Berkeley neighbors fight micro-unit proposal on Shattuck

Proposed micro-unit development at 2701 Shattuck Ave., at Derby Street, in Berkeley. Image: Lowney Architecture

The proposed 30,079-square-foot micro-unit development at 2701 Shattuck Ave., at Derby Street, in Berkeley. Image: Lowney Architecture

A 70-unit five-story building proposed at Shattuck Avenue and Derby Street faced steep neighborhood opposition at a recent zoning board meeting in Berkeley.

The 60-foot-tall proposal, set to include 35 garage parking spaces, 81 bike spots and a 2,000-square-foot restaurant, has been designed by Lowney Architecture, and comes to the city from Axis Development Group in San Francisco. The project has been scheduled before the city’s Design Review Committee six times since December. Units as currently designed range from 307 to 344 square feet. The project would result in a payment of $1.4 million into the city’s affordable housing fund.

Proponents say these “micro-units” — which have sparked fierce debate in San Francisco — are the way of the future, offering a more viable financial alternative to renters who otherwise would not be able to afford their own apartments. An attorney for the project, Rena Rickles, said at the Aug. 8 Zoning Adjustments Board meeting that micro-units “have been lauded in every design review magazine,” adding that the Berkeley proposal would offer even more amenities than a similarly high-end project, 38 Harriet, in San Francisco (built by Berkeley-based developer Panoramic Interests): “It meets the highest standards for this kind of housing in this area.” Rickles also noted that it would bring some much-needed vibrancy to the area.

Fifteen neighbors who live near the proposal, and spoke before the zoning board, were unconvinced. One woman called the development “a resident hall stuck at the end of a very residential neighborhood.” Another, Marianne Sluis, said the developers had been “very bad neighbors” who “came to our neighborhood and didn’t listen to what we had to say. They never understood the neighborhood at all.… In terms of precedent, I think we’re looking at something very freakish here.”

Neighbors took issue specifically with the height of the proposal, asking that it be dropped one or two stories; the size of the units; and the lack of space between the project and nearby residential homes. Neighbors also said that, while micro-units might work in the heart of downtown where there are other community resources, students would be unlikely to find many activities near that particular stretch of Shattuck. Noise, parking and shadowing were also among the concerns expressed.

“This is a terrible model to propose,” said Ellen Langer. “It’s a new standard of tenement houses for the people of Berkeley.”

The 2701 Shattuck building would be taller than all of its neighbors, and sits close to a number of single-family homes, said neighbors who oppose the project. Image: Lowney Architecture

The 2701 Shattuck building would be taller than all of its neighbors, and sits close to a number of single-family homes, said neighbors who oppose the project. Image: Lowney Architecture

One Berkeley resident, who said he lives about five blocks away, said he supports the project, though he added that his firm is under consideration to serve as the project’s structural engineer. He noted that the modular design of the building would halve construction time and minimize disruption to neighbors, and said a proposed community room would give residents a place to come together to socialize. He was the only member of the public who spoke in favor of the plans.

Zoning commissioners said they’d like to see the possibility of more family-sized units and a lower building that would be more harmonious with the neighborhood.

Commissioner Igor Tregub said he wasn’t sure the size of the proposed units would work in Berkeley, though he said he’d like to see more revitalization in that part of the city: “Just about anything is better than a vacant building there.” Still, he continued, a three- or four-story building might accomplish that goal as well. “It’s a very sensitive neighborhood. It’s in a buffer zone: It’s along a transit corridor but it also abuts a residential area.”

Commissioner John Selawsky, who was sitting in for that night’s meeting, said he found many of the neighborhood’s concerns to be “very very legitimate.” He said he wanted to see more space — setbacks — around the property, and that the height should come down 10 or 12 feet: “I don’t think 60 feet is compatible with that neighborhood.” He said adding two- and three-bedroom units would be more in line with what Berkeley needs.

A sectional perspective into one of the two proposed unit types. Image: Lowney Architecture

A sectional perspective into one of the two proposed unit types. Image: Lowney Architecture

Commissioner Sophie Hahn said she was sympathetic to the “very real concerns about parking and massing” from neighbors, and said she too was unconvinced about the lack of proposed setbacks. She also took issue with the concept of micro-units, saying she didn’t see them offering a healthy lifestyle to students or other tenants. She criticized the designs, calling them “penitentiary housing,” and said there wasn’t enough room for exercise, cooking, intimacy or other types of enriching activities.

“The only vision that I see in this project is profit,” she said. “It’s a bleak, lonely, unhealthy life that I would have a lot of trouble endorsing.”

Commissioner Bob Allen said there’s still work to be done but that he thinks a solution that will work will ultimately be forthcoming.

