Zoning board denies Berkeley micro-unit proposal

City staff say a proposal for a new building at 2701 Shattuck Ave. is still too big. Image: Lowney Architecture

Berkeley’s zoning board ruled last week that a new building at 2701 Shattuck Ave. is too big for the neighborhood. Image: Lowney Architecture

Berkeley zoning board members voted 6-3 last week to reject an application from a San Francisco-based development firm that hopes to build the city’s first micro-unit housing project.

In September, many zoning board commissioners told Axis Development Group that the proposal, at 2701 Shattuck Ave., was too large and too dense for the neighborhood. They asked Axis to consider a four-story alternative, and to make more room on the northeast corner of the site, which is close to an adjacent single-family home. City staff had earlier suggested the removal of up to 12 units from the project.

Thursday night, Axis presented its latest version of the five-story project, currently set to include 67 units that range in size from 269 to 344 square feet, as well as a roughly 2,000-square-foot full service restaurant with valet parking, and a small parking garage. (Read more about the latest plans here.) Following the September zoning board meeting, Axis removed three units from the project’s fifth story. Company representatives said they felt this change addressed the board’s concerns.

Commissioners who voted against the project Thursday criticized Axis for failing to take their feedback in September seriously.

“I’m astonished at how fully the applicant has ignored our very clear suggestions. Very clear,” Commissioner Shoshana O’Keefe said. “From staff, from us. I was at the last meeting, I know what was said. I can’t believe you would come up here with a straight face and say you were confused as to what we were asking for.”

Added Commissioner Deborah Matthews: “One of the things that really hit a dissonant, not very friendly note for me was that we did give direction to the applicant about what we wanted to see,” she said. “We worked really hard and stayed very late to make sure that we provided a direction that was really good and sound so that you had the tools to work with, and I felt like we were ignored.”

Last week, Axis presented a plan that removed three units from the top floor, increased the setback at the northeast corner, and enlarged a community room to include space for a dining area and a gym. Axis reps told commissioners that they would be willing to remove another three units from the project’s fourth floor if they would be allowed to drop eight parking “pits” from a garage currently set to include room for 32 vehicles.

Had it been approved, the project would have been the highest density, largest micro-unit project in the country, said Commissioner Prakash Pinto, with roughly 243 dwelling units to the acre. Pinto noted that, for comparison, Acheson Commons, which is slated to be built in the heart of downtown Berkeley, within sight of BART, will have less than 200 dwelling units per acre. He said it’s not density that’s the problem, but the degree of density and where it’s located.

Developers removed three units from the top floor, and added open space into the project, in their latest submission. Image: Lowney Architecture

Developers removed three units from the top floor, and added open space into the project, in their latest submission. Image: Lowney Architecture

Supporters of the project, five of whom spoke during public comment period, said it would bring a much-needed transit-oriented, environmentally conscious housing option to Berkeley.

Zoning board members and other members of the public who spoke against the project — more than 20 of them — said they too believe in those philosophies, but ultimately found the plans for 2701 Shattuck to be too much density in the wrong place.

“There isn’t a single one of us that doesn’t believe in walkable, bikeable, safe communities, but context matters a lot,” said Commissioner Igor Tregub. “This is the most opposition I have seen for any project that has been before us. It’s also the first time that I’ve seen staff recommend a denial.”

Neighbors who spoke in opposition to the project said the developer had failed to listen to their concerns or suggestions — or those from the zoning board or city staff — or compromise in any significant way. Some said a “high-end restaurant” with valet parking wouldn’t be a good fit in the neighborhood. Others said, as commissioners also noted, that the project was too dense for the location.

“We favor smart growth, but not all growth is smart growth,” said Berkeley resident Ellen Langer. “Some growth is cancerous growth. Some growth diminishes the quality of the life of all surrounding tissue. That’s what this would do. And it would do terrible things to the people who live in it.”

Louise Rosencrantz noted the neighborhood’s history of supporting past development projects such as Berkeley Bowl, the opening of Any Mountain, and businesses like Reel Video, which is now DaVita dialysis center. And she said many neighbors really would like to see a smaller development on the site.

“We have tried to work cooperatively with the developer, but very little has changed,” she said. “We still have a project that is too dense, too high, and incompatible with the neighborhood. We want to move forward and work on an appropriate development for this site. Our neighborhood has shown that we know how to do this. All we need is a cooperative partner.”

