Could third review be the charm for this South Berkeley co-living project?

Proposed development at 3000 Shattuck Ave. (at Ashby). Rendering: Courtesy NX Ventures

A proposed co-living complex at the corner of Shattuck and Ashby avenues is slated for its third appearance before the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) this week. The board grants building use permits.

The controversial project, at 3000 Shattuck, has been reviewed by the ZAB twice in the past year, with the board voting each time to continue it to another meeting, with recommended changes for the applicant.

A gas station, car repair and smog test shop is currently at the location.

It’s impossible to predict if the third time will be the ZAB charm for the multi-story, mixed-use building, which is vehemently opposed by some neighbors, yet supported by others.


At previous meetings, a majority of board members appeared poised to approve the project with suggested modifications. (See below.)

The revised project application on the agenda for the June 28 meeting incorporates most of these suggestions.  The overall design of the project is the same.

Like other large development proposals in Berkeley, 3000 Shattuck is testing opinions on what’s needed to best solve the city’s housing crisis and what helps people lower their carbon footprint —along with the usual debate on what fits in the neighborhood.

Evolving design with each ZAB review

The most recent project proposal, similar to the plan presented in May, is for a three- to five-story building (tapered height) with 23 residential units ranging from studios to six bedrooms. The majority of the proposed units are larger, with six three-bedrooms, five four-bedrooms, six five-bedrooms, and one six-bedroom.

What makes this project unusual is that the larger units are designed more like dormitories than like conventional apartments.

It includes space for a café on the ground floor.

What makes this project unusual is that the larger units are designed more like dormitories than conventional  apartments, with bedrooms as the main focus, and small, shared kitchen-living areas. The complex includes a central communal room with kitchen and shared courtyard, both on the second story.

The project also calls for 48 bicycle parking spots, but no residential car parking, with the developers banking on tenants not owning, or much using private vehicles. There are six car-parking spaces for commercial use. The site is less than a half mile from the Ashby BART station.

According to Mark Rhoades, a planner and the project applicant, tenants would not be eligible for the city’s residential parking permit program.

“Co-living is the professional management of shared housing,” says the project’s application statement.

The statement continues: “There are few places feeling the pains of modern renters more than the Bay Area, where housing supply is low and rents have skyrocketed. With a high demand for workforce housing, and a continuing influx of single people coming to the region for opportunities post-college, traditional apartments fail to provide the right incentives for their needs. 3000 Shattuck will provide an essential combination of pricing affordability, an amenity-rich neighborhood, and easy access to public transit — key considerations for the modern workforce renter.”

This co-housing model differs considerably from the initial project presented to the ZAB in July last year. The earlier proposal called for 44 living units of primarily studios, one- and two-bedroom units, with typically sized living rooms and kitchens. It also called for 17 car-parking spaces.

Zoning board feedback at the time recommended the owners reduce the mass of the building; lower the height on the south end, next to a single-family home on Shattuck, as well as other changes. These were incorporated into the May proposal — along with significant changes the ZAB didn’t suggest.

Latest proposal expands common spaces and more

At the May meeting, the ZAB largely embraced the overall concept, with numerous concerns mainly around floor plans, living spaces, and the importance of project management with this kind of more-communal use.

Tweaks to the latest version address these including:

  • Larger shared common kitchen
  • Larger kitchens in the larger apartment units
  • More bulk storage for larger units
  • Defined on-site resident manager and management plan
  • Handicapped accessible ground floor units (universal design)
  • Align west-side windows to address privacy of building next door
  • Plant buffer along the West and South property line
  •  Condition of Approval that should the project be subdivided in the future, the project shall be subject to the fees at that time.

A cheaper alternative for some renters

One of the main draws of the co-living model is that it offers a less expensive rental option to people willing or interested in sharing an apartment, said the applicant, said Rhoades, who represents the building owners, NX Ventures. (The project architect is Devi Dutta Architecture.)

“We’ll allow people in different stages of their lives to come together to live with rents that are anywhere from 20% to 30% less expensive than if they were having to rent a one-bedroom or studio,” Rhoades said at the May meeting.

Some ZAB members worried that the dorm-like concept appeals only for a limited kind of tenant, lacking the flexibility to survive in an unpredictable economy with unpredictable housing needs.

