Plan to build apartments on Holy Hill dies due to ‘changes in local political landscape’

The Pacific School of Religion and an Illinois-based nonprofit builder have nixed their plans to build 265 apartments for seniors on Holy Hill, citing Berkeley’s new development climate. Rendering: Solomon Cordwell Buenz

The Pacific School of Religion and Mather LifeWays have decided to withdraw their application to build 265 apartments for seniors on Holy Hill.

PSR and the Illinois-based nonprofit builder said “changes in the local political landscape” led to the decision.

“While both organizations believe in the significant benefits the community would have provided to the City of Berkeley, changes in the local political landscape have increased uncertainty regarding the project,” according to a statement released jointly by the two organizations.

The November election ushered in a development-skeptical City Council majority and a new mayor, Jesse Arreguín, who campaigned on the promise to extract more in community benefits from developers than the previous mayor and council did. Arreguín’s opponent for the mayoral seat, former City Councilman Laurie Capitelli, had predicted that Arreguín’s election would lead to less development.


PSR and Mather LifeWays had proposed a “continuing care” facility that featured apartments, a memory care unit, and nursing facilities for people at the end of their lives. Some of the seniors would have been housed in 5- to 6-story buildings on PSR’s main campus along Scenic Avenue. The complex would also have included the construction of a string of three-story high, Mediterranean-style buildings along Virginia Avenue.

There has been opposition to the plan from the time the two groups announced their intentions in August 2016. A number of neighbors formed the group, Save Holy Hill, to fight off the development, which they called out of scale and out of character with the residential neighborhood. The group said the complex was being built for the “very wealthy,” not ordinary seniors, and would destroy too many old and architecturally significant buildings on the PSR campus. It would also destroy prized open space in the middle of the city, they said.

“Our mission is to stop this massive development from being built as proposed,” reads the Save Holy Hill website…. This project is wrong for Berkeley.”

Daniella Thompson, a preservationist and past president of the Berkeley Architectural Association, has been leading tours through the bucolic PSR campus to drum up opposition to the $400 million project.

“This is a scorched-earth campaign,” Thompson said when the project was first announced. “They want to demolish everything and start from scratch… It’s a nice idea to provide senior housing, but this is demolishing wholesale a whole neighborhood. It’s horrible. It’s terrible.”

Mather LifeWays and PSR had argued that the project would fill a need. About 25% of Berkeley property owners are older than 55 and many professors from PSR, other schools affiliated with the Graduate Theological Union, and UC Berkeley move out of Berkeley after they retire because there are no senior centers to move into. The new complex would have provided them a place to live, according to the two groups.

The project also would have benefited Berkeley by returning tax-exempt land to the tax rolls, the groups said.

An overview of the current campus of the Pacific School of Religion on Holy Hill. Photo: Chris Benton

The Pacific School of Religion sought a partnership with Mather LifeWays because its campus is underutilized, according to David Vásquez-Levy, president of the Pacific School of Religion. The campus, constructed on the old model of seminary study, has evolved, In the 1940s and 1950s, mostly male students would come to PSR to live and study for three years. Then they would then go off and lead a congregation, he said.

Today, fewer students live on campus. Instead, they come for classes and leave. The institution has been discussing what to do with its campus for about 10 years, he said.

While the deal with Mather LifeWays is off, PSR will still seek to develop portions of the land, according to the statement. PSR is in discussions with potential buyers and expects to announce next steps in the coming months.

“Given the changes in our educational programs, we do not fully utilize all of the property we own,” said Vásquez-Levy. “Our intent is to leverage our real estate property towards a partnership that will strengthen our financial ability to fulfill our mission to prepare theologically and spiritually rooted leaders for social transformation within and beyond the church.”

The Save Holy Hill group said it recognizes that the PSR property will be developed one day but said the neighbors should play a larger part in the planning process.

Some people in the community have speculated that the campus would be a good place for UC Berkeley to build more housing for its students. If Cal developed the property it would not have to comply with local zoning laws since it is a state agency. Cal would have to go through the CEQA process, however, which requires community input, according to Christine Shaff, the communications director for Cal’s Real Estate Division.

However, UC Berkeley has no plans to acquire the PSR campus, said Shaff.