5-story building approved, again, on University Avenue

A rendering of a new mixed-use project underway at 1698 University Ave. in Berkeley. Image: Syncopated Architecture

A new rendering of a mixed-use project that has been approved at 1698 University Ave. in Berkeley. Image: Syncopated Architecture

A proposal to construct a five-story mixed-use building in central Berkeley was approved by the zoning board earlier this month after a request to increase the number of units from 25 to 36 while reducing the on-site parking.

The project, at 1698 University Ave. (at McGee Avenue), originally was approved by the city in 2005, and modified in 2008. Since then the property has changed hands. The new owner, San Francisco-based Realtex Apartments, asked the city Zoning Adjustments Board July 10 to increase the number of units and decrease the parking requirements from the earlier proposal.

The new project, designed by Syncopated Architecture — also of San Francisco — would take the place of a vacant automotive repair station. It is set to include approximately 2,000 square feet of commercial space and nearly 25,400 square feet of residential.

The new team changed the color scheme for the building’s exterior, modified the layout of its courtyard and increased open space from nearly 4,000 to about 6,300 square feet, according to project documents.

A Realtex representative told the board that his company bought the property last June when it was in foreclosure. He said plans include numerous “green” features, such as solar thermal heat and photovoltaic panels on the roof. The company plans to install energy-efficient appliances and LED lighting, and intends to include nine more bike parking spaces than are required.

Via the staff report: The number of apartments was increased from 25 to 36, and the average unit size was reduced from 1,010 to 676 square feet. According to the development team, that shift increased the number of bedrooms from 42 to 48. The building height — five stories and 50 feet tall — has not changed.

The Realtex rep told the board those changes in the project were necessary “to make it viable in the current economy.”

The project as it was approved earlier. Click the image to see the latest designs.

The project as it was approved earlier. Click the image to see the latest designs.

He said redwood trees behind the property would be retained, after neighbors expressed concerns about their removal, and that there are plans for “really usable open space” to include an herb garden.

A handful of neighbors addressed the zoning board saying the area is already heavily impacted by traffic congestion and a lack of parking, and that they fear new residents will only exacerbate the problem.

One woman expressed frustration about the modifications the applicant had requested, particularly given the site’s history. She told the board it had taken three years — and a lawsuit against the prior developer — to reduce the number of units on site to 25.

City planner Aaron Sage told the board that, under state density bonus law and the city’s own 9% affordability requirement, the project was actually entitled to build up to 40 units on the property, but had not elected to do so.

This vacant lot at University and McGee avenues is slated for development by Realtex Apartments. Image: Google Maps

This vacant lot at University and McGee avenues is slated for development by Realtex Apartments. Image: Google Maps

Prior to the meeting, parking was set to include space for 29 vehicles on a triple-lift system, along with wiring for two electric vehicles. The applicant agreed to add an additional parking bay in response to concerns cited by neighbors. The project exceeds the district’s parking requirement under Berkeley’s code.

Tenants of the property would not be eligible for residential parking permits to allow them to park on surface streets for extended periods while the permits are in effect. The applicant and commissioners also noted the presence of numerous car-share spaces in the nearby vicinity, and the project’s proximity to two BART stations.

“I’m not unsympathetic to your concerns,” Commissioner Shoshana O’Keefe told meeting attendees. “The problem with this project is that it actually does meet the parking requirements in the zoning code.”

She encouraged residents to take Berkeley’s parking rules up with the city Planning Commission to try to push for policy change.

Commissioner Igor Tregub — District 4 Councilman Jesse Arreguín’s appointee to the board — was the lone “no” vote against the project. He said he could not ignore how “heavily impacted” the neighborhood already is: “I cannot make the required non-detriment findings,” he told his colleagues.

The project is slated to include three below-market-rate units to residents who earn 50% of the area median income.

There was also some discussion by the board of a request to allow a live-work unit on the property, which the applicant said makes financial sense because the unit size — “very small” — would make it a challenge to find a tenant otherwise.

Some commissioners said they were troubled by the age of the original permit, and asked why the city hadn’t lapsed the approval and had the new project team begin again.

City staff said it’s not the city’s practice to actively lapse permits, no matter how old they are. Some commissioners said they’d like the city to consider a different approach in the future, while others said — given the challenges faced in recent years in the real estate market — the city should consider itself lucky anyone wanted to do something with the property.

“Nothing got built for six years,” said Commissioner Bob Allen. “We should count our blessings there was a permit in place and someone was willing to buy it.”

City planner Aaron Sage also told the board that, as submitted, the project largely complies with city code and that, even under a new application, nothing substantial was likely to change.

See the project documents on the city website. Read more local real estate stories on Berkeleyside.

