Locals question Berkeley Plaza impact on theater, view

2211 Harold Way. Image: MVEI Architecture and Planning
2211 Harold Way is set to stand nearly 200 feet tall and include about 300 units. Image: MVEI Architecture and Planning

Residents came out en masse Thursday night to testify before Berkeley’s Zoning Adjustments Board about possible impacts related to a large mixed-use project planned downtown on Harold Way.

The Residences at Berkeley Plaza, at Harold and Kittredge Street, would rise 18 stories and is set to include a tower reaching, all told, nearly 200 feet. It is slated to feature about 300 units, which could either be apartments or condominiums, as well as a new six-theater cinema complex, more than 10,000 square feet of ground-floor retail and restaurant space, and a 171-unit underground parking structure.

Thursday, the zoning board focused on the project’s draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR), which came out in October. The comment period for that document was scheduled to end this week, but it was extended through Dec. 1 after members of the public asked for more time to give feedback. (Find out how to view the document and provide comments.)

According to the draft EIR, “Areas of controversy known to the City of Berkeley include aesthetics and historic resources. Interest groups and members of the public at large have expressed concerns regarding the scale and design of the proposed project and regarding the proposed project’s potential impacts related to aesthetics and to historic resources. In addition, nearby property owners have expressed concerns about potential construction-related impacts such as noise and loss of parking.”


Read about Berkeley real estate projects, and the “tall building” projects.

The majority of speakers Thursday, about 20 in total, said they are worried about the fate of Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas (built circa 1988) — set to be demolished and replaced by new state-of-the-art cinemas — and the view from UC Berkeley’s Campanile steps. The new building would be visible from that vantage point, though developers say taking several steps would remove it from view.

Several speakers affiliated with Habitot Children’s Museum also said they would like financial help from developer Hill Street Realty (HSR) Berkeley Investments because the museum — which has a month-to-month lease — will have to move due to construction.

Others said the project will have a “devastating impact” on a historic block, believe it’s out of scale beside the Shattuck Hotel, and don’t see it fitting in, in general, with Berkeley’s downtown.

“It would be a shame if it goes forward,” one woman told the board. “Just because I have a little gray hair doesn’t mean I’m opposed to higher buildings in Berkeley or increased density.”

The proposed area of excavation for Berkeley Plaza. (Click to view the first part of the EIR.) Source: City of Berkeley/Rincon Consultants
The proposed area of excavation for Berkeley Plaza, looking west from Shattuck Avenue. (Click the image above to view the first part of the EIR.) Source: City of Berkeley/Rincon Consultants

To make way for the new complex, several long-existing structures are slated for demolition: the 1959 “Hink’s Building” at Harold Way and Allston Way (also known as the Postal Annex building), and portions of the Shattuck Hotel building: primarily the 1913 and 1926 additions on Harold Way and Kittredge Street that house Shattuck Cinemas, Habitot and other office space. The landmarked Shattuck Hotel is to remain intact.

During public comment, Paul Matzner — who identified himself as chair of the Committee to Save the Shattuck Landmark Theatre — said the group had in just 10 days collected nearly 1,000 signatures from people who oppose the demolition of the theater. Members of that effort said Thursday that they like the “historic feeling” of the theater, don’t want to be without it during years of construction, and don’t know if they can trust the developer to bring it back, or to bring it back under Landmark’s guidance. One man likened the new project to Godzilla — in a nod to both his view of the project’s outsized scale, and his support for the preservation of the existing theaters.

Many speakers asked the city Thursday to extend the public comment period for the project’s environmental review. Matzner said Monday that he was pleased with the city’s decision to do that, and considered it a coup for theater supporters.

“It’s a win for us, and for the people of Berkeley, to say that we haven’t had enough time to comment, and we need more,” he said. He told the zoning board Thursday that none of the signees of the petition were aware of the plans for Harold Way, and described the theater as one of the city’s “vital cultural resources.”

Project representative Mark Rhoades said Monday that Landmark Theatres, citing poor financial performance and outdated facilities (see page 24), had not intended to renew the theater’s lease, which was set to end in 2017. But, after seeing the outpouring of interest in continuing theater operations in downtown Berkeley, Landmark agreed to work with the development team to bring back six new theaters, to include stadium seating and other technological improvements.

Read more about the movie theater plans in past Berkeleyside coverage.

Rhoades said the new movie theater would still be accessed by an entrance on Shattuck Avenue, where the marquee sign would remain. (There were questions Thursday night about whether this would be the case.) He said Landmark had tasked one of its architects with helping to design the new plans to ensure that they would be in line with how the theater business wants to operate.

