Acheson Commons sent back to Berkeley zoning board

Acheson Commons is a mixed-use development planned at University and Shattuck. Image: Rhoades Planning Group
Acheson Commons is a mixed-use development planned at University and Shattuck. Image: Kirk Peterson Architects

A 205-unit apartment complex planned for downtown Berkeley is going back to the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board after an appeal before the City Council on Tuesday night.

Acheson Commons, at 2133 University Ave., was approved by the zoning board in December, but appellants questioned numerous aspects of the project and the council voted unanimously to ask the board to take another look. (See project materials on the city website. The complete administrative record is available here.)

According to the staff report prepared for Tuesday’s special session, the project is set to increase annual tax revenue by $57,000 and bring in $360,000 to support the city’s Streets and Open Space Improvement Plan. (Update, 1 p.m.: A representative for the developer, Mark Rhoades, said the per-year tax basis increase is closer to $600,000. Scroll down to see a chart of the five-year financial projections he provided.)

The 48,122-square-foot project site includes the MacFarlane Building on Shattuck and University; the Krishna Copy Center building on University; the Crepes a Go-Go building on University; the Acheson Physicians building on University; the Ace Hardware building on University; and two homes on Walnut Street.


The project involves the construction of 205 apartments and the rehabilitation of 34,000 square feet of commercial space. Nearly 17,000 square feet of existing office space would be removed from the site. According to the city staff report, historic buildings and façades along University would be retained and rehabilitated. The homes on Walnut would be relocated and replaced by ground-floor parking with residential units above.

As it stands, the parking garage would include 48 stalls (74 spaces if triple-level lifts are installed), which would be the only on-site parking included in the project. Twenty-two of those spaces would be available for commercial use. The developer has indicated a preference to pay in-lieu fees for the other 40 parking spots required by zoning rules. (The city has not set the exact fee per spot, but officials have determined that it could not be higher than $28,000.)

The project was first submitted to the city in June 2010.

Appellants submitted a list to the city in January outlining 10 sticking points in the project plans. Attorney Ellen Trescott, speaking on behalf of the appellants, argued that the project doesn’t include enough parking spots; that the building will be too tall; and that existing rent-controlled units in the project should not be eliminated, among other issues. She also took issue with staff analysis of the project elements.

“There are loose ends here that the ZAB needs to reconsider,” she told the council.

About 50 members of local labor organizations attended the meeting due to a disagreement about how the developer plans to handle its construction jobs; they were represented by Andreas Cluver of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Alameda County. Cluver said the project, as it stands, won’t benefit the community.

A rendering of the Acheson Commons project at University and Shattuck avenues.
A rendering of the Acheson Commons project at University and Shattuck avenues.

Acheson Commons representative  said the labor issues “aren’t really part” of the project because the piece of the Downtown Area Plan that sets labor standards, the Green Pathway project guidelines, is tied up in litigation.

But he told the council that, regardless, “This project does do everything that the plan asks for. Everything and then some.”

Councilman  called the project a “fiasco” and said it had united Berkeley residents (those for and against the ), environmentalists, affordable housing advocates and union members against it.

“I have a hard time remembering when was the last time that all of these groups said ‘Don’t do something,'” he said. “It’s an incredible accomplishment for so many groups to say this project is not ready for primetime.”

Councilman  noted that the zoning board unanimously approved the project (other than one commissioner who was absent), and that its members represent a range of community views. He said the challenge will be finding the right balance between the needs of the developer and the needs of the city, and urged parties to negotiate “in good faith” going forward.

“If you make (the demands) too high and the developer just goes to Oakland, you don’t get any benefits, or increases in the tax base. You can’t have everything and still have a project go forward,” he said.

Mark Rhoades provided this financial analysis and said the project will also create more than 100 two-year construction jobs as well as 60 new permanent jobs.
Mark Rhoades provided this financial analysis and said the project will also create more than 100 two-year construction jobs as well as 60 new permanent jobs.

Councilman  said he was especially concerned about the future of the rent-controlled units, and said it would be important for officials to ensure that the city “gets all the benefits” and that “we’re realizing the goals of what we wanted to achieve when we adopted the Downtown Plan.”

Union concerns and job prospects were key for Councilman , who said project benefits had been “relegated to handshake agreements and winks, while the details and real rigors of the project are signed in hard-written copies of things.” Anderson said it would be unwise for the city to trust developers, “who are oriented toward making money and don’t want to share,” to do the right thing for the city or its residents. “We better start taking a real look at a lot of these projects,” he concluded, to see whether they’ll serve the greater good or just the needs of the few.

Other council members said they were concerned about the parking and height issues, as well as the future of Ace Hardware.

 said, even without the Green Pathway agreements, 60% of the project’s jobs will be union positions. He said, going forward, it will be important for the zoning board to “bring back something we can build.”

“If Berkeley gets a reputation where you can’t do business,” he concluded, “then everybody loses, everybody fails.”

Related:
1,000 new apartments planned for downtown Berkeley [02.07.13]
Ace Hardware will not move to Andronico’s old space [09.18.12]
Two Berkeley brown shingles for sale. Price: $1 each [07.19.12]
Acheson Commons: Large change for downtown [04.09.12]

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