Shoshana O’Keefe expressed concern that when the newness wears off and the building ages, this kind of design could lose luster and desirability.

“When we approve a building we need to think about not just what’s happening now, but what could be happening in 100 years or 200 years,” she said at the meeting. “This is a very strange floor-plan, very unusual.”

O’Keefe said she would prefer to see smaller apartments. “I want them to be more like regular units.”

But other board members viewed the concept as fitting a needed niche.

“I was in a seven-bedroom apartment my first year at Cal, and it was great. We cooked all meals together and had a wonderful community,” said Charles Khan, calling the approach innovative. “I didn’t think I was living in substandard housing. What I was living in was cheap housing.”

Board member Teresa Clarke, who broadly supported the plan, said the success of the concept depends on how well the property is managed. She asked for a detailed management plan. “If it’s not managed well it will turn into a slum, it could very well turn into a catastrophe.”

Fewer units translates to less mitigated affordable housing

Many board members, along with residents, shared apprehension about how by reducing the number of units from the first proposal (44) to the co-living design (23) the required affordable housing mitigation fee is substantially lower.

Under Berkeley’s affordable housing ordinance, developers of new rentals must pay an affordable housing mitigation fee of $37,000 per unit to the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund, which is used to finance low-income housing. In lieu of this fee, developers can choose to include low-rent units in the development, equal to 20% of the total units.

At the May meeting, Rhoades announced that the 3000 Shattuck owners had decided to pay the mitigation fee, which will come to around $775,000, a little over half of what it would have been in the earlier design of 44 units.

He also said the price of rents hasn’t yet been decided.

The ZAB doesn’t have any control over the city’s affordability requirements, which are set by the law.

“It might be legal, but it doesn’t seem right,” said board member John Selawsky.

ZAB member Carrie Olson called this her “big, big, big issue” with the project. “The size of the building doesn’t bother me. The density of the building is not even that shocking,” she said.  “But the number of units is way down so the in lieu [affordable housing mitigation] fee is way down.” She called on her colleagues to be aware of this twist.

Some suggested the law might need to be changed so the fee is assessed per bedroom, not unit.

Many still viewed co-living as a means to add affordability to the city’s housing stock. “I hate leaving money on the table,” Khan said. ” [But] I think there would be more affordability here than if we insisted on smaller units.”

Residents voice concerns

After the May meeting, project planners met with some neighbors to go over their concerns.

A large show of residents spoke against the project at the May meeting, with concerns about several things from the height of the building, which is two stories above the allowed three stories, thus requiring a special use permit; the lack of car parking, and the lack of affordable units.

Many felt a large complex doesn’t belong on that corner, where Shattuck Avenue is two-lanes wide.

“I believe in dense housing near BART,” said neighbor Kathleen Gadway, who lives a block from the site. “But let’s do it in a way that’s fair and just and preserves our community.”

Gadway especially objected to the project’s height and lack of parking. “Seventy-eight beds with no parking. That’s not OK. I know a lot of millennials with cars.”

David Warren, who also lives a block from the site, said: “A five-story building is completely out of scale for the area… We want affordable housing and we want diversity and we’re not going to get it with 23 market rate units.”

“We have a climate crisis, where the number one contributor is emissions from people’s cars. I think it would be really great to have a five-story building near BART.”
— Aaron Eckhouse

But Aaron Eckhouse, also a South Berkeley resident, urged the board to approve the project. He said he doesn’t have any problem with the building’s density and welcomes more residents to his “nice bikable neighborhood.”

Repeating a sentiment heard from a few other speakers, Eckhouse lauded the project’s appeal to people who may not own cars. “We have a climate crisis, where the number one contributor is emissions from people’s cars. I think it would be really great to have a five-story building near BART.”

A letter from residents opposing the project was recently shared with Berkeleyside, and it included some of the concerns mentioned above. Their primary objections include the development’s scale, height, lack of affordable units integrated into the project or inclusionary, and a design they called “over-crowded” and “not family friendly.”

If the ZAB permits usages such as allowing five stories in an area zoned for three, it should “require meaningful community benefit,” said the letter, sent by resident Larisa Cummings.

The project is on the agenda for the ZAB’s June 28 meeting.

All ZAB decisions can be appealed to the city council, which has been the case with many Berkeley housing projects similar to 3000 Shattuck.