See plans Tuesday for new downtown Berkeley hotel

A 16-story hotel has been proposed on Center Street at Shattuck Avenue. (Click for more detail.) Image: JRDV Urban International

A 16-story hotel has been proposed on Center Street at Shattuck Avenue. This is the view from BART plaza looking east. (Click for more detail; the large file will take time to load.) Image: JRDV Urban International

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.

Developers say the "strong vertical presence" will create "an iconic and playful identity." Image: JRDV Urban International

Developers say the “strong vertical presence” will create “an iconic and playful identity.” Image: JRDV Urban International

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.

Sketches for a seating area at Shattuck and Center. (Click for more detail.) Image: JRDV Urban International

Sketches for seating at Shattuck and Center. (Click for more detail; the target PDF may take time to load.) Image: JRDV Urban International

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.”

A scramble-type signal light for pedestrians could give them more flexibility and help enliven the north side of Center, developers say. Image: JRDV Urban International

A scramble-type signal light for pedestrians could give them more flexibility and help enliven the north side of Center, developers say. Image: JRDV Urban International

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.”

Currently, a single-story bar or restaurant is planned on the east side of the property. Image: JRDV Urban International

Currently, a single-story bar or restaurant is planned on the east side of the property. Image: JRDV Urban International

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.”

One commissioner suggested moving a proposed rooftop terrace west, to catch the sunset.  Image: JRDV Urban International

One commissioner suggested moving a proposed rooftop terrace west, for better sunset views. Image: JRDV Urban International

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.

New 16-story hotel proposed for downtown Berkeley (12.19.13)
New 120-foot building proposed for downtown Berkeley (12.09.13)
First high-rise in 40 years planned for downtown Berkeley (12.21.12)
Lawsuit challenges Berkeley’s new downtown plan (06.06.12)
After seven years, Berkeley gets a new downtown plan 

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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  • Charles_Siegel

    “an iconic and playful identity”

    If you think glass and steel is “playful.”

    Look at the two high-rises across the street. Most everyone dislikes the Great Western (Chase) Building, with its glass and steel facade, and likes the Wells Fargo Building, where the windows take up less that one-third of the facade. Why are they making this tower look more like the Great Western Building, with a typical mid-century modernist design?

    Q: Haven’t architects learned anything since the 1960s?
    A: Most urban designers have, but most architects have not.

    They would do better to make the tower look more like the base of the building, rather than making it a solid mass of glass.

    The base of the building does respond to some of the lessons we have learned since the days of mid-century modernism, but the tower does not.

  • jth

    These “concept” drawings are comically deceptive, since when did any block of Berkeley ever look that clean and orderly. I’d like to see a little truth in advertising here–superimpose the building rendering on actual photos of downtown Berkeley and then we’ll decide how “playful” it looks.

  • notnot2

    When you work inside a building you care more about what it is like from the inside than from the outside. Tiny windows might look nice to you but it is better from the inside to have bigger ones.

  • Cal Alumnus

    Or People’s Park.

  • phil

    I would argue the tower doesn’t really need to respond in the same way the base does. The base is pretty well designed and scaled to the street experience as is. While the base needs to respond to pedestrians at street level, the tower will probably make most of its impact on views of the Berkeley skyline. With that said the tower could definitely be better

  • Doc

    Any chance of community rooms and a spa/gym.

  • Hyper_lexic

    @charles_siegel, I won’t rehash past debates on surface questions (I don’t think anyone’s interested in that), so what do you think of the structure and planning impacts?

    I think the structure does a decent job of integrating in the surroundings given it’s size. I particularly like the Center street side – the 4(?) story base with the terrace on top. I think the Planning Commission has good point that Center might be a plaza some day and not clear how the structure would adapt to that. I’d be curious about traffic studies; I’d assume a lot of the guests would be associated with the University and wouldn’t have cars too much.

  • Hyper_lexic

    The hotel room fees would give us a lot of budget for other priorities, that’s for sure.

