Real Estate

New housing OK’d in Berkeley as ‘YIMBYs’ win the night

A rendering of the proposed view of 2902 Adeline, looking southwest from Adeline and Russell streets. Image: Trachtenberg Architects
A rendering of the proposed view of 2902 Adeline, looking southwest from Adeline and Russell streets. Image: Trachtenberg Architects

A 6-story building set to include 50 rental units and four live-work units was approved Thursday night by Berkeley’s Zoning Adjustments Board, though neighborhood opposition will likely mean an appeal to City Council.

Nearly 300 people have signed a petition asking for changes to the project, at 2902 Adeline St. in South Berkeley, and many showed up Thursday to testify before the zoning board. Many neighbors asked the board to delay its vote until the Adeline Corridor community process is complete, or to approve a 4-story building instead.

The Adeline Corridor planning process has been underway since 2015, but it was paused while the city changed consultants to herald it through to completion, city leaders said recently. It is scheduled to end in 2017. The majority of the board, citing in part the housing crisis, did not indicate support for holding up development pending the completion of that process.

The project has drawn so much attention both because of its size and because the South Berkeley neighborhood has not seen the level of development happening in recent years around downtown, or along many of the city’s other large commercial avenues, such as University and San Pablo, in West Berkeley or in the Southside neighborhood near the UC Berkeley campus.


Supporters of the petition are lobbying for a minimum of 40% below-market-rate units in the project and more parking, as well as community benefits from developer Realtex, such as the dedication of 5% of rental proceeds to South Berkeley nonprofits. Zoning board members said Thursday night that those asks are beyond what the city can require, and a majority of the board voted to approve the project as submitted.

Public testimony lasted for more than three hours and included many passionate speakers on both sides: neighbors concerned with the project’s impacts on South Berkeley, as well as advocates of increased density, particularly on transit corridors and near BART, who say the state’s housing crisis demands timely approval of projects like this one. Unlike many zoning board meetings where public comment tends to be dominated by stiff opposition, Thursday night’s speakers included quite a few voices in favor of approval.

Many in the former group were dismissive of those in the latter camp of self-described “YIMBYs,” or “yes-in-my-back-yard” residents, who say they want to see appropriate housing built as quickly as possible. Petition-signers tended to be homeowners who are older and have lived in the city longer. Many of the YIMBYs said they didn’t live in the immediate neighborhood, were younger renters, and were more likely to be car-free or “car-light.”

“It’s fairly obvious to me who doesn’t live in the neighborhood,” one man told the board as he described the reasons for his opposition to the project. “It’s completely out of context for the neighborhood. I’m not interested in turning Berkeley into New York City.”

Above and below: 2908 Adeline, at Russell Street, where AW Pottery operates. Image: Google Maps
Above and below: 2908 Adeline, at Russell Street, where AW Pottery operates and where the new project would be built. Image: Google Maps

Above and below: 2908 Adeline, at Russell Street, where AW Pottery operates. Image: Google Maps

Mark Coplan and Ben Bartlett, two of the four candidates running for the open South Berkeley District 3 City Council seat, asked the board to put off its vote pending further discussion and analysis.

Coplan said the vote should be postponed because “all of the construction we’re doing is luxury housing,” adding, “the idea that we need less parking is insane.” Coplan said the city needs to focus on delaying any additional development “until we can focus on Berkeley residents.”

Bartlett said the board needed to listen to the people lacking resources who are facing displacement, as well as the neighbors describing problems with the process up to this point: “Holy shit, that’s what’s going on,” he told the board.

Bartlett, an attorney, said Realtex had not negotiated in good faith and urged the board to delay the vote until mediation could happen.

Many of those asking for project changes, including Bartlett, began to work together last year under the Friends of Adeline moniker. They say more than 300 people, including residents and local nonprofits, are part of their coalition to fight displacement and retain their neighborhood’s character. Many take pains to note they are not against development but are focused on the problems they see with the project at hand.

Sally Hindman, who runs South Berkeley job training program Youth Spirit Artworks, says Friends of Adeline is working to “create change in South Berkeley that really represents the community,” and asked the board to require Realtex to come back to the table and include more affordable housing in the project.

