Work begins on controversial Berkeley housing project

A rendering of The Higby on San Pablo Avenue and Ashby Avenue

A rendering of The Higby on the southeast corner of San Pablo and Ashby avenues. Image: Gerdling Elden

After lying vacant for years, work has begun on a controversial, five-story, 98-unit mixed-use housing development on a lot at the southeast corner of San Pablo and Ashby avenues.

City officials and representatives from Gerding Edlen, the developer, will host a ceremonial “turning of the dirt” ceremony Tuesday at noon. Mayor Tom Bates and Councilman Darryl Moore plan to be there, as well as Brent Gaulke, vice president of Gerdling Edlen.

Gerdling Elden, which specializes in infill, sustainable development, bought the property at 3015 San Pablo Ave. and related city entitlements in 2012 from its previous owner, Ali Kashani of CityCentric. The price was not disclosed, although online real estate sites estimated it was worth $38 million. The complex had been known as “Ashby Arts,” but has been renamed “The Higby.”

The name of the project was inspired by Horace A. Higley, the California deputy surveyor who drew Alameda County’s lines back in 1857, said Sarah Maxwell, a publicist for the developer. Researchers hired by the company initially thought his name was Higby, but when it was discovered it was Higley, executives decided to keep “The Higby.”

“They wanted to pay their respects to a man who helped lay the foundations for this community, while putting their own spin on it, so they have decided to stick with Higby,” said Maxwell. “The name is supposed to reflect the surprising twists and turns that come from exploration and discovery.”

The new owners made a few changes to the conception and design of the building, but it remains similar to what the Berkeley City Council approved in 2009.

There will be 98 units, with 15 set aside for affordable housing. Seventy of those units will be studio apartments, and the rest will one-bedroom units, said Gaulke. The apartments will be slightly larger than average new construction in Berkeley, at about 800 square feet, he said. The original concept called for the apartments to be marketed to seniors, but Gaulke said his group now envisions attracting professionals.

The project will also have 1:1 parking and 6,500 square feet of ground floor restaurant and retail space. Gaulke said they are aiming for the building to achieve a LEED Gold certification, and perhaps LEED Platinum.

Gerding Edlen, which is headquartered in Portland, OR, funds its projects with capital from institutional clients. It has an office in San Francisco and has more than $5 billion invested in 60 projects, according to its website.

The new building will sit across the street from a Walgreens and kitty-corner from the Ashby complex that houses Looking Glass Photo, Orchard Supply Hardware, The Back Store and Mancini’s Sleepworld. Berkeley Bowl West is just a few blocks away.

“It’s a transitional area and we like those kinds of areas,” said Gaulke. “It’s an opportunity to do a project that can really help build on what’s there, but also bring some new life to it.”

The Higby will border a residential area, Carrison Street, on its south.

A view of The Higby from San Pablo Avenue

A view of The Higby from Carrison Street. Image: Gerdling Elden

When Kashani first proposed building the complex, Carrison Street neighbors expressed concern that it would draw too much traffic and noise. To assuage some of those concerns, Gerding Edlen has moved the Carrison Street entrance to The Higby closer to San Pablo Avenue and moved the lobby to face San Pablo Avenue, according to plans submitted to the Design Review Board.

The project has proved controversial. After the City Council approved the idea, Berkeley resident Stephen Wollmer took the city to court, charging that it violated the state’s density housing bonus law and did not comply with CEQA. The Alameda County Superior Court denied Wollmer’s claim. It was also denied when Wollmer took that decision to the Appeal Court.

The groundbreaking ceremony for the Higby takes place at 3015 San Pablo Ave. at noon Tuesday. As part of the ceremony, Gerding Edlen will make a contribution to local nonprofit Waterside Workshops, which provides vocational education to at-risk youth through programs such as the Berkeley Boathouse.

Zoning board denies Berkeley micro-unit proposal (11.21.13)
‘The Overture’ apartments planned on University Ave. (11.19.13)
Work underway for 4-story MLK apartments in Berkeley (11.18.13)
Berkeley staff recommend rejection of micro-unit plans (11.13.13)
Berkeley settles case with blighted Telegraph lot owner (10.31.13)

For details and images of many of the new building projects underway in Berkeley, check out Berkeleyside’s recent real estate articles.