  • guest

    Large office towers, this one included, seem to be private spaces at ground level, which are unwelcoming to the passerby. There should be some way to soften the public private boundary. Public outdoor seating, some business spaces for which the public enters the building, have the guard desk only at the back of the lobby instead of the front, etc..

  • guest

    It’s not an office tower — it’s a hotel. All of the ground floor space will be accessible by the public, either as retail space or as hotel lobby. And they do appear to have outdoor seating on Center Street. Basically, it seems the project includes all your suggestions! Voila!

  • emraguso

    My fault on the designation of the taxes. You are correct, as far as I know!

  • Charles_Siegel

    I agree that it is good at ground level and does a good job of integrating with its surroundings and creating a pedestrian-friendly environment.

    But, for better or worse, the tower is going to be iconic – one of the most visible buildings in Berkeley. As it is now designed, it will be an ugly icon – a throwback to the 1960s, plus a bit of post-modern pastiche that does not make it any less sterile.

  • Charles_Siegel

    It is possible to have large windows and still have an attractive building. Doe Library reading room is a prominent example in Berkeley. Most any industrial building from the early 20th century is also an example.

    Follow those examples, and you will get buildings that work from both the inside and the outside.

    Follow the example of this building, and people on the inside will have panoramic views of all the sterile, ugly buildings around them.

  • Big Bear

    year after year, decade after decade, the people who live and pay taxes in Berkeley express, clearly and at length, to “our” city government officials, our sense that Berkeley is a place whose identity would be violated, defiled, and eventually destroyed by so-called “developments” on the scale of eight — never mind SIXTEEN — stories. And meanwhile Berkeley’s UNELECTED “City Manager” system of government and its unelected officialdom — unaccountable to the Berkeley citizens who pay the taxes that pay their salaries , but their actions accountable as obviously serving large moneyed interests nearly all of whom do not reside in Berkeley and most of whom do not even reside in California — year after year, decade after decade, for at least the last half century, this unelected unaccountable semi-hidden officialdom concocts schemes such as this development — destructive to Berkeley and costing, as was demonstrated in the ’70s, far more in city services than it ever will pay in taxes, but highly lucrative, obviously, to someone somewhere, some “Stranger With Money” — and trys to slip them past or ram them down the throats of the people who live in Berkeley and pay the taxes that pay their salaries. And this is called Democracy. Democracy in Berkeley. Serving The Berkeley Community (Inc. — a limited privately owned trust incorporated in New Jersey with management in Manhattan — just like America, Inc.).

  • guest

    I live in Berkeley and pay taxes in Berkeley (lots and lots of taxes). You don’t speak for me.

  • John Freeman

    Sure enough, when the developer rep was asked what the transient occupation tax would be he came up with $2M. He said he figured that using an 85% occupancy rate at 200 per night. That means about 250 rooms booked per night, every single night of the year, averaging $200 per night.

    Room prices in Berkeley currently run significantly less than that.

    85% is so far above the industry standard that it defies credibility.

    The fellow has claimed that this one building will increase the general fund budget by more than 10%, single handedly.

    I don’t see why Berkeley should accept promises or assurances from someone like that, or trust them to represent their project with straightforward honesty in other respects.

  • The base along Center Street looks interesting … the rest of the tower …. meh.

    Back to CAD Computer, please.


  • Nico

    The Downtown plan I read about in January states there’ll be a Plaza on Center and, according to one option, non-motorized only on the east half of Shattuck as well (from Center to University) when traffic is routed to the west side. Three contiguous non-motorized blocks would actually provide a real urban core without so much car noise.
    “On the east side [of Shattuck], consider options including: a slow street for local traffic, on-street parking, a transit plaza limited to buses, pedestrians and bicycles. Widen sidewalks at the east end of University Ave., reduce travel lanes, and add a focal point.”

    It seems like the developer model accompanying today’s article is pretending these options in the downtown plan don’t exist.

  • William M Popper

    Developers say the “strong vertical presence” will create “an iconic and playful identity.” ….Where else does this previously described architectural mode exist within the East Bay or other greater Bay Area communities? Please be specific as to location.