YIMBYs said that, even though they may not be able to afford the rents of projects such as the one under consideration Thursday, housing like it will mean less competition for existing units in their price range.

“I understand that only well-off people will be able to afford this place. But well-off people are going to be moving into this area anyways. And if they don’t move into this development, they’re going to displace poorer residents,” Tommaso Sciortino told the board in a letter he paraphrased Thursday. “When you make the poor compete with the rich for housing, the poor lose.”

Said another woman, of the urgent need for housing: “If we just keep shuffling the projects around we’re never going to get there.”

Supporters said projects like this will be critically important to reduce car dependence — which is a key piece of the city’s Climate Action Plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — and said impacts like shadowing and views must be valued less than “housing for human beings.” Bike East Bay has also signed on in support due to the project’s approach to parking and transit.

Attendees were skeptical Wednesday about plans for a new 6-story building at Adeline and Russell. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Neighbors, seen here at a project preview with developer Realtex in July 2015, have been meeting since last year to organize around a common vision for the neighborhood’s growth. Photo: Emilie Raguso

The project, designed by Berkeley-based Trachtenberg Architects, would span three existing parcels, at 2902 and 2908 Adeline and 1946 Russell St. A single-family home and a mixed-use building that includes residential and commercial space — now AW Pottery — would be demolished. According to the staff report prepared for Thursday’s meeting, the pottery shop owner, “who currently lives on site, is planning on retiring and moving out of state.”

The new 6-story building would have about 4,100 square feet of commercial space, including four live/work units, and 50 housing units. It is set to include two below-market-rate units for very-low-income households and two others for low-income households, which allows the developer to build taller under the state density bonus law. The developer would also pay $884,000 into the city’s Housing Trust Fund to build affordable housing elsewhere to comply with city rules related to below-market-rate housing.

The building is slated to include three residential lofts, 34 one-bedroom units and 13 two-bedroom units. The project is set to have 56 secure bicycle parking spots, along with a bike repair station and access to some number of free “shared” bikes, and stacked parking for 24 vehicles.

The city code requires 52 parking spots for vehicles. Staff said the applicant should be allowed to provide fewer spots for a variety of reasons, such as the site’s proximity to BART, car-share pods and walkable destinations like the library, Berkeley Bowl and Walgreens; its approach to bike parking and other transit strategies; and the ineligibility of residents to get street parking permits, “thereby reducing the attractiveness for car ownership.”

One local resident said approving the project would be a “total injustice” because it would mean only wealthy people could afford to move into new housing convenient to transit hubs like Ashby BART and other neighborhood resources, such as Berkeley Bowl. Others said they had been deeply disappointed by the development team.

“They are very aggressive and not really negotiating with us in a reasonable way,” one woman told the board. Others brought up a variety of concerns related to increasing gentrification and displacement.

Some have also said they are concerned Realtex will simply flip the property for a profit and move on.

A representative for San Carlos-based Olympic Residential Group told the board it is co-developing the site with Realtex. Olympic has a 99-unit project under construction in Berkeley already, she said, at 2121 Dwight Way. (According to website Bisnow, that was the firm’s first project.)

She told the board she and Olympic president Daniel Deibel have 40 years of development experience between them. And she said she hoped the firm’s participation would “ease the doubt that Realtex plans to abandon this project.”

Near Ashby BART: “Where housing needs to go,” commissioner says

A bird's eye view of 2902 Adeline looking south from Milvia and Russell. Image: Trachtenberg Architects
A bird’s eye view of 2902 Adeline looking south from Milvia and Russell. Image: Trachtenberg Architects

Zoning board members expressed sympathy for those who wanted more from the developer. Several said they wanted to change the project as a result, but others said that would not be financially feasible and would ultimately kill the project.

Board Chair Denise Pinkston said everyone in the room has been harmed in some way by the state’s housing crisis.

“We don’t differ on the fact that there is a significant problem. Where we differ is what to do about it,” she said. “The issues that you raise are painful no matter which side of the discussion you’re on.”

