Thursday night the Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board approved a 5-story mixed-use project near downtown, previewed updated plans for a hotel on Center Street and postponed a decision related to a proposed residential hotel on Shattuck Avenue that the developer would like to convert to studio apartments.
“The Roost,” with parklet and dog park, approved on Blake near Shattuck
The board was unanimous in its vote to approve “The Roost,” an 82-unit project at 2029-2035 Blake St., just west of Shattuck. The 5-story building is also set to include two live-work units, about 1,900 square feet of ground-floor retail, 68 parking spaces in a basement-level garage and 67 bike parking spots. Two of the vehicle spaces will be dedicated car-share spots, and there will be 16 EV-ready parking stalls provided.
Commissioner Sophie Hahn asked the developer, represented by Mark Rhoades of the Rhoades Planning Group, to commit to include four units of below-market-rate housing on site, with four additional units either to be built on the property or paid for through fees into the city’s Housing Trust Fund. After conferring briefly with his client, Rhoades agreed to the request.
Two non-residential buildings, for Hustead’s Towing and Airport Home Appliance, would be demolished to make way for the new project.
Rhoades told the board he is committed to “bringing really high quality projects to the city, and this is one I’m really proud of.” He said the project’s massing is “the most important part of the story here.” The property has an opening through the center to allow extra light into the units, provide courtyard views, and leave more open space on the ground level.
Rhoades credited feedback from the city’s Design Review Committee with helping to improve the project design by pushing for the underground parking lot, which was not originally part of the concept.
Also proposed are a parklet on Blake, to be maintained by the property owner, a dog park in the rear of the building, and solar panels on the roof to power the building’s common areas. (See additional details on the city website.)
Rhoades said the project is “not being built for students,” and that the fixtures and finishes will be “durable and high quality.” He said likely tenants will be young professionals or possibly “older people who want to get closer to the downtown in a smaller unit.”
Commissioner Richard Christiani described The Roost as “one of the most transformed projects that I’ve seen come through Design Review,” and complimented Rhoades for his responsiveness to feedback.
The downtown hotel: Getting close, but “quiet it down a little bit”
Jay Pesci, a senior vice president for Pyramid Hotel Group, told the zoning board he wanted to take the time Thursday to “reintroduce our hotel to you.” In August, the city’s Design Review Committee had a look at the project’s most recent iteration.
Pyramid is hoping to build a 16-story hotel with a café and restaurant, as well as new space for Bank of America, which owns the project site. A second-floor parking garage for nearly 100 vehicles is planned, as is a fitness center and rooftop pool, about 330 hotel rooms and 11,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor meeting space.
Pesci said that, though the operator has not yet been determined, the approach would be similar to what might be found in a Marriott Residence Inn. He said Pyramid is in discussions with Marriott, as well as other brands. He estimated nightly rates at $250-$275, and average stays of six to eight weeks.
According to Pyramid, the hotel will employ an estimated 100 permanent unionized hotel jobs, and more than 250 unionized construction jobs for 18 months. Pyramid will make “specialized efforts to source materials and workers from Berkeley.” The hotel estimates that the city of Berkeley will collect an estimated $3 million each year in transient occupancy taxes. Plans to create a pedestrian-focused Center Street are also underway as part of the project.
Some commissioners asked whether the parking garage could instead go underground, but Pesci said that was unlikely because it would delay the project 6-8 months and could cost an additional $4 million or even more.
“We are so tight on this project right now, to go for another 8 months … would tip it over the edge,” he told the board.
Part of the challenge is that property owner Bank of America has insisted that it remain open throughout construction, said Pesci. That means the project must be done in two phases, with two excavation periods, two excavation teams and other complexities. After the first phase, the bank is set to move into a temporary location on Center, then move back to its longtime corner spot after the second phase is done.
“There’s a lot of ingredients in that soup and it’s sort of a circuitous construction,” he told the board.
He said Pyramid has had conversations with the bank to try to convince it to take a different approach, such as moving to a different location or giving up the corner space, “but it has not gone anywhere.”
Commissioners asked Pyramid to keep trying to make headway with Bank of America as the process proceeds.
Several community members who spoke during public comment said the city needs another hotel, particularly one with conference space, downtown. They said the bank was unlikely to change its position.
“If we push too hard and they go away,” said John Caner, who runs the Downtown Berkeley Association, “they aren’t going to do a deal again.”
Several commissioners said they were not too concerned with the second-floor parking garage, because it will be enclosed and screened from view. Commissioners did suggest that Pyramid look into improving the screening by commissioning a local artist to create panels such as the ones at the SOMA Grand condo complex in San Francisco.
Project team member Ed McFarlan told the board his architecture firm, JRDV Urban International, had looked at original art earlier on, and would do so again: “We want a great building, we really do…. If we’re going to do it, we’ll do it well.”