The size of the units themselves was much less of an issue Thursday night than the overall size and density of the proposed building. Some commissioners said the apartments should simply be called studios, and noted that they had lived in similarly-sized units themselves when they were younger.

“I lived in apartments that big way after college for a long time,” said Commissioner Steven Donaldson. “I think we have to look at the positive aspects [of the project] for the environment. We do have to take into account more density near transit.… There’s a lifestyle of people who will look at that and like to live that way.”

Three commissioners — Donaldson, Bob Allen and David Stoloff (who was sitting in for George Williams) — voted to approve the project if the applicant would remove an additional three units on the fourth floor, a suggestion made by staff. But the rest of the board voted against that proposal.

“Berkeley is a dynamic city. It’s growing, it’s changing,” observed Stoloff. “We don’t want to, nor can we, make it stay still.”

Ultimately, Commissioner Sophie Hahn moved to deny the 2701 Shattuck application. Her motion carried, with Donaldson, Allen and Stoloff voting against it, and the rest of the board in support.

Muhammad Nadhiri, managing partner at Axis Development Group, declined to comment this week on whether Axis plans to appeal the decision or what he made of the zoning board’s decision.

“We’re waiting for the official Staff report before we take any next steps,” he said via email, “but we do have a clear plan forward.”

Read more about real estate projects in Berkeley here on Berkeleyside.

Berkeley staff recommend rejection of micro-unit plans (11.13.13)
Zoning board asks micro-unit developer to shrink proposal (09.27.13)
Berkeley neighbors fight micro-unit proposal on Shattuck (08.20.13)
‘The Overture’ apartments planned on University Ave. (11.19.13)
Work underway for 4-story MLK apartments in Berkeley (11.18.13)
Berkeley settles case with blighted Telegraph lot owner (10.31.13)
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)
1,000 new apartments planned for downtown Berkeley (02.07.13)
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.

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  • Guest

    Thank you, ZAB! I am not against development but this project was the wrong fit for this neighborhood.

  • Doc

    The question always is, will the building be good for Berkeley? Greater density is a negative. It is offset if the building is attractive and has public value. Let the building offer something to the community. That can be real architecture. It could be public gardens or a pool or gym the public can for a fee join. There must always be something that actually benefits the community to allow another block to go up.

  • BBnet3000

    Why is greater density a negative? Greater density is what sets Berkeley apart from many of its boring suburban neighbors and makes decent transit service possible.

  • foo

    Yes, thank you ZAB! Another beautiful weed-strewn lot is preserved for all of us to enjoy for another decade.

  • Charles_Siegel

    If greater density were a negative, Paris would be the least livable city in Europe, and Houston would be more livable than the Bay Area.

    One thing that benefits the community (and benefits the environment) is more housing near public transit.

  • Devin

    “There isn’t a single one of us that doesn’t believe in walkable, bikeable, safe communities, but context matters a lot,”

    What context would be appropriate? I can think of very few locations in Berkeley that are near downtown and public transit while also currently being an eyesore on a stretch of Shattuck filled with non-descript to down-right ugly and run-down businesses. Heaven forbid we replace all of that with this “cancerous growth” of a project. Miss Langer, before you point out how sustainable living does terrible things to the people who live in it, I suggest you read the b-side comment section on the articles related to these micro units in the last couple of months. There appears to be justified demand for these units and as a person who has lived in a 300 sf rental, I feel neither terrible, nor as though terrible things were done to me; and to whomever noted a high-end restaurant wasn’t a good fit for this neighborhood…Kirala (like 500 feet away) begs to differ.

    If ZAB was serious about the values of sustainable development Igor trumpeted, they would have joined with Steven, Bob and David in drafting conditions of approval to move this project forward.

    I encourage Axis to resubmit their proposal with a reduced height – best of luck to them.

  • Doc

    Paris takes pretty seriously that each building must enhance the beauty of the city. Wish we did.

  • Guest

    There are a lot of single family homes near the Ashby BART station that could be knocked down and replaced with a development of this type. Something like this belongs directly next to a regional transit hub better than the spotty service offered by AC Transit.

  • Tim

    A high end restaurant with valet parking, huh? Yeah we wanted one of those in North Berkeley too. But the fine folks working hard to bring vital businesses to the area thought that wouldn’t be a good fit here so we got a 7-11. Yay N. Berkeley! Slushies for all my friends.

