A proposal to build 43 condominium units at the Claremont Hotel and Spa on land currently used as a parking lot is facing stiff opposition from neighbors, as well as questions from a historical preservation group.
The one-acre condo complex is one of several changes proposed at the storied hotel at 41 Tunnel Road. While the Claremont Hotel is in Oakland, its postal address is Berkeley, and it would be Berkeley residents who would be affected by any potential impact from the project on such things as parking, traffic and views. Some neighbors say they are also concerned about earthquake safety at the condos, although there are others who are in favor of the new condos.
When the Fairmont Group purchased the Claremont in 2014, the new owners — including Senator Dianne Feinstein’s husband Richard Blum — announced plans to update the majestic East Bay landmark. In addition to the condos, Fairmont aims to boost the hotel’s private health club membership from 1,600 to 1,850 and expand the club’s facilities, adding a pool and a basketball court, among other things.
In February 2016, Signature Development Group submitted an application for the Claremont Hotel redevelopment to the City of Oakland, which has jurisdiction over the project, on behalf of the owners. In November 2016, Signature submitted an updated proposal. The condos would be designed by Levy Design Partners of San Francisco. Oakland’s Planning Commission and its Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board have held public hearings on the application, and the city is putting a draft environmental impact report together.
Signature Development Group President Michael Ghielmetti said he sees the project as an opportunity for new housing “which is desperately needed in the Bay Area.”
He said he envisions the condo development as a perfect residential community for empty nesters.
“It’s a very walkable environment. You’ve got a fitness facility at the hotel, a nearby Peet’s and other small retail establishments, and the Berkeley Tennis Club. We’ll be working on providing robust transit services within our proposal as well,” Ghielmetti said.
To Ghielmetti, the condos are an optimal use of land presently occupied by parking spaces and a driveway outside the hotel lobby.
Many neighbors of the Claremont don’t seem to see it that way.
“You wouldn’t build a condo on the White House lawn. Why would you build it on the Claremont parking lot?” said Bryan Grziwok, a Berkeley resident and member of Save Our Claremont. Grziwok said his group has about 600 people on its mailing list, both Berkeley and Oakland residents. The group was formerly dubbed Neighbors Against Claremont Expansion.
“The condos are not affordable housing,” Grziwok said. “Oakland has many opportunities to build affordable housing that do not compromise historical resources, that are not on an earthquake fault and do not compromise the traffic pattern for UC Berkeley.”
Grziwok said his group’s three major concerns are historical preservation, earthquake safety and the development’s effect on parking and traffic.
At present, the Claremont has 575 parking spaces, and the developers are proposing to add about 109 spaces. However, Grziwok maintains that the developments will cause parking problems in the surrounding neighborhoods.
This is because the developers propose to remove somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 parking spaces at the north end of the area, where the Claremont health club is located. Most of the new spaces are to be added at the south end, in a subterranean parking garage beneath the condo complex.
“People who are going to the club will not park under the condos,” Grziwok said. “Instead, they will park on the street because the streets are adjacent to the club and the condos are further away, across the end of a 20-acre property.”
“All the cars are going to park in the Stonewall neighborhood, and around the shops on Domingo Street. These businesses are going to be strangled because they won’t have parking to offer their customers,” Grziwok said.
The cars will also park on Russell Street, Claremont Avenue and other streets, taking spaces the residents would otherwise use, he said.
According to the developer’s November project description, the plans for the project include an updated arrival court for the club that will facilitate the choice between self-parking and valet parking and provide direct access to the club facilities.
Plans include walkways from surrounding neighborhood
The plans also include a dedicated pedestrian path and shuttle bus stop from the hotel/spa facility to the relocated club entrance. There are also plans to build walkways from surrounding neighborhood to the site, a response to requests from club members, according to Ghielmetti.
Grziwok said the development will add to congestion on Tunnel Road, which backs up during rush hour when UC Berkeley is in session. He believes this will happen because the proposed entrance to the additional parking on the south side is off Tunnel Road.