Commissioners asked the project team to take another look at the proposed building colors, too, to make them less “Disneyland” or “cartoonish,” and more Berkeley. Pinkston said the proposed alternating colors of precast panels are not yet looking elegant enough to fit in with the cityscape.
Concurred Commissioner Hahn: “I just think there’s way too much going on. It’s very busy.”
She added, “It’s just too many things: too loud, too many applications, too many lines that don’t match up. In some ways it’s not that far away from what it needs to be. I think we just need to quiet it down a little bit.”
Residential hotel: Not so fast on the apartment swap
A request to convert a not-yet-built 22-unit project at 2711 Shattuck from a residential hotel to regular apartments — that began on the consent calendar — ended up getting continued to a later date after commissioners said they needed more information from the developer.
Patrick Kennedy, of Panoramic Interests, said in January he hoped to break ground in June on his residential hotel just north of UC Storage. The hotel project initially won approval from the city in February 2010. (In 2007, a 24-unit project was approved to the north, at 2701 Shattuck, but there has been no sign of construction.)
In December, the zoning board approved “revised unit interior layouts to create larger and more usable kitchens, and to open up the living and sleeping areas, as well as other changes to the design including increased window height,” according to the staff report.
Thursday, project representative Cara Houser told the zoning board that lenders had been balking at the idea of a residential hotel, and asked for the conversion to a more straightforward type of project.
Panoramic said it wants to turn the residential hotel rooms into studio apartments, two of which would be below-market-rate units, which were not previously part of the project.
Panoramic also needs a parking waiver because Houser said there isn’t enough room to build 10 parking spots and keep the open space in the back, which she said had also been of interest to neighbors due to the 40-foot setback between the proposed building and the property line. She said the project is too small to justify building parking underground. The project already had secured a 5-spot parking waiver in prior iterations.
The landscaped courtyard in the back is set to include 22 bicycle parking spaces, movable workbenches, a car-share spot and approximately 2,000 square feet of open space. The studios would each be about 300-330 square feet.
Houser told the board that part of the issue was that the lot had been part of the UC Storage property, and Panoramic had not been “able to liberate it from that” to build the project sooner. She said UC Storage was sold earlier this year, which had made the project feasible.
She said lenders had been resistant to financing the project because of the “residential hotel” designation, and said that had driven the decision to take a more conventional approach.
Houser declined to provide specific rental figures in response to a question from the board, but said it would take 18 months to two years to build, and would then have rents “comparable with what studios are in that neighborhood,” adding: “It becomes a matter of really what the market is at the time.”
Commissioner Christiani said he wasn’t necessarily comfortable waiving five more parking spots, and questioned the density on the site, noting that it would cover 54% of the lot vs. the allowable 35%.
Houser repeatedly insisted that the project was “modest” and said Panoramic did not take a density bonus to build taller. She said the proposed building actually looks “kind of puny” between the approved project to the north and the storage building to the south. According to the staff report, the project covers less than half of its allowable floor area ratio: 10,100 square feet as compared to about 22,700.
One member of the public said the location is perfect for car-free living, while another said the neighborhood is not vibrant enough to support new tenants in micro-units, and needs more commercial space, which is not proposed.
Some commissioners said the size of the units would be appropriate for students, while Commissioner Hahn described the units as “substandard” and said there weren’t enough amenities to justify the size.
Commissioner Steve Donaldson noted that forcing the project to add parking would ultimately push up rental costs in the end, and made a motion for approval.
Commissioner Shoshana O’Keefe said she was on the fence about the project, and would likely vote for approval. She said she didn’t think the location was ideal for micro-units, but that the project scale was somewhat reassuring: “I think we should be voting for housing if it’s at all possible.… If we’re going to have an experiment in micro-units, I think it’s the right size.”
Pinkston, too, said she was prepared to vote “yes,” and said students would be likely to live in the building.
Others said they wished there had been more detail in the staff report to allow them to make a more informed decision.
Commissioner Igor Tregub, saying the project as proposed will be less likely to serve as workforce housing, for those making 80% to 120% of the area median income, made a substitute motion to put off the decision to a later date. He asked the developer to come back with more information about project financing, as well as more concrete unit rental rate projections.
Ultimately, even commissioners who said they were ready to vote to approve the project changed gears and voted in favor of a continuance. Commissioners Donaldson, Williams and Savlan Hauser voted against the continuance.
Commission Chair Prakash Pinto said he hopes it can come back soon, possibly at the next ZAB meeting, noting: “I don’t want to keep this project hanging.”
Get the latest Berkeley news in your inbox with Berkeleyside’s free Daily Briefing. And make sure to bookmark Berkeleyside’s pages on Facebook and Twitter. You don’t need an account on those sites to view important information.