Zoning board asks micro-unit developer to shrink proposal

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

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

Berkeley zoning board members voted Thursday night to ask developers to reduce the size of a proposed micro-unit project on Shattuck Avenue by either taking units off the upper stories or removing the top story altogether.

The lengthy Zoning Adjustments Board meeting was the panel’s first chance to vote on the project. Throughout the night, the board seemed poised to approve the project as proposed, deny the project altogether or ask for significant changes before moving forward.

At the end of a nearly three-hour discussion, which included comments from more than 20 members of the public, the board voted to affirm the staff recommendation to ask San Francisco-based Axis Development Group to change its designs to make the building fit in better with the neighborhood. Staff had recommended some type of increased “setbacks” — such as a more gradual increase from story to story up to the building’s full height — on the five-story proposal’s upper floors to increase the space between the structure and a nearby single-family home to the east. The zoning board asked mixed-use developer Axis to consider either that approach or a possible reduction to four stories.

The modular-construction 31,000-square-foot proposal, at 2701 Shattuck Avenue (at Derby Street), is currently set to include 70 units, a 2,000-square-foot full-service restaurant, 35 garage parking spaces — 33 via parking lifts — and a rooftop terrace. A community room, space for 61 bike parking spots, and a public mini-park are also part of the plans. As designed, the project could direct $1.4 million into the city’s Housing Trust Fund for affordable housing development. (See the most recent packet about the project from Axis Development Group here.)

A public mini-park has been proposed on the corner of Shattuck and Derby. Image: Axis Development Group

A public mini-park has been proposed at Shattuck and Derby. Image: Axis Development Group

Micro-unit developments have been underway in cities around the nation such as San FranciscoBoston and Seattle — where they’ve been called “aPodments.” (See an example in San Francisco, designed by the same architect involved in Berkeley’s project, here.) Proponents say they give singles, students and young professionals a room of their own where they might not otherwise be able to afford it, often with an environmentally conscious, transit-oriented focus. Detractors say they drive up rents for the rest of the housing market and promote a grim lifestyle due to their cramped quarters.

Thursday night, nearly 20 residents who live near the project spoke about how it’s out of scale with the largely single-family-home neighborhood; would cast shadows on many of the surrounding buildings that would limit residents’ ability to garden and harness solar energy; and would create traffic problems at the already-busy intersection at Shattuck Avenue and Derby Street.

Many said the project does not comply with the city’s zoning code and asked commissioners not to grant a use permit that would effectively allow the building, which they described as “massive,” to rise up to 72 feet (taking into account a trellis and an elevator shaft on the roof).

Advocates for the project, who either spoke or submitted letters on its behalf, include Livable Berkeley, TransForm (an organization that evaluates the transit-oriented elements of proposals with its GreenTRIP certification program), Resources for Community Development, Urban Habitat and the Adeline/Alcatraz Merchants’ Association.

The discussion among commissioners ran the gamut Thursday night, with four of nine zoning board members saying they thought the project was well-designed and nearly ready for approval as it was presented. Other commissioners took the opposite position, saying the project would need a major overhaul and didn’t offer residents enough living space for a positive quality of life. (The studio apartments are set to range in size from 307 to 345 square feet and could cost somewhere between $1,200 and $1,600 a month, the developer said.) Three commissioners voted to reject the project outright, saying it was out of scale with the neighborhood, citing shadow impacts on neighbors, and taking issue with the type and number of units. That motion failed due to lack of support.

The final motion, which won majority approval at about 10:20 p.m., asked for a reduction in unit number or building size to lessen impacts on surrounding neighbors. Commissioners acknowledged that a reduction in units would also result in less money flowing into the Housing Trust Fund.

Commissioners who were more optimistic about the project — including Deborah Matthews, George Williams, Steve Ross (who was sitting in for Robert Allen) and Steven Donaldson — said it would help revitalize a somewhat desolate stretch of Shattuck, have a definite appeal to a certain segment of the market, and help Berkeley in its effort to fulfill regional requirements to support density, particularly along transit corridors.

“There are new beliefs about what is appropriate development in not just Berkeley but throughout the region,” said Ross. “We need to look beyond the immediate neighborhood here.”

Commissioners who took issue with the plans — including Michael Alvarez Cohen and Igor Tregub — described the project as “too big,” “too detrimental” to surrounding residents, and too distant from downtown, BART stations and lively nightlife opportunities.

Commissioner Sophie Hahn, the most vocal critic of the project on the zoning board, said Berkeley shouldn’t be in the business of approving projects with “tiny units” that allow for “the most minimal level of human existence.” Berkeley, she continued, is not the kind of metropolis that needs to support the level of density demanded in more urban areas.