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  • Mfox327

    Where’s the “controversy?” The few NIMBY’s mentioned at the end of the article? By that definition, has there ever been a housing project in Berkeley without “controversy?”

  • guest

    the link to the design Review Board site is incorrect – it links to the Daily Planet Article.

  • Most developers are not sued and then see their cases go up to the California appeals court. That is why we used the term controversial,

  • Thanks for telling us. I fixed it.

  • Mrdrew3782

    “….charging that it violated the state’s density housing bonus law and did not comply with CEQA.”

    What is the density housing bonus law? and what is CEQA?

    If right now it’s just an empty lot then there doesn’t seem to be any downside building this structure.

  • Andrew D

    I tend to agree with you. I wonder if the word “challenged” might be more to the point. Seems like one very invested dissenter, whose cause was ultimately denied. But then again, I have no understanding of the actual history of discussion on the project, perhaps the case was in fact indicative of a broader group of people opposed to the concept.

    On a related note, it always makes me chuckle to hear people complain of “increased traffic” when they already live one block away from the intersection of two state highways that handle thousands and thousands and thousands of cars each day already.

  • David D.

    I am confused. How are studio apartments going to be marketed to “professionals”? Speaking on behalf of all the (young) professionals I know, including myself, anything short of a one-bedroom apartment is unacceptable. Separate spaces for entertainment and sleeping are absolutely essential.

  • Anon

    Named plaintiff Stephen Wollmer has a history of attempting to block progress and development in the City of Berkeley.

    He can be seen pictured in this San Francisco Chronicle article from 2006 spearheading the attempt to block the Trader Joe’s development at Univeristy and MLK, which has been a huge boon to the neighborhood and made the area significantly more walkable.

  • guest

    Google “Stephen Wollmer” and you will see that he has written several anti-development articles for Berkeley publications and has sued the city in the past to try to stop developments.

  • Guest
  • Anon

    He is also chair of Berkeley’s Fair Campaign Practices Commission.

  • guest

    Which councilmember appointed him?

  • bgal4

    The “controversies” included the allocation of a majority of the additional housing vouchers provided during the federal stimulus to communities during the great recession. City Centre received favored status over other projects and individual needs. They held the vouchers in limbo for a couple of years at a time when the number of people at risk of homelessness grew rapidly. Eventually the city council revised the number of vouchers set aside for the project, but a couple more years passed and the project was never built. Looks like the new project is market rate with 15% subsidized units. The former project was 100% subsidized.

    The simplistic bashing of so called nimbyish is tiresome, there are important considerations in developing quality affordable and livable communities.

  • EBGuy

    BS, can you ask Wollmer for a comment. And while you’re at it, inquire as to whether he shops at Trader Joes.

  • EBGuy

    The studios are are almost 700 sq.ft. and the bedroom is off in a separate “wing”. As BS noted, all of the units (not just the studios) ARE large. The other thing I noticed in the plans was lots of double sinks — for working professional couples or…. if, ya know, a couple of students reside in a room.

  • tor_berg

    I lived in a couple of different studio apartments while in my 20s and 30s and professionally employed. I thought they were great: convenient and affordable. Many of my peers were similarly domiciled.

    These days, with housing costs in San Francisco increasingly out of reach for young people early in their careers, I should think a nice, relatively affordable East Bay studio that is convenient to transportation would be a pretty hot ticket.

    Too often, neighbors object to these developments by saying, “I would never live there.” There are about 8 million people living in the greater Bay Area. Even if 99% of the population would never dream of living in a studio apartment, that still leaves 80,000 people who would.

  • tor_berg

    He’s not on the commission anymore. I’m not 100% sure, but I think he was Jesse’s appointment. Guess who his appointment is now.

  • tor_berg

    Wollmer’s appeal to CEQA is telling, though. Especially for this project.

  • Oh Dear

    NIMBYs of a feather…

  • Shannon A.

    I’d have to agree that one serially whining NIMBY who was smacked down by the court isn’t controversy; it’s unfortunately a Tuesday a Berkeley.