[CLARIFICATION: Igor Tregub’s initial quotation did not fully reflect what he said July 10. He said he was unable to make the required non-detriment findings given the neighborhood’s already impacted parking conditions under current zoning rules. This has been clarified in the story above.]

New affordable housing project headed for Berkeley (07.17.14)
Neighbors question parking, height of student-oriented housing planned on Telegraph (07.16.14)
Construction to begin on 6-story development (07.11.14)
Zoning board approves ‘The Overture’ on University Ave. (05.27.14)

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  • Igor Tregub

    Great article from Emilie, as always! I just wanted to lend some context to the statement on which I was quoted, which should technically be “I could not made the required non-detriment findings” on this project. I appreciate both the potential for additional housing that would be added along an important transit corridor and the care the new applicants have taken to seek compromises where possible. My no vote had less to do with the project itself and much more to do with the inadequacy of the zoning code in proximity to the nearby residential district along this stretch of University. Here is a contextual tweet from Emilie during the meeting which accurately described the statement I made to my colleagues on ZAB: “Comm. Tregub is only “no” vote; says he cannot make a non-detriment finding but blames city code re: parking, not project itself #berkmtg”

  • emraguso

    Thanks for pointing this out. I’ve added the following to the story, and fixed the quote.
    CLARIFICATION: Igor Tregub’s initial quotation did not fully reflect what he said July 10. He said he was unable to make the required non-detriment findings given the neighborhood’s already impacted parking conditions under current zoning rules. This has been clarified in the story above.

  • DisGuested

    Pound’s Canto XLV is the only intelligible reaction to this mechanistic eructation of finance.


  • long time Berkeley resident

    To me the biggest issue is that they have reduced the units size from over 1000 sq ft to only 650ish! Not family friendly and too small for living! Why do they keep approving these micro units?

  • Guest

    Still sounds like the kind of NIMBY obstructionism for which Arreguin, Worthington & Co. are famous for.

    That lot is empty blight 11 months of the year, the only exception being a short period near Winter Solstice when it is used to sell dead trees.

    My only objection to it would be that there is already enough empty retail in that area and that the entire ground floor should just be a parking lot for the residents to avoid parking issues and prevent the creation of yet another of the many mixed-use buildings with empty retail space that litter Berkeley’s thoroughfares. Unfortunately I believe the city wouldn’t allow such a common-sense thing.

  • EBGuy

    … And for our next trick, we’ll add a whole new commercial story and a boatload of parking to Parker Place — all within the existing envelope. On the agenda for tonight’s ZAB meeting.

  • David D.

    The average unit size is meaningless without the context of how many bedrooms are in each unit. 676 sq. ft. is spacious for a one-bedroom apartment but miserably small for a two-bedroom apartment. The plethora of links provided here and on the city’s website don’t seem to address this basic question: How many bedrooms are in each unit?

  • EBGuy

    There were two 1200+sq.ft. penthouse units in the old design (that’s larger than most 2/1 Berkeley cottages) that helped skew the average higher. Units are smaller, for sure, but not micro by any means. One bedrooms are 500+sq.ft. and two bedrooms are 750+sq.ft. That’s back of the envelope as the new plans don’t show individual square footage per unit. Someone please take the developer to task on that one; most of the other posted designs (including the approved older ones) show the size of each unit.

  • emraguso

    If you look at the project plans there’s usually a breakdown like that. I haven’t had time to check that out. Commissioner Bob Allen also pointed out that, at the previous size, the units would have been too expensive for people to rent (essentially).

  • guest

    That sort of design was considered common sense fifty or sixty years ago, and there are lots of apartment buildings from the 1950s and the 1960s on our main streets with exactly that design. Fortunately, the world has progressed since then.

  • guest

    What’s your suggestion, then, to prevent the non-stop complaints from neighbors about inadequate parking?

    The only other financially viable solution I can think of is something like the Bay Street shopping plaza which has resident parking on the 2nd level above the retail shops and below the residential units but that would push buildings higher and leave us with more vacant ground-floor retail both of which are also sources of constant complaint from neighbors.

  • Biker 94703

    Things that make housing “affordable”:
    1) Crime
    2) Squalor
    3) Limited Square Footage

  • Mbfarrel

    Stop this project! That way in 5 years it will approved at 6, maybe 7 storeys with no parking

  • guest

    You know, if it meets code, it will get approved. It is uninspired, but could be worse.
    At the same time, one has to shake their head at the brazen, lying greed of the developers:

    “The Realtex rep told the board those changes in the project were necessary “to make it viable in the current economy.”

    Viable in the current economy?!?!? The most landlord favorable market in living memory?

