Protesters from the local carpenters union set up a large display on Shattuck Avenue on Tuesday to question the construction standards of balconies at a new downtown Berkeley apartment building that’s nearing completion.
Scott Littlehale, spokesman for the Hayward-based Carpenters Union Local 713, said the community should be paying close attention to building standards for projects, like the new Varsity Berkeley, that were approved by the city prior to the passage of urgency ordinances last month by the Berkeley City Council that mandate stricter building standards for balconies. Littlehale said his group has concerns about “generally deteriorating standards” for construction around the Bay Area, and said the group plans to return Wednesday to continue to demonstrate.
Project developer William Schrader Jr. told Berkeleyside on Tuesday afternoon that his building, Varsity Berkeley — formerly known as The Durant — is safe, and that the accusations being levied against it are false. He outlined the steps he has taken in recent months to ensure that his building’s 31 balconies are secure and can be used with confidence. Schrader said his building plans, which he has adjusted, have been reviewed and approved by the city following the Library Gardens collapse in June.
The 79-unit Varsity, once done, will be the first housing project completed downtown since the adoption of Berkeley’s Downtown Area Plan. Schrader said most of the balconies on his new building are cantilevered, which is the same style that failed at Library Gardens in June, killing six and injuring seven. Upon hearing of the accident at Library Gardens, Schrader said he immediately contacted the city to find out what steps he might take to ensure nothing like that could happen at his building.
Schrader said he showed up Tuesday afternoon to his project site, which is bounded by Shattuck, Milvia, Durant and Channing, to find a small group of protesters who had erected a banner and large “thumbs down” symbol criticizing his company, the Austin Group LLC, and general contractor Brown Construction. He said he was confused, wondering, “Why are these guys out here handing out leaflets saying our balconies aren’t safe?”
The fliers denounce the Varsity’s balcony design, and claim the balconies were not designed in line with the requirements approved last month by the Berkeley City Council to improve balcony safety throughout the city. A large banner proclaimed “shame on them,” and said the Austin Group “hurts workers — hurts families [and] hurts community.” The flier urges members of the public to contact Schrader directly to protest the project.
Schrader said his project was not legally required to follow the rules of council’s urgency ordinances, because it had its permits and was nearing completion when council took the vote. But he said he has taken a number of voluntary steps since the Library Gardens tragedy to ensure the safety of his building, both now and in the future.
“These guys out here protesting, what they’re saying is not true,” he said.
Those steps included confirming the live load capacity of his balconies — which he said far exceeds the standards mandated by law — and spearheading the design of a new vent for each balcony that will allow it to be easily inspected in the future. Schrader’s balconies already included venting to allow moisture to escape, he said, which was not the case for the fifth-floor balcony that failed at Library Gardens in June.
City spokesman Matthai Chakko confirmed Tuesday that projects that received permits prior to the passage of the new urgency ordinances do not need to be redesigned, but are “subject to the rigorous inspections required by the urgency ordinances within three years of the project’s completion.” These projects are also undergoing administrative reviews focused on “special waterproofing inspections.”
Littlehale said Tuesday evening that he had been pleased to learn about the changes made by Schrader at the Varsity to allow for better venting and easier inspection. He said developers around the Bay Area, however, do not often enough use skilled workers and trained apprentices for construction jobs, particularly apartments.
“I think it’s good for the public to be asking the developer to say, given that this was designed prior to the urgency ordinance, what steps have been taken to ensure that this will from the get-go be safe, and on an ongoing basis be safe,” he said. Littlehale added that the failure to use skilled, trained workers should, in his opinion, be a “red flag” to the community.
Schrader said union workers were not hired to help build the Varsity. But he said that, to his knowledge, none had bid for the jobs either, likely because the project was too small. He said there’s so much building going on now around the Bay Area that projects like the Varsity are too small to garner much interest from union subcontractors.
Schrader said he contacted the city at 9 a.m. the morning after the balcony collapsed at Library Gardens to set up a meeting to go over the Varsity’s balcony designs and determine what other steps he might take.
He said he had been horrified to learn about what had happened at Library Gardens.
“It’s crazy when you look at the pictures. Every single joist failed at the same rate. The fact that it all of a sudden failed, the whole thing, was incredible to me,” he said, adding, of the Varsity, “We don’t want that to happen here.”
Developer: Balconies exceed weight requirements, new ventilation added
Schrader said he sat down with members of his project team and numerous city staffers from the building department and the fire and police departments several weeks ago to go over his designs in detail. He said the city told him he was under no obligation to make any changes because he already had his permit. But he told them he wanted to do whatever he could on a voluntary basis.
One of the issues they discussed was the “live load” of the balconies, or how much weight per square foot the structures could hold. Schrader said the Library Gardens balconies had been built to withstand 60 pounds per square foot, as required by 2007 standards in place at the time of that project’s construction. In 2012, explained Schrader, when the Varsity was being designed, those standards increased to require 100 pounds per square foot. The following year, those standards were again reduced to 60, said Schrader, but the Varsity stuck with the prior requirement of 100 pounds per square foot.
In other words, Schrader’s balconies are about 67% stronger than those required under the current building code, he said.
Still, he notes, the Library Gardens balcony does not appear to have failed because of a load issue; the city has said the building was constructed in line with the code requirements. The city found that the balconies failed due to dry rot, though it did not determine what caused the rot in the first place. No ventilation was required for those balconies under the building code. (The Alameda County district attorney’s office has since launched an investigation to determine whether to file criminal charges in connection with the fatal collapse, which could include involuntary manslaughter, but there have been no updates to report since the probe was first made public, a spokeswoman for the office confirmed Tuesday.)
Schrader said his balconies were originally built to include a U-shaped vent with openings on both sides to make sure moisture can escape.
He said, after the Library Gardens balcony collapse, he went to his architect and structural engineer and asked them to design an additional vinyl vent that would be added to each balcony, adjacent to where it meets the building, to allow for easy inspection going forward. The vent can be removed using ordinary tools, such as a screwdriver and pliers, and allows an inspector to insert a camera to take a close look inside to see between the joists and assess their condition.
He said he’s already installed that vent on all the balconies on the east side of his building, and will be working to put the rest in place in the near future.
Following the Library Gardens collapse, Schrader said he heard from a number of people, including prospective tenants, wanting assurances regarding the safety of his balconies, as well as details about how the balconies were built and designed. He said his marketing agency created a flier outlining those details, which was distributed to those who were interested.
Schrader said eight units at the Varsity are already occupied, and that he expects many more tenants to move in over the next two weeks. He also just began demolition Monday for his 8-story Stonefire project about six blocks north, at University Avenue and Milvia. In that project, two of the first three subcontracting jobs — for grading, shoring, excavation and concrete, which he valued at an estimated $9.5 million — were awarded to union workers.
Schrader said he did not know what had prompted this week’s protest, and noted that none of the protesters have contacted him directly about their complaints. Though the flier handed out by protesters includes his personal cellphone number and address, he added, he said he has not yet heard from anyone regarding the demonstration.
“I haven’t gotten a single call,” he said. “Anybody that calls me, I’ll be happy to talk to them.”
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[Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Littlehale’s position regarding labor. His primary concern, he said, is the use of highly trained, skilled workers who have graduated from state-approved apprenticeship programs. The story has been corrected to reflect this.]