In response to skepticism from some local residents who said they didn’t know whether they could trust the developer to bring back the movie theaters after permits had been granted, Rhoades said that, if the city approves plans for the project, the theater — run by Landmark — will be an integral part of that agreement.

“There will be no getting out of what ultimately is approved and represented,” he said. “It is an issue without an issue at this point.… Landmark will come back as the operator once it’s rebuilt.”

The layout and uses planned for 2211 Harold Way. Image: Hill Street Realty
The layout and uses planned for 2211 Harold Way. Image: Hill Street Realty

Another issue that’s stirred up questions recently is exactly how the new building will affect views from the Campanile steps to downtown Berkeley and beyond. Several people, including three commissioners and at least three members of the public, said the view from those steps is historic, and that the impact of a new tall building on it should be considered seriously as part of EIR. The draft EIR does discuss the issue (pages 16-18, 31-40, 76-77, 81, 96) but some said Thursday night that it deserves more consideration and analysis in the final document.

The University of California, Berkeley does not plan to submit formal comments as part of the EIR process, said campus planner and Assistant Vice Chancellor Emily Marthinsen on Monday. She said, however, that there are many historic views from campus that have changed over the years. She said the university’s main concern is that downtown Berkeley is able to continue to develop as a dynamic, engaging place.

“There are many, many wonderful views from the campus,” Marthinsen said. “Trying to protect a single viewshed is not something we are officially supporting.”

Zoning board Commissioner Sophie Hahn said Thursday night that she disagreed with Marthinsen’s perspective.

“She does not speak for that view. It belongs to the people of the state of California. It belongs to you and me,” she told attendees. “I’m alarmed by the dismissal of this as a potentially significant impact.”

The developer's take on the Campanile view issue. Image: Hill Street Realty
The developer’s take on the Campanile view issue. (Click the image above to read more.) Image: Hill Street Realty

Habitot Children’s Museum founder Gina Moreland told the board Thursday that the organization will have to move as a result of the new project, which will result in the loss of “hundreds of thousands of community dollars that were raised over the years.” She said the museum’s “forced relocation” should be considered in the EIR.

As a result of the move, she said Habitot will have to raise a large amount of money to upgrade its facilities and recreate its exhibits. Moreland and Habitot board chair Chantal Laurie Below said they hope the developer will include financial help for the museum’s move in its final community benefits package.

Project rep Rhoades said that assistance is something the developer could consider, but that it would change the make-up of the current community benefits package. (The zoning board is scheduled to discuss that package in December.)

Thursday night, some commissioners asked Rhoades to consider a more aggressive approach to transit-related amenities than is currently proposed (see page 25), and asked for more clarity and detail about theater plans. Some asked for additional design alternatives (page 59) as part of the EIR, and more thought about the building design, which one commissioner called “schizophrenic.” Commissioners also said they are concerned about the Campanile view issue, as well as the loss of Habitot from downtown Berkeley, and asked for more consideration of those impacts.

“It’s going to be a very important building for years to come,” said Commissioner Igor Tregub. “It would be important to get it right the first time.”

2211 Harold Way. Image: MVEI Architecture and Planning
The main entrance to 2211 Harold Way, at the corner of Kittredge and Harold, across from the library. Image: MVEI Architecture and Planning

Rhoades said members of the public, including representatives on various Berkeley boards and committees, will have ample opportunity to provide feedback about the project as it appears before the Design Review Committee, Landmarks Preservation Commission, zoning board and City Council over the next five months or more. (Members of the public can also submit feedback to the developer on the project’s website.) He said he’s hoping for final council approval by March.

Rhoades said he is looking forward to that process and, in the end, does not expect to receive unanimous support from the zoning board due to the range of perspectives and expectations represented on the panel.

“A project like this can’t solve everybody’s needs and problems,” he said. “We don’t expect a 9-0 vote for a project like this.”

See the project website, as well as the city website for related project materials for 2211 Harold Way, The Residences at Berkeley Plaza. The draft Environmental Impact Report was released in early October and the comment period has been extended through Dec. 1. Click the following links to view the document. Note: The pdfs are large and may be slow to load.

Related:
New hotel project is a go again after defeat of Measure R (11.06.14)
High-rise developer in Berkeley to use 100% union labor (10.31.14)
‘Explosive’ downtown Berkeley housing boom under way (01.14.14)
New 120-foot building proposed for downtown Berkeley (12.09.13)
Developers put theaters back into high-rise plans (06.26.14)
Early high-rise plans lack inspiration, say commissioners (03.19.13)
First high-rise in 40 years planned for downtown Berkeley (12.21.12)
Large downtown Berkeley property changes hands (11.28.12)

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