She said, as part of her professional work, she volunteers at least half her time to efforts related to understanding the Bay Area housing crunch. Pinkston said she has read every major paper on best practices to solve the state’s housing problems, and that research has identified building more density on vacant lots and along transit corridors as among the top recommendations. The Realtex project essentially checks both boxes.

Pinkston said the state will become “the Golden State for the golden people” — those who are wealthy and already own homes — if significant steps aren’t taken swiftly to help young people and renters stay.

“Until we build more housing, a lot more housing, at densities that are uncomfortable, we will never get close to addressing that need,” she said. “Should we be building 6 stories near BART? … The answer to that question, I believe, is unequivocally yes.”

Commissioner Charles Kahn concurred: “This is the Ashby BART station and it is where housing needs to go.” Kahn said he understands the pain and fear expressed by many local residents, but said the state and region need to come up with more ways to fund affordable housing because private developers alone will not be able to afford it.

“We want affordable housing desperately for our community. We feel the losses most intensely in the Lorin District along the Adeline Corridor along the last number of years. There have been terrible losses due to the increase in the cost of living in that district,” he said. “I fear we are losing the city that I came to live in.”

But Kahn also agreed with Pinkston’s idea that, though everyone is concerned about the loss of diversity in Berkeley, there is a divided perception about how to staunch the flow. He referenced comments made by an earlier public speaker who said 1,700 new people are projected to move into Berkeley each year, and said the city does not build enough units to accommodate them.

“We aren’t doing it. We aren’t coming close,” he said. “And if we don’t provide that housing, we are going to continue to see the erosion of our communities where it’s only the wealthy who can afford to live here.”

In the past five years, the population of Berkeley has grown 5.5%, but its housing supply has only increased 1.2%, according to a city report from earlier this year. Berkeley had, according to one estimate in January, 2,500 housing units in the pipeline, a dramatic change from the decades from 1970 to 1990 when only 600 units were built.

But many of those units remain a long way from completion, and rents have climbed precipitously in recent years, as demand has continued to outpace availability. Compared to 2014, Berkeley’s median rent grew $400, or 12%, to $3,584 last year.

In the past 14 years, only 427 units of below-market-rate housing have been constructed in Berkeley, Eric Angstadt, the city’s former planning director, said earlier this year. The vast majority of those were built before 2012. Only 31 affordable units have been built in the past four years, he said. There are another 175 in the pipeline. That includes Harper Crossing, a 42-unit complex for seniors by the southern tip of Ashby BART, about a half-mile from 2902 Adeline.

Tregub: “Housing for whom?”

The proposed cafe at Adeline and Russell. Image: Trachtenberg Architects
The proposed cafe at Adeline and Russell. Image: Trachtenberg Architects
The project includes several residential lofts on Russell to create a better transition into the neighborhood, developers say. Image: Trachtenberg Architects
The project includes several residential lofts on Russell to create a better transition into the neighborhood, developers say. Image: Trachtenberg Architects

According to financial papers submitted by the developer as part of a peer-review process, the project will generate a 5.6% rate of return. That’s reportedly less than it might expect from “similar projects,” but the reviewer described the project as “financially feasible” if approved as submitted. A smaller project, however, would not pencil out, according to the reviewer.

Despite that financial analysis, Commissioners Shoshana O’Keefe, Brazile Clark and Igor Tregub — in the running right now for the city’s Rent Stabilization Board — said they would prefer a 4-story alternative over the project they had before them. (They are the appointees of South Berkeley council representative Max Anderson, southside rep Kriss Worthington and downtown’s Jesse Arreguín, respectively. Both Worthington and Arreguín are running for Berkeley mayor, and are set to appear alongside fellow candidate and council member Laurie Capitelli in a forum Wednesday to discuss development.)

O’Keefe called a 4-story building “a reasonable compromise that would make people mostly happy” and said that approach would be “less likely to offend the sort of long-term planning process that’s going on right now,” in a nod to the planning process that’s been underway for the Adeline Corridor.

She said 4 stories would be more compatible with the existing neighborhood, which includes many smaller buildings and single-family homes, though there is a 6-story low-income housing complex for seniors across Russell Street to the north.

