A 16-story high-rise hotel under consideration in downtown Berkeley is making its way through the city approval process, with three preview meetings already completed before city panels related to development decisions. No votes have yet been taken, but are expected in the coming months.
The hotel, proposed by Jim Didion and Center Street Partners LLC, would replace the 1970s-era one-story Bank of America building and parking lot at Shattuck Avenue and Center Street. If approved, the project would transform one of the most visible corners in downtown Berkeley.
An open house about the project is scheduled for Tuesday, April 15, from 5-7 p.m. at the Marsh Theater, 2120 Allston Way.
Read more background about the specifics of the hotel plans here on Berkeleyside.
The proposed 180-foot-tall complex would be located at 2129 Shattuck Ave. It is set to include ground floor commercial space including a restaurant or bar, three floors of office space and 12 stories containing 293 hotel rooms. Eighty valet parking spaces are planned on an underground level. Developers plan to pay to use another 120 spaces in the city-owned garage — slated for demolition and reconstruction — on Center Street across Shattuck.
Matthew Taecker — a former city planner whose firm, Taecker Planning and Design, has been hired to oversee the entitlement process — said the development team will review comments after the open house from the zoning board and design review members, as well as members of the public and city staff.
“And after that we will be working on how to be responsive to concerns and requests, while also addressing market constraints,” Taecker said via email Friday. The team plans to bring the application back to the city in one to two months.
Thursday night, Taecker told the Zoning Adjustments Board that the project would bring more than an estimated $2 million in transient occupancy taxes each year to the city’s General Fund, if approved, along with the payment of other significant fees. He also said the developer is “committed to using union labor” and “in conversations with” the hotel services union about those jobs.
He said the team is in discussion with two hoteliers who have expressed interest in the project, but added that those talks have been ongoing for many months with no deal yet signed.
Plans for the southern frontage of the property, on Center Street, is somewhat of an open question due to efforts underway by a local design firm to help envision a pedestrian plaza on the block. The city has been considering those plans for several years, but nothing concrete has been determined. (Berkeleyside is planning a follow-up story when more information is available.)
Edward McFarlan, principal of JRDV Architects of Oakland, told the zoning board Thursday night that the goal is to “truly shift the center of gravity of pedestrian traffic” to the north side of Center Street, which will no doubt be aided by the construction of a new Berkeley Art Museum complex to the east of the hotel site.
“This is the center of the downtown,” he said. “Let’s make it that.”
He described the potential for a “possible scramble” street signal light to allow for more flexibility for pedestrians crossing Shattuck, and said passers-by might find, at the base of the hotel, a coffee kiosk, fresh produce for sale and an “engaging seating area to make this corner a destination, not just to walk through but to go to.”
All four members of the public who spoke during the public comment period — representing the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Berkeley Association, the Building & Construction Trades Council of Alameda County and Livable Berkeley — voiced cautious support for the idea of the project. The Trades Council representative said no deal has been signed with labor, and others who spoke advised the city to push for the best project possible.
“At this stage of the game, we don’t have to settle for anything,” said Polly Armstrong, who runs the Chamber of Commerce.
Zoning board commissioners, too, were largely optimistic, though they offered a broad range of suggestions. Thursday’s meeting was a “preview” session designed to provide feedback to the development team; no vote or other action was planned.
Much of the conversation revolved around the possibility of more space for conference facilities — which are needed in Berkeley — with some commissioners and members of the public voicing interest in those amenities. Others on the board said there doesn’t seem to be enough space in the building’s footprint to make extensive conference space economically feasible.
Taecker told the commission that the idea of more conference space is still on the table, but that potential hoteliers considering the project have not been convinced of the economics of that investment.
“In spite of the size of this project, the margins are tight,” he said.
Added architect McFarlan: “The costs are significant. This is a great site, they all see that. The economics are very challenging. It’s expensive to build a hotel.… They’re excited, but the economics are thin.”
The city’s Downtown Area Plan, which was adopted in 2012 after Berkeley voters overwhelmingly endorsed its concepts in 2010, allows for the construction of three 180-foot-tall buildings in Berkeley’s downtown core, and two 120-foot-high buildings. (UC Berkeley has the right to build two more 120-foot structures.)
Zoning Board Commissioner Sophie Hahn provided the most extensive feedback to developers. She offered ideas about everything from aiming for a LEED platinum rating, rather than the proposed LEED gold standard, to the possibility of moving the lobby from Center onto Shattuck, to allow for a true pedestrian experience on Center if that block is one day closed to vehicle traffic. (The development team had said it was open to the pedestrian plaza for the most part, but would need to find a way to share part of the space with drop-off and pick-up traffic near the hotel lobby.)
Among other issues, Hahn questioned the prospect of the hotel buying parking spaces in the Center Street garage rather than building more parking on its own property. She also said she sees a difference between “mutual benefits” — that are a boon to the project team as well as the public — and “community benefits” created solely for the public. She asked for more of the latter as plans proceed.
“I think the project is really developing handsomely, and I like the attitude [I see from the developers] of working with the comments that are coming in,” she said. “I just think it has to be more balanced. Hopefully it’s a win-win across the board.”
Hahn and other commissioners asked for more specifics on the finances behind the project. They said they want the project to be economically viable, but are not in a position simply to trust assertions about needed building parameters without facts to back them up.
She also raised concerns, as did other commissioners, about the need for a use permit to allow some aspects of the project to proceed.
In particular, developers have proposed a tower width as broad as 220 feet, while the code allows only 120 feet. City staff, in the report prepared for Thursday’s meeting, said commissioners could ultimately grant a use permit to allow that width if proper findings are met. Developers said they have included ample setbacks along three sides of the property and included less “bulk” in other parts of the project to try to compensate for their request.
Taecker clarified after the meeting that no amendment would be needed to the Downtown Area Plan or municipal zoning code if the use permit is granted. He said the additional tower width would be vital if the project is to be economically viable.
Commissioner Prakash Pinto said he would like to see wind studies in the near feature to see how the shape and size of the building might affect those forces, and urged the development team to listen closely to the board’s ideas.
“Where projects have gone bad is when they come back to us virtually not really changed in the way we like to see it,” he said. “But I think you’re probably going to do it in a more collaborative way. I’m very appreciative of the work so far.”
Commissioner Bob Allen said he was worried about putting too much pressure on the development team to create a project with unrealistic standards. He reminded the board about a prior hotel proposal that fell through because of what he described as challenges in dealing with the city, and also the general economics of the hotel business.
“The bottom line is, if we tell this group that they have to do something different and they say it doesn’t pencil out, the result will be they won’t build it,” he told his fellow commissioners. “This isn’t a bluffing, you know, show and tell game. This is just facts. We can be really hard-nosed on this and really hammer for all these things people seem to want, and we won’t get a hotel there.”
Application materials are posted on the city website. Visit the project website here. A community open house about the project is scheduled for Tuesday, April 15, from 5-7 p.m. at the Marsh Theater, 2120 Allston Way.
CORRECTION: According to developers, the hotel is expected to bring in more than $2 million annually in transient occupancy taxes, not transfer taxes, as was initially reported by mistake.
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For details and images of many of the new building projects underway in Berkeley, check out Berkeleyside’s recent real estate articles.