A proposed retail and housing project on Telegraph Avenue that’s already proven controversial with neighbors got its first review last week from Berkeley’s zoning board.
The man behind the proposal is Patrick Kennedy, head of Berkeley-based Panoramic Interests, who is working with Lowney Architecture on the plans. The project proposes the demolition of a single-story building between Dwight Way and Parker Street and the construction of a 70-foot-tall 6-story building to include 65 rental units aimed at students, and 6,000 square feet of ground-floor retail. Six of those units would be available to very-low-income households: those making no more than 50% of the area median income.
Thursday night’s preview session was the Zoning Adjustments Board‘s first chance to provide feedback on the project. No action was scheduled or taken.
Kennedy described his project to the board as “a bold and optimistic gesture” on Telegraph, which he said is long overdue for improvements that are likely to come as higher density housing is built on the avenue.
“I think it’s time for a bold announcement that Telegraph Avenue is changing,” he said.
[Disclosure: Panoramic Interests a sponsor of Berkeleyside's annual ideas festival, Uncharted.]
Critics of the project, at 2539 Telegraph, have taken issue with the plan to demolish a building that housed the nation’s first disability advocacy group run by people with disabilities and oriented toward helping them live independently; the proposal’s parking plan, which includes an eight-car garage and room with racks for 65 bicycles; and its height, particularly on the Regent Street side of the parcel. (The project has frontage on both Telegraph and Regent.) About a dozen people, some of whom represented neighborhood associations, told the zoning board about their concerns Thursday night.
Until approximately 2010, the Center for Independent Living operated out of the squat, unassuming building at 2539 Telegraph. The service and advocacy organization for people with disabilities moved into a new Berkeley headquarters at the Ed Roberts Campus, across from the Ashby BART station, when that facility opened in 2010.
Because of that history, according to the staff report for last week’s meeting, the building is eligible to be on the National Register of Historic Places, but is not a designated city landmark. Read the city’s Historic Resource Evaluation of the property here.
Kennedy pays some homage toward that history in the name of his new project, which is called “The Independent.” Thursday night, there was also talk of the possibility of a display on site that would describe the property’s history.
The project requires an environmental review, which will allow for public feedback and questions as plans move forward. According to the staff report: “Based on preliminary analysis, it appears that the project’s significant effects would be limited to demolition of an historical resource, air quality, and noise.”
A public comment period is now underway through July 28, and another comment period will occur in October, according to the environmental review schedule (see page 6).
The developer has asked for a density bonus, which allows taller projects under state law if affordable units are provided on site. That would push the project up to six stories under the current design. On average, the units — mostly two-bedrooms — would be 910 square feet in size, according to project plans. The “typical” unit would be about 690 square feet, with two bedrooms of about 135 square feet each.
Commissioners asked, among other things, for the developer to come back with a “scaled back” version of the plans to better fit in with Regent Street, as well as a more unique design.
“It looked cookie cutter to me,” Commissioner Igor Tregub told developer Kennedy. “I’ve seen some of your other work and it’s been very elegant…. Maybe present something that not only fits in better with this neighborhood but makes some kind of statement, which I don’t see here.”
Commissioners questioned the project’s approach to parking, and said they weren’t sure if the location would be a good fit for a car-free development. They suggested that a more thought-out transit management plan — to include bus passes or some kind of on-site car sharing arrangement, for example — might be in order. According to the staff report, most of the project would be built in a zone that does not require off-street parking, and which prohibits the issuance of parking permits for residents.
Commissioners also wondered about Kennedy’s approach to the layout of the units, which feature an alcove or “junior bedroom” that has no dedicated window, but is lit instead by ambient light from larger-than-average windows elsewhere in the unit.
“These units will have more light and more air than almost any housing in Berkeley,” Kennedy told the board. “It is a pleasant space and I am confident we will have many people happy to live there.”
He said the interior bedroom would be open 50% to the rest of the unit, and have its own ventilation. This style of design has become popular in San Francisco, Kennedy added.
Commissioner Bob Allen, one of the more development-friendly board members, took particular umbrage at the unit design. He said Berkeley’s building code requires all living areas and bedrooms to have their own natural light and ventilation.
“This is no way meets that requirement,” Allen said. “As a big fan of what Patrick’s done for this city, I’m really stunned with the lack of respect with city policy it shows in trying to push this on to us.”
Commissioner Steven Donaldson disagreed with the naysayers, noting that he had visited several San Francisco projects with junior-bedrooms, and found them attractive and increasingly popular due to their flexibility.
Commissioner Denise Pinkston offered suggestions for project improvements but said she, too, could see the possibilities. She described a “lifestyle change” underway that has made units with junior-bedrooms appealing to some.
“It is a way that we’re living now,” added Commissioner Prakash Pinto. Though he said he was not sure whether students in Berkeley would be as interested in the proposed living arrangement as young affluent couples or single tenants in San Francisco. “At the end of the day it’s still a windowless bedroom.”
Commissioner Sophie Hahn said the unit design needed work: “The size of the bedrooms borders on inhumane.” She said the proposed layout is particularly troubling given the site’s history as a place where the disability rights movement began. She described the bedrooms as “so small that you could not turn a wheelchair around,” adding, “There’s nothing here that makes it accessible to people with disabilities.”
According to the staff report prepared for Thursday night’s meeting, 10 of the 29 sleeping areas on each floor would not have their own windows. Staff noted this would likely be an on-going issue of discussion as the development team seeks approval from the city to build.
Neighbors on Regent Street said they were particularly concerned about the height of the project on that street and the lack of parking for the project. George Beier, representing the Willard Neighborhood Association, said the project would be way out of scale on the “smaller-scale residential” block. He said the project should be redesigned so it “steps down” to the lower buildings surrounding it for a better transition.
Beier also said there would be just one parking spot allocated to residents in The Independent, and said parking is already too limited in the neighborhood to allow that approach.
“Telegraph Avenue could definitely use a shot in the arm, but I don’t think we should shoot Regent Street in the head,” he told the zoning board Thursday.
Phil Bokovoy told the board that the proposed density — in terms of bedrooms per acre — is much too high for the neighborhood, and said a three-story building would fit in better with the area.
“I have walked by that site for 30 years now,” he said. “I agree that that’s a great site for development, but I think this project is really out of scale.”
Others who spoke echoed those same concerns, and also asked about what would happen to a pocket park on Regent Street that had been open to the public in the past. Kennedy said that green space was fenced off 10 years ago, and that it would be used to create an “attractive edge” for the project.
He told the board he’s investigating the possibility of using prefabricated modules to build the project faster and cut down on construction costs. He said has not made a final decision yet, however, and that he is bidding out the work both ways — with both prefabricated and traditional building methods.
He noted that, in the past 38 years, there have been no residential projects built on Telegraph (north of Parker Street). He pointed, in contrast, to downtown Berkeley’s recent housing boom and the increased vibrancy in the area as a result.
“The steady and palpable decline of Telegraph is, in some measure, attributable to an antidevelopment attitude,” he told the board. “That street…sorely needs our help.”
Commissioners said it would take some major adjustments before any permits could be granted.
“There’s a permittable project somewhere,” Hahn told the development team. “I don’t think this is it.”
The project was originally submitted to the city in December, appeared before the Landmarks Preservation Commission and zoning board earlier this month, and is going before the Design Review Committee on Thursday night.
See more of the project documents for 2539 Telegraph Ave. on the city website. Those with questions or comments about the project can direct them to city planner Aaron Sage via email at email@example.com or phone, 510-981-7425.
[Correction: The size of the average unit in the project is 690 square feet. An earlier project document included an incorrect figure.]
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