  • southwestberkeley

    Thanks for covering this! I live near there and was wondering what was going on. It will be nice to see what happens when we have more desirable storefronts for people considering starting businesses here, a lot of the current vacant ones are dilapidated.

  • Wini

    Has the question what is CEQA been answered? And nimby? I am interested in the issue as I live quite near, but also find name calling useless and demeaning to the user and the target. Anyone know how tall the building will be? I was never informed of the proposed building; perhaps I am not a close enough neighbor although I was informed of the Walgreen’s proposal lo these many years ago.
    Would love to know more.
    Wini Williams

  • iicisco

    I think a few two bedroom apartments would be nice. 70 Studio units seems excessive.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    What’s with the 1:1 parking? How can you get LEED Platinum when everyone is driving in and out?

  • guest

    Pay to play. Ali Kashani. Easy peasy.

  • guest

    hig·gle·dy–pig·gle·dy adverb ˌhi-gəl-dē-ˈpi-gəl-dē

    : in a messy way : without order

    Full Definition of HIGGLEDY-PIGGLEDY
    : in a confused, disordered, or random manner

  • guest

    Some of the criticism of this project proved beneficial to the neighbors because the new owners made changes contained in the appeals. Also when Mr. Kashani tried to get public support for his project, he made architectural alterations . You can name call all you want, but Steve Wollmer’s challenges were based on his beliefs about how CEQA should be applied and how the neighborhood should be treated. He appealed on his own time and money, and he is not a wealthy man. If you owned a home and somebody wanted to build a five story building across from your house, you too would become a whiney NIMBY in a hurry.

  • guest

    All you have to do is Google CEQA and California density bonus and read. Enjoy.

  • guest

    Some of the criticism proved beneficial. This is the normal process of making minor adjustments in a project to accommodate neighbors.

    The lawsuit was not beneficial. It was a waste of time and money, and it was an example of the political climate that makes it more difficult to improve Berkeley by developing sites that are vacant lots (like this one) or that are ugly, traffic-generating strip malls (like the site of Trader Joe’s).

  • guest

    He lives across the street, but I don’t think he can shop there because there is not enough parking.

  • EBGuy

    I’m looking at the the plans right now (from the BS link to city website) and the information from the developer spokesperson does not appear to be correct (the slightly larger than 800 sq.ft average is also a tipoff — the studios would be huge). According to the plans there are 8 studios, 25 two bedroom units, 28 1 bedroom + den units, with the remaining being one bedroom units (for a total of 98 units). Again, they ARE decent sized units.

  • bgal4

    This project will be good for the neighborhood.

  • EBGuy

    Don’t get me started on the privatization of public streets that happened with the TJs project (thanks to neighborhood activists)… We can thank them for the confusing parking restrictions.

    I don’t mind him living in a $600 a month rent controlled unit, but do begrudge him that benefit when he obstructs more housing from being built for others.

  • Shannon A.

    I own a home and have a five story building across from my house. Not a big deal, except when the students blare their music with all their windows open, which is relatively infrequent.

  • Lisa

    not that convenient to transportation…

  • EBGuy

    So true. You have to cross State Route 13 (aka Ashby Ave) to catch the 72R which has… 12 minute headways. San Pablo Avenue is no picnic either. You’ll need to traverse that treacherous four lane road to catch a transbay bus. If only transit was closer….

  • guest

    How so? Is it good for the Davis family, who own the units and office directly to the east? Were they paid off? I believe they are trying to sell their property which will face five shadowing stories including a sheer wall directly on Ashby Avenue. Check out the East elevation:

  • disqus_S1ql48Vi9i

    That’s a dreadful intersection. Bad feng shui.

  • Reid

    My wife and I love the simplicity of a studio. It works fine for entertaining 4-8. Any more? Head to a bar. And no one has thought we were swingers by socializing in the bedroom.

  • Reid

    Isn’t there a bus line on San Pablo and a BART station on ashby?…

  • Reid

    1:1 parking. What a waste of money. Bus lines and BART and a bike able city should make 1:1 old fashioned!

  • Nicholas Littlejohn

    I know Edlen from Portand and they do awesome green building, some with windmills even, This will be a good one.

  • Over-Population


    the Hogby… wait, what was the guy’s real name……Hagby?


    just what we need, more people in Berkeley!