Berkeley has put an end to a long-drawn-out bid to create housing in the city that began with an application to build three homes on a lot in southwest Berkeley, and went on to trigger lawsuits and appeals.
In a closed session Monday, Berkeley City Council authorized city attorney Farimah Brown to approve the project, through a stipulated judgement, and to settle the case by paying the legal fees of San Francisco Bay Area Renters’ Federation (SFBARF), the “yes in my backyard” group that sued the city twice.
“It doesn’t have to go back to a hearing. We have recused the city’s exposure,” Brown said Friday.
The move follows a judge’s ruling in July that the city of Berkeley had to allow the construction of the three new housing units at 1310 Haskell St., which were originally approved by the Zoning Adjustments Board in March 2016. Judge Kimberly Colwell of the Alameda County Superior Court in Hayward said that in denying approval of the project, the city did not make the findings required by the Housing Accountability Act (HAA). (See the ruling.)
The city will cover SFBARF’s attorney fees to an amount not to exceed $44,000, Brown said. The pro-housing group has agreed to the terms. SFBARF has also agreed to dismiss its second lawsuit in the case.
The city’s zoning board voted in March 2016 to approve project permits at 1310 Haskell for developer Cristian Szilagy to replace one old house with three small new ones designed by Baran Studio Architecture. Neighbors appealed, voicing opposition on grounds including parking and traffic, and, in July 2016, council sided with them. SFBARF then successfully sued to get the project reconsidered, which brought it back to council in February 2017. But council voted it down again, prompting another lawsuit.
Berkeley City Attorney Zach Cowan, who retired on July 28, making the Haskell Street case the last he handled for the city, had made clear to the council during discussions that its reason to deny the project did not hold up legally, a fact that was raised by Judge Colwell in her courtroom.
“This is the best possible outcome,” said SFBARF leader Sonja Trauss Friday. Trauss said the $44,000 would cover the bulk, but not all, of their fees, “but we’ll take less to keep everybody from having to keep fighting about it.”
While pleased with the decision, Trauss added: ‘We shouldn’t have had to go through this process,” and expressed frustration that Szilagy, for whom Haskell Street is only his second project as a developer, had to face such an obstacle course. “Neighborhoods and communities say they want community development but they don’t want big developers to do it. But then the process has to be made easy to navigate for small developers like Christian.” Trauss argued that small projects like Haskell Street were the way to solve the housing crisis and would be a path to affordable housing in California. “The big flashy projects are more expense per square foot,” she said. “California is made up of single family homes that are easier to tear down and replace with several new homes,” she said.
Read more about the debates and lawsuits relating to 1310 Haskell Street.