“The main hazard to traffic on Tunnel Road — if you are going to add new families, people need to go in and out,” he said. Additionally, if someone using the club can’t find a place to park, “you then go to look for a spot under the condo complex and drive up Tunnel and use that entrance,” he said.
In response, Robert Merkamp, Oakland’s development planning manager, said: “We are working closely with the applicant on the draft environmental impact report and we are looking closely at several things, one of which is the impact on traffic. It’s a concern we have heard.”
Ghielmetti said that city zoning would have allowed for more than 100 residential units, while the owner is proposing 43 condo units plus one single-family residence.
“The neighborhood needs this kind of housing”
Micki Turner, who has lived close to the Claremont Hotel for over 30 years, does not believe the new condos would have any perceptible impact on either traffic or parking.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a traffic impact because there are only about 40 units and most people will probably only have one car, or they won’t need a car at all,” she said.
Turner sees the condos as offering a potential solution for people like her who eventually want to downsize but stay in the neighborhood.
“My street is 99% empty nesters and there’s not a lot of places to go. It makes total sense to me as a way to stay in the community,” she said. She hopes the new units appeal to people in the neighborhood and do not get bought as second homes.
She said that although there are always issues with new construction, she trusts the developers: “I think they’re thoughtful and really trying to accommodate the neighborhood,” she said.
In February Turner sent a letter to Oakland’s planning department in response to a request for community input, in which she outlined why she was in favor of the project. She wrote: “We believe the new condos, built wisely, would be a great addition to the neighborhood. They appeal to people like us. We would have a nice size unit, use the hotel facilities for guests, no yard to maintain, and importantly, stay in the neighborhood, which we love. From a planning perspective, the neighborhood needs this kind of housing.”
Opponents cite preservation, views
Opponents have also raised a historical preservation angle. “You can imagine the grandeur of the hotel would be diminished if it were surrounded by other buildings, and that’s what they are proposing, adding a four-story above-ground (building) about 50 yards from the hotel,” said Grziwok.
The Oakland Heritage Alliance has also expressed concerns about the views. Alison Finlay of the Alliance sent the Oakland Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board a letter this May about the project, in which she wrote, “Insufficient and inadequate attention and study is given (in the staff report and other documents) to views of the historic resource and to the potential visual impacts of future construction upon views toward the Hotel Claremont from beyond its immediate area.”
In an interview, Finlay said, “It’s such an iconic site enjoyed and shared by so many people from so many vantage points, and we don’t think they have considered that.” As far as the alliance’s position, she said characterizing it as opposed to the project “might be a little too strong.”
According to the developer’s November project description, the building will be designed to preserve views of the hotel from public streets surrounding the property and key vantage points from the greater community.
Ghielmetti said, “The (condo) building is off to the side and is by a three-tiered parking lot. It will not obscure the views.”
According to the Save Our Claremont website, the proposed condos are situated in the Hayward Fault Zone, “possibly over active faults,” endangering families that might live in the condominium tower.
“We will carefully study the impact on the historic resource and proximity to the Hayward Fault as well and also the impact on city services and emergency services. These are concerns we have heard and we are going to address them in the draft report,” Merkamp said. “We have geotechnical experts looking at it.”
Ghielmetti said they will be following all applicable building codes “so we do not put occupants at risk.”
The next steps for the proposal happen when the draft environmental impact report is released, probably in the late summer or early fall, according to Merkamp.
This triggers a 45-day comment period in which residents of the surrounding neighborhood, adjacent jurisdictions, regional governmental agencies and other interested parties can weigh in. There will also be additional public hearings before the landmarks board and the planning commission in which the public and members of the two bodies will have a chance to comment.
Next, the city will review all the comment and possibly make changes to the report in response and then issue a final environmental impact report, possibly in spring 2018, Merkamp said. At that point, the planning commission will consider whether or not to approve the project.
This story was updated with new photos, after it was pointed out to us that some of the photos included with the original article were from iterations of the project that have since been updated.