  • guest

    Build another hotel on People’s Park. No other city/university has or would tolerate this type of cesspool of antisocial behavior. If nothing else, it should be fenced off like a Caltrans underpass for the same reasons.

  • guest

    It’s unclear where the vehicle drop-off and pick up would be. The graphic shows a crosswalk at the entrance on Center Street where the Downtown Plan calls for a pedestrian plaza.

  • John Freeman

    They were very clear at the ZAB meeting that their project would require vehicle traffic on Center and that they are prepared to butt heads over the matter.

  • Chris J

    As it appears, it seems like a cold, modernistic building which doesn’t really appear unique and attractive. That being said, I don’t really care as I don’t live there, I only get downtown maybe once or twice a week IF, and if it goes up, who knows? If it proves to be functional and such, and draws more folks to the downtown area, well…to the good, I guess.

    I appreciate the concern of our architecture pundits re its retro-appearance, and will leave it to them to complain and delay the implementation of the development which could actually help the revitalization of the downtown. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to shop elsewhere…mostly.

  • Suzy Q

    I’m looking forward to seeing how the Berkeley public, including we hope our impoverished street people, will make use of this hotel lobby and the outdoor seating.

  • Suzy Q

    You still have it wrong. It’s TRANSIENT occupancy taxes, not TRANSFER. Thanks, John Freeman, for once again being once of the few literate commenters on this blog.

  • guest

    the facts:
    1. the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley and Oakland Marriott City Center have rooms starting in the low 200’s (higher than their assumptions)
    2. the average occupancy rate for hotels in the Bay Area in 2012 (the last year for which data appears to be available) was 80.4% (lower than their assumptions but hardly so far above as to defy credibility.
    3. in fact, the REVPAR (the industry term for averageoccupancyXaverageroomrate is almost exactly their assumptions
    so what does it all mean? if they build a nice hotel and run it well then their tax assumptions are fairly reasonable. don’t know enough about the people to answer that though

  • emraguso

    Thanks — it has been fixed (again!). Apologies.

  • John Freeman

    I think your occupancy rate statistic is wrong.

    the average occupancy rate for hotels in the Bay Area in 2012 (the last year for which data appears to be available) was 80.4%

    Isn’t the 80.4% figure for San Francisco and San Mateo counties, not Berkeley? I’m looking at it quoted in secondary sources but that’s what they say, at least.

    Common sense applies, too:

    In Berkeley, a small number of times per year, generally associated with key dates in the UC Berkeley calendar the hotels fill up for a few days. Other than that, it’s discount city and easy to get a room. Restaurants don’t fill up every night. There isn’t a large amount of check-in/-out traffic.

    Even with another 200 nice rooms already operating nearly across the street at the Hotel Shattuck Plaza.

    Yes, you can find a few rooms in the region priced around $200 but that’s a long ways from averaging $200/night, every night of the year, for 250 rooms in downtown Berkeley.

    And again: They are making two extraordinary claims here — one is to single-handedly more than double the transient occupancy tax revenues for all of Berkeley; the other is to single-handedly increase general fund revenues by more than 10%.

    (The developers also indicated they have not finalized a deal with any hotel operator. I suppose that would give them further incentive for this kind of gross exaggeration.)

  • dianarossi

    “With that said the tower could definitely be better”

    and lower, in my humble opinion…..

  • guest

    One thing that would be new and cool would be to open up some high altitude public spaces. Roof top restaurant / sunset view cafe / that would serve both the public and the hotel guests.

  • Margot Smith

    This is a really ugly building. Can’t these architects do better? another concrete block.
    mexico and dubai are more creative.

  • councilmaven

    While I am totally supportive of a Downtown Hotel, this is truly an ugly building. We need to get a different, exciting design!