  • Dan

    Uh…not exactly an easy proposition to knock down people’s homes

  • Chris J

    Kee- rist, getting a building put up in berkeley seems like a real stretch. So many opinions, so many objections, and in the meantime, a weed strewn parking lot. If i were a builder, as positive the possibilities of Berkeley for a developer may be, getting something to actually happen in this town seems like an impossibility sometimesl

    I recognize that folks want what they want, but forget what they need.

  • Guest

    This isn’t quite fair.

    The Berkeley Planning and Development department tends to be quite supportive of this type of project. Their staff apparently made recommendations the developer chose to ignore while also asking for a variance to build a 5 story, 65′ building in an area zoned for a maximum of 4 stories and 50′.

    It is very unlikely we’d be here if the developer had been a bit less brazen in ignoring those recommendations. It almost certainly would have been approved had the developer designed a building within the constraints of the zoning regulations.

    It is worth mentioning that at least one other similar project was approved on this very site a few years ago.

  • Tizzielish

    How much you wanna bet the developers come back with a proposal for a microunit building that gets approved? In case you haven’t noticed, foo, Berkeley is experiencing a serious building boom. The developers overreached, ignored the ZAB feedback. Chillax. it won’t remain a weedy lot, as you say foo. The developers are being a tad greedy, wanting to cram too many units for the neighborhood. It will get worked out and a building of microunits will get built.

  • Tizzielish

    Who decides which single family homes should be knocked down? and how are those homeowners compensated?

    And are you aware there is a large vacant lot almost across the street from the Ashby BART, on Martin Luther King just where Adeline shifts over to MLK — it is going to become an apartment building, or condos.

    Do you grasp, Guest, that a city includes a wide variety of housing types and knocking down privately owned, occupied single family homes so a developer of dense microunits can built is very anti-community-oriented?

  • Tizzielish

    your comment seems unfair. Berkeley has approved several projects. and the ZAB seems to be doing their job. Developers bring in first proposals grasping primarily for maximum profit for themselves, esp out of town developers, without giving enough consideration to the actual community that is already here. ZAB does its jobs, asks projects to taper their plans to better fit the community. That is not raising many objections, that is city staff doing their job. We built this community as a blend of things. Do you want to live in a world full of microunits for students, homes in the hills for the upper middle class and damn the middle class?

    I have been impressed with all the projects that have been approved lately and impressed that ZAB negotiates with developers to balance the existing community interests with the investors-developers grasp for profit.

    A city is a balance of interests and it seems to me that ZAB is doing a decent job of balancing those interests. And I don’t agree with most of their decisions. They approve ugly buildings that do not really enhance the atmosphere of our little city, imho. But, all in all, they seem to be doing their best and doing an adequate — not great — job.

  • Tizzielish

    Foo, your comment seems to have, as its baseline premise, that the ZAB board shut down the microunit building. It sure looks to me like the building is going to happen. The developers overreached, grasping for as much as they possibly could and now they have to taper their plans to fit the community. Chillax. The building is going to get built.

  • dgh

    Dear developers: come to Oakland. I can point you to 4 empty lots within a block of MacArthur BART – which means they’re also about 10 minutes from downtown Berkeley and about 15 from downtown SF – and I think most of us would love to have you adding density and life to the neighborhood. Berkeley apparently won’t.

  • Guest 2

    How are they compensated? You buy the houses at market value and knock them down. I don’t understand the question here. (A different guest.)

  • wooliemonster

    As much as I’m enjoying my time in Berkeley at the moment, and would love to see a gazillion new housing units built there to maximize our currently minimal investments in transit and nice walkable neighborhoods, I agree that Oakland has huge potential and is a massive untapped resource. I think more and more people will begin reaching the same conclusion.

  • ekoontz

    Will the ZAB accept anything other than a single family craftsman that will sell for north of a million dollars?

  • BL_Home

    Homeowners to Berkeley: “I’ve got mine!”

    ZAB does the bidding of the homeowners. They prevent an increase in housing space to keep housing unaffordable and unattainable. Renters get to keep paying a significant portion of their income to the wealthy homeowners for rent. Affordable housing should go in some other neighborhood, not near wealthy people.

    Lower density results in more sprawl, automobile dependency, and greenhouse gas emissions. Homeowners try to keep the status quo, or even return to the past. Homeowners in Berkeley are car dependent and want to keep the auto-centric housing, transit, and public street space going. Homeowners to Berkeley: Never mind the oil wars, public health problems from dirty air, and the 400 ppm atmospheric CO2. It’s not our problem and don’t expect us to care about it or change.