    It’s statements like these that completely demolish any credibility of developers. If this is their description of reality then I’m going to oppose them on principle as lying scum every time.

  • Ludovic Blain

    I’m the father of a child in the preschool that immediately abuts the property, and my child has asthma…we’re concerned about the construction itself, especially since it’s on a (at least previously) polluted site.

  • Chris J

    Nothing is simple here in Berkeley. Its a crowded city, there isn’t enough housing, so let’s stall new developments for as long as we can. I don’t disagree that developers look after their own interests and socially forward-thinking folks might cringe at the lack of below- market units, mundane appearance architecturally, and the lack of community good or parking spaces, but in the meantime it’s an empty lot which is doing the community no good whatsoever.

    So argue away, y’all. It’s like Berkeley is the US congress…unable to get a damn thing done…even allow a permit to build a simple apartment complex.

  • Jacob Lynn

    0) More housing

  • Jacob Lynn

    A matched pair of solutions:

    1. Stop using public street space for free automobile storage. Limit the number of residential parking permits to the actual number of spaces. (Even better, allow them to be freely sold.)
    2. Faster and higher-frequency transit, more direct and safer bicycle infrastructure. Both could come from reclaiming street space from our existing car-dominated public realm.

    #1 would prevent new developments from dumping parking demand on the neighbors, while #2 would reduce the demand for automobile storage.

  • foo

    “No innovation in parking provision.” translation: “my accustomed free car storage on public property must be subsidized by renters of any new apartments”

  • John Freeman

    Its a crowded city, there isn’t enough housing,

    How will increasing the number of residents and the density make Berkeley less crowded?

    And when you say “there isn’t enough housing”: not enough for what?

  • guest

    From long experience, I have learned that it is impossible to prevent the non-stop complaints from neighbors, no matter what we do.

  • Gusted

    I wonder how many cars the neighbors in the area have per household.

  • guest

    Our neighbors held an open house for their 2BR cottage this weekend. 800 square feet for $1800/month. That seems completely outrageous to me, but they got almost 100 applications. As in, actual applications, not just people coming to see it.

    So, plainly there’s not enough housing for all of the people who would like to rent a small 2BR unit for average Berkeley rent.

    They certainly could have reduced that demand by listing the cottage for, say, $2100/month. Would that be your preferred solution?

  • John Freeman

    Yes, demand for housing in Berkeley is larger than the supply.

    So what? Why is that a public policy problem for Berkeleyans?

    More housing will certainly raise the revenues of a few rentiers but that is the private interest of a few, not a public interest of the many.

    New housing can yield one-time fees and marginal tax gains but these are offset largely by corresponding costs.

    The city is already unusually crowded and dense and building lots more housing will make it more so, with risk to the quality of life.

    Students? History suggests that efforts to provide adequate housing for students will be met with significant increases in enrollment size, leaving us back where we started.

    Private interests with profit motives sometimes try to “sell” large expansions to the housing stock as a way to “save the planet” yet their green rhetoric doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

    Those same private interests argue that they are masterful social engineers who, without regard to geographic, historic, or economic context can summon a “vibrant” economy out of thin air just by selflessly collecting fees and rents on new development.

    The idea that we need more people to have a local economy is especially ironic since the main obstacle to lively, neighborhood-serving businesses in this already dense city seems to be the excessive rent demands of these same development advocates!

    So yeah, “more housing” for what? What’s in it for Berkeleyans?

  • guest

    Well, it’s clear you are hunkered down in your rent-controlled apartment and couldn’t care less about prevailing rents. However, a significant proportion of Berkeleyans have less stable housing than you. I spoke with one young family that came by to see the cottage. They’re expecting their third child and won’t fit in their 1BR Berkeley apartment anymore. So they can either increase their housing costs by almost 50% or move to San Leandro.

    You may be unaware of this, but Berkeley’s rent control ordinance does not apply to single-family homes. I can introduce you to another family whose landlord increased their rent 300% over six months. Literally tripled their housing costs. That family lives in Richmond now.

    It’s clear that you are mostly contemptuous of the needs of Cal students, but many are low-income to the degree that housing costs may be the deciding factor in whether or not they can even attend Cal. So sure, let’s price out low-income students so that Cal becomes even more of an elite institution.

    You like to talk in vague general terms like “masterful social engineers” and “rentiers.” All you have to offer is snide condemnation of “private interests.” Meanwhile, these are real people faced with real economic hardship. You use the word “progressive,” but your empty rhetoric offers no relief at all to working people.

  • John Freeman

    Big surprise, “guest” has found himself unable to reply in a civil manner.

    Have the developers no advocates who can speak like adults?