the tax in their rent.

  • EBGuy

    Just to be clear, the view from the top of the tower would not be obscured (although the new building would definitely have a visual impact as you view the cityscape from above). It is the views along Campanile Way that may be in jeopardy.

  • The angle I see if from is this — if ZAB wants them to provide free internet for tenants via a CAT5 ethernet port in the wall, that is one thing. Suggesting that the developer provide free wi-fi is something else entirely.

    Free wi-fi means that anyone in the general vicinity can use the service without paying for it. Radio waves aren’t confined by windows and walls, thus my analogy to ZAB suggesting that the developer also hand out free lattes to people passing on the street.

    ZAB could use more people with strong/solid business backgrounds on the commission. Looking from the outside in, it really looks like the city could benefit from if more business people were on the ZAB.

    Residents with strong business backgrounds are more than capable of balancing community interests with the challenges faced by developers. In fact, they are probably the most capable individuals of all for a commission like this.

  • Destroying the theater…that’s not a desirable outcome.

  • Lisa Bullwinkel

    Isn’t anyone even concerned that we are losing the only thing bringing people into the Downtown – those movie theaters? Can’t they be incorporated somehow? To lose those for housing just doesn’t fly in my book.

  • bgal4

    Movie theaters are the anchor business in the thriving Santa Cruz downtown.

    Your point is well taken.

  • guest

    “Nothing should ever be built any larger than it currently is so that we can preserve the views we had when I moved to Berkeley 4 years ago.”

  • jim w

    I’m sure glad that I don’t have to live in the world that Tizzleish wants, it sounds ghastly. Also, that view out the golden gate sure was great, until some idiot built a giant bridge across it. Seriously, using the view corridor from Sather Tower as an objection to new development is a straw man wrapped in a nimby. Or something.

  • 4eenie

    Milwaukee building = Brise Soleil by Calatrava. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eGQJPkQL0fU