Luxury rental housing to replace Berkeley offices

1950 Addison. Photo: TCA Architecture
1950 Addison: A 7-story apartment building has been approved. Photo: TCA Architecture

A 2-story office building in downtown Berkeley is slated to be replaced by a 7-story building with 107 luxury apartments and no retail. The project, at 1950 Addison St., between Milvia Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, was approved Thursday night by the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board.

A ground-floor parking garage will have space for 68 vehicles on lifts, and 75 bicycles. Total project height is slated to be 74 feet. The units will be a mix of studios, and one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments.

Four of those units will be below-market-rate apartments. The developer is expected to pay $1.26 million into the city’s Housing Trust Fund, which is used to build affordable housing elsewhere in the city. The property is owned by Westwood BayRock Addison LP of San Francisco.

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The project is opting to take advantage of the “density bonus” and a use permit to build up to a height of seven stories. Zoning board members spent a significant amount of time discussing the density bonus and, in some cases taking issue with, how the city calculates it. (Scroll down for details.)

This office building on Addison is set to be replaced by seven stories of housing. Image: Google maps
This office building on Addison is set to be replaced by seven stories of housing. Image: Google maps

Average rents for the market-rate units were estimated at $3,400 to $3,900, but a member of the project team said that might be overly optimistic: “It may be going the other way. The market’s peaked,” he said.

It’s not the first new project on the block in recent years. Construction is already underway across the street at 1931 Addison of a 69-unit 6-story project.

On BayRock Multifamily’s website, the 1950 Addison project is described as “luxury rental apartment homes in the vibrant Arts District of Downtown Berkeley.”

“The project would merge … two existing parcels, demolish the existing office building and remove the surface parking lot,” according to the staff report. Though there will be no retail — it’s not required in the “buffer” area adjacent to the downtown core — a fitness room on the ground floor will have windows to the street.

According to the applicant’s presentation, the apartments will be aimed at an “underserved” population described as “the non-student sector of the community.”

Jonathan Cohen of TCA Architects, a member of the project team, said amenities would include a private dining room and party space with a catering kitchen, and a rainwater cistern “to be used in our dog wash on the ground floor.”

1950 Addison. Photo: TCA Architecture
Looking east at 1950 Addison. Photo: TCA Architecture

There will also be private decks, and a roof deck that will be “heavily landscaped” with a bocce ball area, a fire pit, barbecues and “excellent views.”

“This is the kind of quality building that downtown Berkeley deserves and hasn’t yet gotten,” Cohen told the board. He said there are also plans for a mural on the south side of the building and a “poetry garage door” designed by a local poet and an artisan, in collaboration, to decorate the garage façade. Cohen said the door would play off the existing “poetry walk” one block east on Addison, which was created by the city’s Arts Commission and Robert Hass in 2003.

According to the applicant statement, “On the Addison façade our primary materials include an aluminum skinned window wall and a high pressure laminate panelized rain screen system, both of which are very high quality materials seldom seen on multifamily projects. Throughout the building we maximize the size of windows and openings.”

According to an architectural review of the project, the National Guard occupied the building from 1923, when it was built, into the 1940s. From there, “a helicopter testing facility” — related to the so-called “Hiller-copter” — “briefly occupied the building until 1944, at which time the building was used by a lumber company until approximately 1979.” The Landmarks Preservation Commission reviewed the building history and architecture and decided not to pursue landmark status, according to the staff report.

From the architectural review: “The structure is not a particularly good example of architectural design in terms of style, period, materials or other aesthetic qualities, either on the exterior or interior, and as noted, has been substantially remodeled, eliminating much of the original historic appearance and ambiance.”

Only two members of the public spoke about the project, and both were in support. The office building has in the past had at least 12 tenants, according to a promotional brochure listing the building for sale, but none spoke at Thursday’s meeting.

Click to view larger. Source: City of Berkeley
Explainer: How density bonus projects work. Click the graphic above to view it larger. Source: City of Berkeley

Most of the zoning board’s discussion Thursday night once the item came up on the agenda focused on how city staff calculated the project’s density bonus, a state law that entitles projects that include below-market-rate housing to “concessions or incentives,” which can mean a taller building or other types of benefits that would not fit within the existing code.

Commissioner Sophie Hahn said she did not agree with the city’s approach to calculating that bonus with this project. The city determined the hypothetical “base project,” or number of units the building could include under the zoning code, to be 73 units. Under state law, designating 5% of those units to very-low-income tenants results in up to a 20% density bonus, which in this case grants 15 more units. The project also requested — and was given — a use permit to add another 19 units, a single story, for a total of 107 units.

“I feel quite strongly that it is not correct,” said Hahn. “I’m concerned that this project isn’t allowed the way it is presented.”

Hahn said she believed the project should be required to provide one additional unit of below-market-rate housing. She abstained from the vote as a result.

“I cannot sanction what I believe to be a policy that I believe is wrong and that cheats the people of Berkeley of even one affordable unit,” she said.

The poetry display on the garage gate could look something like this. Image: TCA Architects
The poetry display on the garage gate could look something like this. Image: TCA Architects

The rest of the board voted in favor of approval. (One commissioner, who had to leave early, did not vote.)

A project representative who said his expertise is in state density bonus law said the analysis had been vetted by his team and also by the city attorney.

Not all board members were convinced. Said Vice Chair Igor Tregub: “I have a general problem with the way the city calculates the density bonus. But that is a citywide issue.” He said he would not let his issue with the policy undermine his support for the project, which he said was nicely designed.

Many cities have standards for dwelling units per acre. Berkeley does not. Advocates for Berkeley’s approach say it allows for more flexibility and more growth. Opponents say it adds too much confusion.

Said Hahn on Thursday night: “That’s why we’re uniquely in the position of making stuff up. And that is what we do in Berkeley: We make it up.”

Commissioner Charles Kahn pointed out that — unlike many other cities — Berkeley levies a fee, aimed to boost its Housing Trust Fund, on every market-rate unit in a project. Until recently, developers could provide 10% of the units on site as below-market-rate apartments to get out of the fee. Or they could opt for a combination, which is the case with the project at 1950 Addison. (The Berkeley City Council voted earlier this month to increase the percentage of BMR units to 20%, but that will impact new projects, not completed applications.)

Kahn called the Addison Street design “gorgeous,” adding: “I wish I could third the motion for approval.”

1950 Addison. Photo: TCA Architecture
1950 Addison, as proposed, and the surrounding buildings. Photo: TCA Architecture

After the vote, Commission Chair Denise Pinkston asked staff to try to find a better way to deal with the density bonus in the future so discussion of its interpretation did not continue to take up the board’s time.

“We shouldn’t have to have the same conversation every time, and really the rule should not change,” she said. She asked staff to find a way “to not have us spend half an hour every time trying to figure out the math.”

Kahn, too, said he would like to get a definitive answer to Hahn’s question about how the number of affordable units is calculated.

Tregub said the city attorney could provide a written memo, though he wasn’t optimistic about whether that would happen: “We have asked for that in the past,” Tregub said.

Commissioners said they’d like the city attorney to attend a session with the board, or entertain a visit from a subcommittee, to make sure there is clarity.

“It would be nice to get it straight from the source of the legal opinion,” Tregub said.

Recent zoning board appointee Teresa Clarke said she wasn’t surprised by the discussion. The density bonus had been a knotty topic when she was on the city’s Planning Commission for five years.

“This came up every time, too,” she told her new colleagues on the board.

See BayRock’s description of 1950 Addison on its website. See more project documents on the city website.

Related:
Berkeley council votes to increase inclusionary housing (04.06.16)

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