  • BerkeleyCitizen

    I agree we should be skeptical of developers projections. However, I think this hotel would have a good shot at having a high occupancy rate for the following reasons: 1. There are so few decent places to stay in Berkeley. 2. This one is BART accessible, making it easy and convenient for airport access. 3. Its proximity to UCB cannot be overlooked–UCB may well begin hosting more conferences that were previously unfeasible due to the dearth of hotel rooms in Berkeley. 4. The Central location also makes it attractive for people who have a reason to visit Berkeley friends or family, as well as those who are priced out of the SF hotel market and want a good home-base for greater Bay Area exploration–unlike the Claremont or the big hotels in Emeryville–no car or cab is required to start or end a journey from this location.

  • EastBayer

    Good for the City, good for BART, good for Cal, good for downtown businesses. I also don’t think it’s at all unattractive. Not every building needs to be unique…

  • Matt Taecker

    “Transient occupancy tax is corrected and can be expected to bring in considerable revenue. The back-of-envelope calculation is simple: about 300 rooms averaging $200+ per night across 365 nights/year at 85% occupancy x 12% TOT rate.

  • Charles_Siegel

    Look more closely, and you will see that this building tries to be unique but does it in a clumsy way. In the final picture above, you can see how they try to break up the east facade of the tower into two separate masses – but they fail, and it looks like one mass with a clunky design.

  • Charles_Siegel

    I, for one, am not trying to delay the project but just to make its design better. At the open house, I suggested that they should try a tower design that emulates some of the great skyscrapers of the 1930s, such as the Empire State Building or Rockefeller Center.

    If we want a successful downtown, we should try to create an attractive downtown.

  • guest

    You haven’t heard that the downtown plan was on the ballot and the Berkeley voters approved it.

  • Charles_Siegel

    I am trying to save the word “pastiche” from its abuse by modernists.

    Modernists use the word to criticize any building in a traditional style. This sense includes most buildings designed between the Renaissance and the 19th century, and it is not reasonable to use it as a criticism – unless you want to reject every architect from Brunelleschi to McKim, Mead, and White.

    I think “pastiche” should be used in its etymological sense to mean a work of art made up of diverse ingredients – as this building is made up of pieces that look like they are from different buildings and are just stuck together.

  • EastBayer

    Seeing as how most of the time, complaints about architecture are merely thinly veiled attempts to kill a project or scale it down (rendering it useless for TOD or housing goals), they have an enormous credibility gap to bridge.

    Nitpicking over a matter of preference does not address that gap. The design is fine.

  • Charles_Siegel

    I have a long history of supporting development. In fact, one developer was so grateful that he put a plaque with my name on a building that I supported.

    I suspect that you support this egregious design only because you are so strongly against people who are against development.

  • EastBayer

    Well, what an honor to be conversing with you.

    My support may have something to do with a deep suspicion of Berkeley NIMBYs masquerading as architecture critics, but I’d still prefer a different design if it were truly ugly like the Chase building or Fantasy studios. But this proposal isn’t even remotely on that scale, and is in fact much more functional than average.

    Bland, perhaps, but then most buildings are bland. Provides a better frame for truly stunning buildings anyway.

  • awackocrank .

    The Claremont is in Oakland and Oakland collects the taxes.

  • Charles_Siegel

    This building is not quite bland. It is a bit weird.

    It is unfortunate that their pictures feature the west facade, which is the most normal and blandest facade of the tower.

    You can get a better idea of the design by looking at the second picture, which is small. It is captioned
    “Developers say the “strong vertical presence” will create “an iconic and playful identity”

    The eastern facade is weirdest, and it is unfortunately not shown.

    This building will not fade into the background and be a good frame for stunning buildings. It is the tallest thing on the skyline, and it is a design that will call attention to itself.

  • LEED Platinum but really Living Building Challenge would be best, they should also pay for a cycle track in front of the building to reduce congestion and local air pollution.

  • Yeah, could the schools ever do solar to help reduce their bills and all of our property taxes?

  • Does anyone know the code rules on bike parking and showers in new buildings? This and a cycle track is all rewarded with points in Emeryville, for sure. Along with car sharing and electric cars chargers that are required.

  • Good catch!

  • mtaysic

    “as well as those who are priced out of the SF hotel market and want a good home-base for greater Bay Area exploration”

    At $200/night? You can use Airbnb