After contentious battle, council approves new South Berkeley housing

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

It was touch-and-go for a while there, but a Berkeley City Council majority voted in favor Tuesday night of 50 new housing units on Adeline Street.

The 6-story building, at 2902 Adeline, is set to replace Aw Pottery, which is closing up shop. If built, it will be the first new housing project of its size to come to South Berkeley in quite some time. West Berkeley Councilwoman Cheryl Davila was the lone abstention, with the rest of council voting in favor after local neighbors came to an agreement with the developer about the terms of the deal.

The compromise — the latest of many attempts between South Berkeley neighbors and developer Realtex — was reached shortly before 4 p.m. Tuesday. Jassmin Poyaoan of the East Bay Community Law Center, representing neighbors, outlined the terms in an email to city officials: 50 new units with nine affordable (four at 50% of the area median income, or AMI, four at 80%, and one at 120%); a payment of $68,000 into the city’s Housing Trust Fund to build affordable units elsewhere; a “voluntary donation” of $100,000 to help create a “community advocate” position at the law center to fight displacement and offer other assistance; and monthly meetings with Harriet Tubman residents — senior housing across the street — during construction. Poyaoan said it took 1.5 years to get consensus.

The deal, brokered by Councilman Ben Bartlett with some help from Mayor Jesse Arreguín, has been called “innovative” and “incredible” because of the way it includes community benefits not required by the municipal code. Realtex said Tuesday night it would even go a step further and designate two of the 80% AMI units for Section 8 tenants for the life of the project. City code only would have required that for another year or two, and the move appeared to be an olive branch to neighbors who have said repeatedly they are concerned about gentrification and the way low-income residents are being forced out of South Berkeley.


Council had been set to vote on the deal in March, but Realtex and neighbors disagreed about how many affordable units would be built. The city’s zoning board initially approved the project in October — with four below-market-rate units and a payment of $884,000 into the Housing Trust Fund — but neighbors appealed, which bumped up the project to council. At this point, assuming no one files a lawsuit, the project now has its permits and can move toward construction.

San Francisco-based developer Realtex has had a tough road in Berkeley, with many community members criticizing the company for what they see as questionable tactics. Some local residents labeled Realtex a speculator after it sold a permitted parcel on University Avenue rather than build there. A Realtex proposal under consideration on Telegraph Avenue has been met with significant resistance. During the Adeline Street planning process, involved neighbors said it took Realtex much too long to bring them to the table to negotiate. And some have said Realtex has repeatedly changed the details of proposed deals along the way.

Questions have also been raised about what exactly happened to a group of neighbors who used to live at 1946 Russell St., next door to 2902 Adeline. Recently, it came to light through the efforts of other South Berkeley residents that the landlord for 1946 Russell doubled the rent in 2015 — not long before Realtex began discussing the project publicly. The tenants then moved out. (Representatives for the project have said no one was displaced as a result of the plans.) If there were low-income units, that triggers rules related to how many affordable units must be built to replace them. Those issues, however, remained disputed and ultimately did not factor in to the council discussion. In the end, council simply voted to approve the deal between neighbors and Realtex announced by the law center.

South Berkeley neighbors worked together with the help of the East Bay Community Law Center to push developer Realtex to meet its demands for 2902 Adeline. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Because of the deal, most of the South Berkeley neighbors involved with that process did not speak before council Tuesday night. That meant that most of the people who commented came from another camp: the “YIMBYS,” or “yes-in-my-back-yard” crowd, which has been pushing hard for cities to respond to the state’s housing crisis by approving large, dense projects as quickly as possible, particularly along transit corridors.

“We know who doesn’t need public transit now: Pottery,” said one man, in reference to the current owner of 2902 Adeline: Aw Pottery. 2902 Adeline is a 5-five walk from the Ashby BART station. Another speaker continued in that vein, telling council, “This is much needed housing for much needed people. Replace pottery with people.”

Another local resident, Eric Panzer, said the lengthy and complex process nearly killed the project, and urged the city to find ways to streamline housing development going forward, “This project is going to be feasible only by the skin of its teeth,” he said.

Some speakers did tell council they wanted the project sent back to the zoning board for review and reduced from 6 stories to 4 or 5. Some wished the city required more affordable units, at least 30%, in the project.

“The progressive thing is to follow the state law and get 15 bedrooms,” Robert Lauriston told council. There are 11 in the approved plan, he told Berkeleyside after publication. (Lauriston published an opinion piece on Berkeleyside about 2902 Adeline in late March that outlines his concerns about the project and the process.)

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

Mayor Jesse Arreguín described the project Tuesday night as “a vision for sustainable and equitable development” and a new milestone for the Berkeley City Council. He said the level of community benefits provided by the project “is precedent setting,” especially in South Berkeley. (Downtown Berkeley has a robust policy in place, the Downtown Area Plan, which requires a wide range of “community benefits” of developers who wish to build tall buildings in the city center. Other neighborhoods do not have similar requirements.)

Neighbors who took part in the negotiations and appeal to council, however, said the final deal left something to be desired.

“The compromise that was approved last night was the ‘least-­bad option’ on the table,” Katy Guimond told Berkeleyside on Wednesday. “The Bay Area is resegregating by both race and class, and abstract models of supply and demand aren’t enough to solve the problem. The community and our allies on the council put in a tremendous amount of effort to get more affordable housing, funding for services to prevent displacement, and community input into the process. But even as we celebrate our wins, we know that this compromise is far from what our neighborhood truly needs.”

Added Janis Ching, a 15-year resident of South Berkeley: “While we are not completely satisfied with the outcome, we feel we made the best deal we could” given the terms of the zoning board approval in October. And Ching said the group’s efforts thus far will help shape the neighborhood going forward. The city has been working on a plan for the future of the Adeline Corridor since 2015, and that process is still underway.

“We will continue to fight against renters being unlawfully displaced, for developer profits to be more transparent, for a community benefits overlay and, most of all, for residents in the neighborhoods to continue to have a voice in the process,” she said. “We have learned a lot from going through this process and hope to work with council to fix some of the problems.”

During the meeting, Councilman Bartlett, who represents South Berkeley, said the appellants now have the experience to do just that.

“Chickens are born through pecking at the shell until they get out,” he said, likening that process to the numerous city meetings and many other discussions that have taken place regarding 2902 Adeline, which helped lead to the ultimate compromise. He told the appellant group: “You have grown so much, you’re ready to go consult now for other neighborhoods.”

Council members push forward to fight displacement

Homelessness and housing have been regular subjects of discussion and action at the Berkeley City Council, particularly in recent months.

As part of the consent calendar Tuesday night, the mayor, Councilman Bartlett and council members Sophie Hahn and Kate Harrison also asked the city manager to consider setting aside about $1.1 million to help fight displacement in Berkeley. That includes the $100,000 from the Realtex deal “to provide housing counseling and legal services for Berkeley’s low-income, elderly or disabled distressed homeowners”; $500,000 to help tenants with legal aid to fight eviction by adding four attorneys and support staff at the East Bay Community Law Center; and $500,000, for community grants to cover overdue rent, from the city’s defunct Housing Retention Program, which has not been funded since June 2015.

The money, council members wrote, would help “those who are at risk of homelessness due to a temporary loss of income or other hardship.” Funding sources, in addition to the Realtex money, might include Measure U1 tax receipts and the General Fund.