After more than five hours of public comment and council discussion Tuesday night, city officials found themselves deadlocked on a neighborhood appeal to halt Berkeley Honda’s attempt to move into the old Any Mountain building on Shattuck Avenue.
But that’s not the end of the story. The saga is set to continue Feb. 28.
Following a 15-minute monologue where Berkeley City Councilwoman Sophie Hahn said Honda knew the risks when it decided to leave its old location up the street, Hahn made a motion to approve the neighborhood appeal, which would have struck down the project’s use permits and killed the plans.
But Hahn didn’t have the votes. Council members Hahn, Cheryl Davila and Ben Bartlett, along with Mayor Jesse Arreguín, voted in favor of the appellants to deny the use permits.
Council members Linda Maio, Susan Wengraf and Lori Droste abstained from the vote.
And Councilman Kriss Worthington voted “no” on the appeal after saying he believed historic city planning and policy had paved the way for Berkeley Honda to move, whether he liked it or not.
The tie vote came about in part because there are only eight sitting members on the Berkeley City Council right now, with the downtown seat — left vacant after Arreguín’s successful mayoral run — up for grabs in the March 7 election.
As per the city’s rules, the item will now continue to appear on council agendas for 30 days and, if no action is taken, the use permits will be granted. The city’s Zoning Adjustments Board voted 7-2 in favor of those permits in September.
According to the city, the Berkeley Honda appeal will be on the Feb. 28 action calendar, and public comment will be taken. At least five votes would be needed to grant the appeal.
Worthington said he hopes a compromise might be reached by the time that meeting rolls around.
Ali Kashani, representing Berkeley Honda, said Tuesday that there have been 11 public hearings in 30 months about the two-block move. The company was described repeatedly throughout the night as one of Berkeley’s top five sales tax generators.
In November 2014, Berkeley Honda left its longtime location at 2600 Shattuck Ave. to make way for a large mixed-use development called Parker Place currently under construction in the neighborhood. After struggling since 2008 to find an appropriate new location, the business has said it came to an agreement with the property owner of 2777 Shattuck after Any Mountain requested an early termination of its lease there.
The neighborhood around Berkeley Honda has organized a strong campaign against the project as proposed, though many residents have said they support labor unions and support the business itself. One local resident, Steve Finacom, told council Tuesday night he’d tallied more than 80 people who came out to support the appeal, compared to 19 on the Honda side (many of whom had ties to the company or the project).
As is to be expected with such a hotly contested project that has such a lengthy history, a number of disputed facts and complexities have been raised. The most significant among them Tuesday night revolved around the word “ancillary,” and how it should be interpreted by city planners.
In an nutshell: Berkeley Honda proposes auto sales at 2777 Shattuck Ave., as well as auto service. The service element of the business is slated to take up 65% of the facility, even though the use is “ancillary” to the sales use.
Many neighbors and some council members said that simply doesn’t fly, and pointed to city code sections they believe support their position. The primary use of the facility, auto sales, should be the one using the bulk of the space and making up the bulk of the business, according to that perspective. And many local residents have said it is the service piece of the business they are most concerned about.
Others, including city staff, said various planning and zoning materials often conflict, but that it’s possible to interpret city standards to allow for the 65%-service-to-35%-sales ratio, which staff also said is in line with the average breakdown of a handful of other nearby auto dealerships.
Councilman Worthington said previous Planning Commission discussions anticipated this issue, and intentionally used language that would allow for the ratio as described. He said, too, that when council created a special overlay in South Berkeley for auto uses, he became convinced — though he was initially dubious — about how hard the business tried to find an alternate location.
Mayor Arreguín and Councilwoman Hahn said they disagreed, and that an ancillary use is not allowed if it has different or greater impacts than the primary use.
Another issue that came up Tuesday night centered on whether proper notification had been done by the city for the meeting. Despite having set the Feb. 7 date as a special meeting dedicated solely to the appeal issue, the city sent a postcard that incorrectly listed March 7 as the meeting date (in addition to Feb. 7). Speakers said staff told them the meeting would likely be postponed, and also said their organizing, document submission and turnout efforts had been stymied as a result. Some also complained that the city has given unfair consideration and advantage to Berkeley Honda — over neighborhood interests — as the process has unfolded.
Council discussed the notification issue but ultimately decided to hear the appeal Tuesday because so many people had turned out, and due to the challenges of finding a new date for the issue to be heard, particularly on its own night. Some speakers — including an attorney for Berkeley Honda — said the large turnout made it clear that the neighborhood had fair warning about the meeting.
Neighborhood concerns included increased traffic problems in the area — which they say is already too congested and dangerous, particularly for pedestrians — insufficient parking on site, and the idea that having an auto service business on the parcel would not be the right fit for the neighborhood. Many pointed out the ongoing Adeline Corridor planning process and said plopping down the car dealership at 2777 Shattuck is out of line, and out of character, with how they hope their neighborhood will grow, particularly since the visioning is still underway.
Neighbors also raised questions about the city’s traffic study for the project, and submitted their own assessment of that study along with a letter from their attorney this past week. The city’s traffic engineer said Tuesday he stands by the city’s report and its accuracy.
A representative for the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce said Honda has already spent $600,000 in rent for 2777 Shattuck, though it has not been allowed to move in.
Some speakers said Honda will be forced to close if it can’t resolve the issue soon. Others have said they are skeptical of that claim, and that they think it’s just a pressure tactic to force the city’s hand.
The Yasuda family, which owns 2777 Shattuck, pleaded in a letter to the city to let the deal go forward.
Back in 2014, according to the letter, Any Mountain told the Yasudas it planned to close. Then, the Yasudas asked Berkeley Honda if it would like to move in.
“After they checked with the City Planning Department and were told, in writing, that their relocation was permitted under the zoning laws, and after they also got clearance from American Honda, we entered into a lease. Because zoning laws were in place, we all believed a relocation would take a short time — possibly no more than a few months,” the letter reads.
The Yasudas also pointed out that they are the owners of a nearby triangular lot that’s part of the proposed Honda project, at 2747 Adeline St., which neighbors have said they would like to see as a park, not a parking lot. That land “is our private property,” the letter reads, “and is not a ‘public space’ as some in the community have claimed.”