“There are a lot of issues here,” he said. “We shouldn’t go jumping off the roof saying, ‘You can’t do this, this is nasty.’ …We’ve gotta really work at this. And I think the developer … made a big step when they brought in the current architect…. It’s a vast improvement as far as the units, and I think we should be open to this stuff.”

After the meeting ended, Rickles said a height reduction would be unlikely, in that it would lead to a project that was not financially viable. She said several previous plans on the site ultimately fell through in part because of that limitation.

“None of them got built,” she said. “For the cost of land and the utility of the land, it just isn’t feasible to do it much smaller.”

[Editor’s Note: A quotation from Sophie Hahn inadvertently misstated a word she used that night; the quotation has been corrected.]

Developer submits 8-story project for University, Milvia (07.30.13)
Mixed-use 6-story building approved on Addison Street (07.25.13)
City’s largest apartment building ever gets go-ahead (07.11.13)
‘The Durant’ apartments win approval from City Council (06.27.13)
Developers put theaters back into high-rise plans (06.26.13)
Early high-rise plans lack inspiration, say commissioners (03.19.13)
Berkeley zoning board approves 78-unit Durant (03.15.13)
New building proposed for Sequoia site on Telegraph Ave. (02.27.13)
1,000 new apartments planned for downtown Berkeley (02.07.13)
First high-rise in 40 years planned for downtown Berkeley (12.21.12)
Berkeley developer sees future in small, smart apartments (03.08.12)

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

Print Friendly
Tagged , , , , , , , ,
Please keep our community civil. Comments should remain on topic and be respectful.
Read our full comments policy »
  • EBGuy

    Whoops, I was just looking at 23E.52.070 Development Standards. Looks like the height limits are 60 feet for 5 stories and 50 feet for 4 stories. It should be noted that this building is located in an area with the 50 feet/4 story limit. I believe they can up it to five stories due to the Density Bonus since they are paying in-lieu fees (see 23C.12.040 Requirements Applicable to all Inclusionary Units).


  • wheeler57

    And why not? Free-market capitalism is the most deserving and appropriate whipping boy there is.

  • wheeler57

    I’m not a troll. I’m a concerned Berkeley citizen who has lived there since 1980. The reason I got on this thread of conversation is because I don’t want to see the city that I love turn into just another over gentrified upscale bedroom community where poor people and minorities aren’t welcome or accommodated.

  • wheeler57

    Considering the way our “forefathers” murdered the Native Americans and stole their land, your last sentence seems to be unfortunately correct. Saying that nobody has a “right” to live anywhere makes you sound like a member of the Tea Party.

  • wheeler57

    An example would be the number of people of color that now live in South Berkeley compared to the number that lived here in 1980, when I first came here. Personally, being exposed to African-American culture, something that was missing from the rural Pennsylvania area that I was born and raised in, has made me a much more well-rounded and better person. In case you haven’t noticed, South Berkeley has been getting more Caucasian every year.

    Berkeley may be the most diverse city in the country and I would like to keep it that way. Pricing housing way out of reach of most lower income people and minorities will only destroy that diversity.

  • rhuberry

    But what if you lived right next door to it? A block away makes a big difference. Your particular residence is not very much impacted by the building if you live a block from it.

  • Johnd9

    I actually would support this. We need more housing in Berkeley, and I’m fine with some of it not being the luxury $2M single family homes that seem to have all the power. Build something for the rest of us!

  • Glmory

    If anything they should be building taller. There are huge housing shortages in the bay area which lead to prices being way out of line. The only way to be sure normal people can continue to live in the bay area is to build lots and lots of these buildings.

    Beyond that, the inhabitants of this building will be living some of the most environmentally friendly life styles possible. This is quite a step up from the nearby people living in single camily homes.

  • R O

    If you want control of every development on your block, then buy the block.

  • baklazhan

    Not at all. There is a “Distance Measurement Tool” in Google Maps. Find a parking lot on the satellite view, measure the dimensions, count the number of spaces, and you’ll find that ~325 square feet per space is right on target.

  • baklazhan

    Well, I guess the shadow of this monstrosity might fall on one house–maybe even two. Maybe those two houses won’t sell for as much because they’re next to an oversize building.

    On the other hand, maybe they’ll sell for twice as much, if the city would deign to allow the construction of four or five stories of reasonably-priced apartments on those lots.

  • Berkeley Citizen

    Has the time passed completely for City planners and developers to consider constructing apartments such as used to be for the ordinary wage-earner, young couple, and retirees — where they aren’t required to be crowded in small, square rooms and and where an affordable rent would cost no more than $1,000-1,200 a month?