Berkeley’s Zoning Adjustments Board earlier this month approved the Environmental Impact Report for a controversial 6-story apartment building proposed on Telegraph Avenue, but postponed a decision on the project’s use permit to ask for a revised design plan from the developers and allow time for other items on the agenda.
The board was set to vote at its June 11 meeting on the project’s use permit as well as the EIR, but voted to put off the permit discussion when the meeting began to run long, asking the developers instead to bring a new plan for the project that reflected the commissioners’ concerns. (The meeting ended at 12:15 a.m.)
The building, at 2539 Telegraph, which is being developed by Patrick Kennedy of Panoramic Interests, has been considered as a landmark on two separate occasions due to its connection to the Center for Independent Living, an advocacy group for the disabled which began there in 1972. The Landmarks Preservation Commission rejected landmark status for both the building and a faded mural on one of its walls.
The project has been widely criticized by neighborhood residents as too large and, in the year since the zoning board first reviewed the project, the criticism has not died down.
Cara Houser, director of development at Panoramic Interests, presented the revised project plan to the board at its June 11 meeting. The building is set to include five apartments with elements of universal access for disabled tenants, including roll-in showers and changes in bedroom layout to make wheelchair access easier, she said.
“They [CIL] told us from the get-go that the best way to honor their legacy was to make it as universal access as possible,” Houser said.
Daniel Backman, an architect at Lowney Architecture, which is designing the building, spoke of it in more detail. Based on feedback from the project’s first zoning board review, the development team made significant changes to the design, he said. The ground floor, which is retail space, now has more windows and taller ceilings (15 feet) as well as bulb-outs, bike parking and cafe seating along the Telegraph side. The Regent Street side was also changed, with an added canopy, “quiet” landscaped areas and a stormwater treatment area.
“We heard, ‘We don’t want this to be a back door,'” Backman said. Instead, “it’s going to be a quiet secondary entrance for the building.” Due to the slope of the ground, Backman added, the building will appear shorter on Regent as well.
“Really, this is a 5-story building on Regent Street,” he said.
The other prominent changes to the plan addressed spatial issues. The design was originally T-shaped but is now a courtyard design, which allows more windows and light into the units. The building’s laundry room was expanded to be more “generous,” and the rooftop deck, which will have planters and green space, has been reimagined as “a series of more intimate rooms” instead of a large gathering space, Backman said.
The development and its progress has captured the interest of dozens of residents who attended the meeting, many of whom spoke publicly about their issues with the project. The most frequent complaint was that the design is too big and rather ugly.
“It’s very large, it is very unattractive and it’s creating problems in the sense that it’s out-scaling the residential properties behind it,” said Leila Moncharsh, a board member of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association. She called the building “outsize” and asked the zoning board to deny the use permit.
Bruce Rizzo, who lives next door to the proposed development site, requested more space between his house and the project — in the current design, there is 3 feet of space between the building and the adjacent property — but added that he was not directly opposed to the project.
“We think there should be more housing and development,” Rizzo said, but “the way it’s being developed is wrong.”
“We’re looking for a compromise,” he added.
Stuart James, executive director of the Center for Independent Living (CIL), spoke in favor of the project and its developers. According to James, CIL has worked “extensively” with the developers to make the new apartments universally accessible.
“One of the things we’ve really appreciated about this project is that the developer has really included us from the very beginning,” James said. “We advocate for the exact type of developing that this developer is trying to do.”
Roland Peterson, who until recently ran neighborhood business association the Telegraph Business Improvement District, called the current building “fairly boring and nondescript” and said the new apartments would bring business to an “underperforming” area of the city.
Kennedy spoke strongly of the importance of development in response to the public comments, saying the arguments against the 2539 Telegraph project are the same ones that were used years ago to fight the development of the downtown area.
“I’d like to remind you of the incredible shortage of housing that Berkeley is experiencing along with San Francisco,” Kennedy said. “Rents in Berkeley last year went up 30%, more than any other jurisdiction in the Bay Area.”