According to the staff report prepared for Thursday’s meeting, the area to the north and east “consists predominantly of one- to three-story multifamily dwellings” and businesses, while the area to the west is residentially zoned for 1- to 3-story single- and multi-family homes. Harriet Tubman Terrace Apartments at 2870 Adeline St., the only noted exception, has 91 units across 6 stories.

Read more about housing in Berkeley.

O’Keefe said it is important to balance the need for density with other considerations: “This neighborhood is going to be irreparably changed in a way that’s tragic for the people who live there.”

Tregub said he, too, wants to see more housing built but sees the situation as more complex. He noted that many of his neighbors have already been displaced out of the West Berkeley community where he lives. He said he was having trouble making the findings to approve a 6-story building.

“I always ask myself: Housing for whom?” he said. “It is up to us whether we want to approve the use permit portion of this or not because it is discretionary.”

He said he would prefer to see more affordable housing built on site rather than a fee paid into the city’s Housing Trust Fund, but he recognized that that too, is an area where philosophies diverge.

Six-story Harriet Tubman Terrace Apartments is to the north across Russell Street. Image: Trachtenberg Architects
Six-story Harriet Tubman Terrace Apartments is to the north across Russell Street. Image: Trachtenberg Architects

Substitute Commissioner Jeff Vincent said he would have liked to see more meetings between the developer and neighbors where they might have been able to come to an agreement they could both accept, and more large units appropriate for families. (The average unit size for the project is 808 square feet, with the units ranging from 667 to 1,025 square feet.)

But Vincent noted, too, that neighbors seemed to be asking “an enormous amount,” beyond what would be financially feasible for any private developer.

Tregub made a motion for the developer to come back with 4- and 5-story design alternatives for the board to consider, but only O’Keefe and Clark voted in favor of that suggestion. Clark said keeping the complex at 4 stories would keep the building more in line with “the culture and context of the neighborhood.”

“There is only so much that we can do,” she told the public, apologetically. Of the housing crisis, she added, “The entire community carries that burden.”

Tregub and O’Keefe ultimately voted against the main motion to approve the project as submitted, and Clark abstained. The rest of the board voted in favor of the main motion — put forward by George Williams and seconded by Kahn — for immediate approval.

Pinkston took some extra time to explain her vote and said, based on what she had seen, it didn’t seem like mediation would help the neighbors and developer agree on a viable alternative because neighbors were largely advocating for increased community benefits, which is not the purview of the zoning board. She said she has been seeing a similar process play out around the Bay Area, and that the results are problematic.

“It’s sort of putting the skids on building housing at a time when we need to be building more housing,” Pinkston said.

She said, further down the road, the Adeline Corridor process may result in up-zoning — or increased density — in exchange for additional community benefits. But the board is operating now under the current code.

“I think it is our job to take all the testimony we heard and to try to make the best deal that we can. That is our job,” Pinkston said. “I’m not sure what would be gained by additional time.”

Appeals to the City Council can be filed within 14 days after the zoning board’s notice of decision appears in writing; the written notice is generally completed within two weeks of the board’s vote, according to the city website.

See related project documents on the city website. Read more about housing in Berkeleyside’s real estate section. Read more news about the Adeline Corridor, and more about the public planning process, on Berkeleyside. See the city’s Adeline Corridor planning website.

Related:
Op-ed: Proposed Berkeley development on Adeline highlights key community issues (08.29.16)
Berkeley neighbors say affordability will be key to proposed Adeline Street project (07.24.15)
Berkeley Honda wins approval to move; appeal possible (09.14.16)
Plans for Berkeley’s Adeline Corridor begin to take shape (05.24.16)
Will Berkeley flea market survive changing neighborhood? (03.21.16)
Berkeley breaks ground on affordable housing project (03.25.16)
Community helps plan new South Berkeley parklet (02.09.16)
Housing forum: Climate right for development in Berkeley (01.25.16)
Adeline report highlights desire for affordable housing (09.01.15)
Friends of Adeline: ‘Our future shall be determined by us’ (08.05.15)
Op-ed: Mending the urban fabric on Adeline Street (06.08.15)
Neighbors outline demands for Adeline Corridor grant (05.11.15)
Diversity raised as concern at Adeline session as planning process takes off (02.09.15)

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