“I know Berkeley likes to think of itself as a city, but we’re just a little town that happens to be dense,” she said. “We are not Seattle. We are not Boston…. We are not a city.”

Berkeley neighbors fight micro-unit proposal on Shattuck (08.20.13)
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)

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  • Charles_Siegel

    I am not a free market libertarian or anything near it. I think that city planning is needed to protect the public good, but I agree with most planners that city planning in the second half of the twentieth century generally pushed in exactly the wrong direction:

    City planning in the mid to late twentieth century encouraged more automobile use and lower densities than the market would provide – for example, by requiring developers to provide large amounts of free parking and by zoning for lower density.

    City planners today (at least the progressive ones) thing that planning should encourage less automobile use than the market should provide, should limit auto-dependent sprawl, and should encourage the development of walkable neighborhoods.

    I do think shadows are a valid concern, as I said in my first comment about this issue:
    ” I would like to see the developer terrace it back on the side facing the adjoining houses, to minimize shadows and to create a good transition between the two scales.”

    But I don’t agree with your general anti-development stance, and I certainly don’t agree with your view that zoning you don’t like involves a “taking” of private property rights – a view that is associated with extreme conservatives.

  • Charles_Siegel

    We would actually have to calculate the positive as well as the negative externalities. Eg, when the Trader Joe’s building was proposed, some neighbors who lived on the block complained about shadows and parking problems, but many others in the neighborhood said they would be glad to have convenient shopping.

    The most common externalities for any project like this are:

    –Negative: parking, traffic congestion and shadows.
    –Positive: more convenient shopping for existing residents, reductions in sprawl, greenhouse gas emissions, and other regional and global environmental impacts.

    Of course, we would not get a good economic result if we charged developers for the negative and did not give them a bonus for the positive externalities.

    It may be possible to pay off neighbors for negative externalities, but it is impossible to have neighbors, the region, and the nation to pay off the developer for positive externalities.

    In economic theory, the ideal solution is a Pigovian tax equal to the negative externalities and subsidies from the government equal to the positive externalities. Of course, this makes sense in theory but is impossible in practice.

  • David D.

    The park will be “mini” too? Have you guys been to a mini-park? Might as well not have one at all!

    It’s a shame this project was approved. All it will do is increase the per-sq. ft. rental costs in town, which makes living in Berkeley harder for “normal” people who don’t want to live in a shoebox. Sigh.

  • guest

    Has the building of student apartments lessened the traffic in Berkeley? Perhaps it’s time to research smart growth assumptions. Property rights apply to all owners, not just developers. Unfortunately your average flatlands owner can’t afford a legal fight. Those owners who have a case are typically bought off with concessions and then support the project as the trade-off. It would be more efficient and fair to create consistent zoning along the commercial corridors to ensure greater support for development.

  • guest

    Some towns protect against shadowing, Ashland Oregon has a solar ordinance:
    Some neighbors are being paid off, sad but true. Some zoning like CW do not stipulate setbacks or step-downs, so the developer goes to the neighbor most affected and says, look I’ll set back or step down the building if you support the project. This happens in private so there’s no record of it but the other neighbors know. The developers like this allowance, but it’s actually not in their interest. Arguing detriment case by case, projects almost always going back for redesign or appealed to the Council, is time consuming and wasteful. Financing becomes a nightmare. Two developers on San Pablo Avenue actually went bankrupt because the City process was such a mess. All the commercial corridor zoning should be similar. The neighbors are protected, and the developers know what to expect.

  • Charles_Siegel

    “Perhaps it’s time to research smart growth assumptions. Property rights apply to all owners, not just developers.”

    In your last comment, you said

    — that you want more planning

    — that people who support this project sound like a free-market libertarian.

    In this comment, you are saying

    — that you are against our current planning (which is in keeping with Plan Bay Area, adopted to conform to state law SB375)
    — that you want more property rights for all owners (making yourself sound like a free-market libertarian)

    Your arguments seem to be mutually contradictory.

    There has been plenty of research on what you call “smart growth assumptions.” None of that research ever claimed that smart growth by itself would lessen traffic congestion in Berkeley. That research did claim that smart growth would reduce automobile use regionally and therefore reduce our greenhouse-gas emissions.

    If you want to do research that questions those conclusions, you certainly have the right to. Maybe your research will convince the state legislators to repeal SB375, so planning for smart growth is no longer required by law.

    But for now, both the research and the law support smart growth.

  • Bob Gable

    I doubt that the apartment of the elderly woman you mentioned was under 400 square feet .(the size of the proposed micro-units) and that all units in the building were of the same size. I am a senior and, as I mentioned at the ZAB meeting, would not consider living in such a building.