Remember the PowerBar building? Or perhaps you think of it as the Chase building. Now, following a Berkeley City Council decision on Tuesday night, it’s about to become the SkyDeck building, heralding the top-floor presence of UC Berkeley’s startup accelerator.
On September 7, 2016, a contractor for SkyDeck applied to install two signs atop 2150 Shattuck Ave., one of the two 13-story buildings in downtown Berkeley. Then it gets complicated: there was an October Landmarks Preservation Commission referral in October; staff design review in November; a November appeal of the staff approval by Steve Finacom to the Design Review Committee (DRC); a DRC public meeting in January upholding the staff approval; a February appeal by Finacom of the DRC decision; a March Zoning Adjustment Board (ZAB) public hearing upholding the DRC decision; and an April appeal by Finacom of the ZAB decision. The administrative record on the issue runs 178 pages.
Which is why the City Council was sitting in judgement on Tuesday night.
“This is an issue of whether Berkeley’s skyline is for sale for advertising purposes,” Finacom said in his presentation to the Council. “This signage sets a terrible precedent.”
Finacom cited the Downtown Berkeley Design Guidelines: “Architecture, not advertising, should define the upper elevations of buildings, especially those visible from beyond the Downtown. Commercial signage, advertising signage (including emblems or logos) or building name signage should be avoided on [or] adjacent to the roofs of buildings in Downtown.”
He said that the city should prohibit signage of any type above a certain height, which Finacom suggested could be 30 feet.
“The idea that Donald Trump could buy this sign and call it Trump Tower is no joke,” Finacom said, pointing out the attraction Berkeley has for right-wing demonstrators.
SkyDeck applied for the sign as a wall sign under the ordinance, replied Steven Donaldson, a SkyDeck advisor. Donaldson and city planning staff pointed out that 2150 Shattuck had signs for PowerBar (approved in 1997) and Chase (approved in 2010) in the past.
Caroline Winnett, SkyDeck’s Executive Director, made a broader plea for the sign.
“This does indeed reflect the spirit of innovation,” she said. “That to me is what Berkeley is about.”
Most of public comment was a stream of young entrepreneurs active at SkyDeck, emphasizing the importance of the accelerator’s work, trying, as one said, “to solve the world’s biggest problems.”
Eric Panzer, a Berkeleyan who has been active in political campaigns and who has a background in city planning, said the hearing was emblematic of a poor process.
“It’s absurd that one person can waste this much time,” Panzer said. “Please make it a staff-based review process so we can move forward with more important issues at City Council.”
Councilman Kriss Worthington agreed with Winnett and the SkyDeck-based entrepreneurs, and was even more effusive.
“The Skydeck is an incredible, amazing place. I think they’re making the city and the world a better place,” Worthington said. “If we’re going to have signs on our buildings, they’re doing us a favor. They’re branding Berkeley as a place of science and innovation. I didn’t feel anything good about PowerBar. But when I look at this, I see something totally different. It’s a better message and a better sign.”
Worthington’s view was echoed by other council members, but Councilwoman Sophie Hahn took him to task for dissing PowerBar, founded, she pointed out, by a Berkeley couple who were innovators in snack bars.
The City Council unanimously agreed to uphold the ZAB decision, only a modest (by Berkeley City Council standards) 43 minutes after the start of the appeal hearing.