“We need to embrace development in areas that can take it,” he added.
Kennedy appeared responsive to the suggestions, from both the board and the public, that the building be moved back from the surrounding properties, saying he would lose some parking, but “can live with that.”
After a long period of public comment, commissioners gave their feedback to the developers.
“I would like to see you read these again and see what you can do to bring your building in line with these guidelines,” Pinkston said, with respect to the Southside Plan, which was adopted by the Berkeley City Council in 2011 after a public process. “It’s always easier to say no than to find a way to say yes.”
“It is truly too big,” Commissioner Igor Tregub said. He asked the developers to look into a 5-story design that showed “consistency with the neighborhood” for the next meeting.
Commissioner Richard Christiani brought up the building’s density bonus, comparing it to a 5-story project at 824 University Ave. that had been discussed earlier in the evening. (The density bonus is a state law that allows projects to add units in exchange for including affordable housing on site.)
“They have used a very different methodology in determining how the density bonus is granted,” Christiani said. “If I apply the same methodology that is used on this [2539 Telegraph] site, it would give me a bonus of about 11 stories at 824 [University].” He asked that the board, and the developer, look at the bonus more carefully before approving the project.
Commissioner George Williams added to Christiani’s critique, saying that “the density bonus has made a shambles of our zoning in Berkeley” and that the bonus is the project’s biggest problem — by allowing more height and bulk on the site than would otherwise be permitted.
Commissioner Nicholas Dominguez said the project is necessary to “recapture” some of the UC Berkeley student population that has moved out of Berkeley due to a lack of affordable housing, but added his own issues with the design. He pointed out that there is a deficit of bike parking in the building: with one bike parking space per unit, the design does not readily account for tenants with multiple bikes per apartment. He also took umbrage with the materials used on the Regent Street side of the building, calling them “inexcusable” and “out of place.”
Commissioner Sophie Hahn, in response to next door neighbor Rizzo’s comments, called for a 35-foot maximum height for at least the run of the building to the south to prevent an extreme contrast between the smaller house next door. She also urged the developers to dedicate themselves to the historical display that would describe the site’s connection to CIL.
“I want to see what is currently on the plan as a sales office space devoted entirely to a historic display,” Hahn said. Rather than performing the bare minimum, “I want a mini museum” with “permanent and changing exhibits.” She suggested partnering with a local organization, like the Bancroft library, to enhance the display. Along with Tregub and O’Keefe, Hahn said she wanted to see more units with universal access and more parking for the disabled.
Aesthetically, Hahn called the building “brutal.” “I do not believe that a building of this design belongs here,” she added.
Commissioner Shoshana O’Keefe echoed many of Hahn’s comments, saying the height of the building that borders other houses on Regent Street should be limited to 35 feet and requesting more bike parking. O’Keefe also spoke about the historical display.
“I want to see that it’s being taken seriously,” she said. “If I’m not wowed, I’m going to suggest next time that it be a condition of approval.”
Commission Chair Prakash Pinto suggested that the developers look into using options besides prefabricated units for 2539 Telegraph. Those units can speed up construction, but are not as flexible as traditional materials.
“I wonder if the prefabricated units are driving a lot of this bulk,” said Pinto, who was otherwise quiet during most of the discussion.
Berkeley Center Street garage project gets first review (06.10.15)
7-story building, no parking, proposed on Telegraph (05.15.15)
Decades-old mural could derail Berkeley apartment project (11.25.14)
Neighbors question parking, height of housing planned for Telegraph (07.16.14)
‘Explosive’ downtown Berkeley housing boom under way (01.14.14)
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Eden Teller, a junior at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, is a Berkeleyside summer intern. She is majoring in media and cultural studies and minoring in geology. (Editor’s Note: This story was updated June 30 to clarify the reason the zoning board did not make a final decision on the use permit.)