New 8-story Berkeley building wins easy approval

Stonefire. Image: Johnson Lyman Architects
StoneFire could break ground this coming January at 1974 University Ave. Image: Johnson Lyman Architects

Berkeley’s zoning board unanimously approved a new 8-story building on University Avenue, at Milvia Street, on Thursday night.

StoneFire is set to take the place of the Firestone tire shop at 1974 University Ave..

No one spoke against the project in the relatively short hearing before the Zoning Adjustments Board on Thursday. It was the project’s first official review by the board, after a preview session in April. The project also received unanimous support from the city’s Design Review Committee after three sessions with that panel in 2013 and 2014.

Read more about development in Berkeley in past Berkeleyside coverage.


Developer William Schrader Jr., of Alamo-based The Austin Group, told the zoning board the project has been in the works for a couple of years, and that he has met extensively with the city, neighbors and stakeholders to make sure they’re on board with his plans. 

“What we really want is an award-winning project at this site,” he said, describing it as “the gateway” to City Hall and Berkeley’s arts district, as well as the downtown area.

StoneFire is set to reach almost 100 feet, and have 76 parking spaces, including two car-share spots, six micro-car spaces and 20 stacking units for 52 of the vehicles. There are also slated to be 91 bicycle parking spaces, as well as an option for all tenants to have bike hooks inside their units.

Schrader said he plans to find a “chef-driven” restaurant tenant not unlike Perdition Smokehouse, which opened recently nearby on University and is owned by the partners who created The Trappist in Oakland and Mikkeller Bar in San Francisco.

Schrader said he’s looking for other retail tenants, as well, who will be “unique retailers that will thrive in a street-front environment” to activate the blocks between Trader Joe’s grocery store and the planned Acheson Commons complex set to be built east of StoneFire at University and Shattuck Avenue.

Developer William Schrader said he hopes StoneFire will activate the pedestrian experience on University and Milvia. Image: Johnson Lyman Architects
Developer William Schrader said he hopes StoneFire will activate the pedestrian experience on University and Milvia. Image: Johnson Lyman Architects

Schrader said he’s also working with the city to place six electric bike-share spaces on his property; the city has announced plans to bring 32 shared electric bicycles to Berkeley sometime this year.

The majority of the 98 units in the project, 64%, will have two bedrooms, said Schrader, adding that most projects in Berkeley have an average of 70% studios and one-bedrooms. Eight very-low-income units are slated to be included on site.

He described StoneFire as “executive apartments” that will be green, bike-friendly and “amenity rich.” Schrader told the board he’s aiming for tenants who are young urban professionals and empty-nesters, rather than students.

The project is scheduled to break ground in January 2015, and open for business in late 2016 or early 2017.

Commissioners spoke positively about the project, though several of them took issue with the way city staff calculate the state “density bonus” law related to height and setbacks, as far as this project and others that have come through the pipeline.

Density bonus law can translate into taller buildings when developers include low-income units on site, and some commissioners said they believe the city is being too lenient as far as how much height is being granted to developers.

Commissioner Sophie Hahn said that, while she supported the project, she is increasingly troubled by what she sees as the “corrupting outcomes of the way the density bonus is applied in Berkeley,” and called the height of StoneFire “the most extreme example we have ever seen.”

She said she did not agree with the way city staff interpret how the law is applied, adding that she finds it to be “totally contrary to what I see as the obvious intent of the code and the community.”

Commissioner Steven Donaldson took issue with Hahn’s comments, and said he did not feel the overall community would agree with what he said was, fundamentally, just her opinion.

“I don’t think height is bad, and in this location it’s not bad,” he said. “And I don’t think it’s the community that is necessarily feeling it’s not correct.”

The overall response to StoneFire was enthusiastic, and commissioners noted that the property is as ideal a place as any in Berkeley for increased density, given its proximity to downtown and transit, and its distance from residential neighbors.

“If it can’t be done here, I’m not sure where else to do it,” said Commissioner Igor Tregub.

Commissioner Denise Pinkston called StoneFire “a lovely building” that looks like several buildings together rather than “a uniform mass.” But she also said she’d like additional clarification from the Berkeley City Council in the future about how the city calculates additional floors granted to density bonus projects.

Said Commissioner Prakash Pinto, “I think this is a site that really calls for this kind of density, and really needed it.” But he, too, added that the city’s approach to density bonus calculations “is confounding for me,” adding, “It is what it is.”

The only member of the public who spoke about the project was Berkeley Chamber of Commerce CEO Polly Armstrong. She said developer Schrader had “worked with everybody who’s interested” and listened carefully to issues that had been raised previously, and adjusted the project accordingly.

“StoneFire is going to electrify University Avenue in terms of energy and possibility,” she said. “It’s going to take what has been a rather neglected strip and bring people there with new energy and new ideas. And I think that’s good for the city.”

Related:
‘Explosive’ downtown Berkeley housing boom under way (01.14.14)
Developer submits 8-story project for University, Milvia (07.30.13)

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