Preservationists are gearing up for another battle to fight a 180-foot tower proposed above what is now a Walgreens store on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley.
The city’s Zoning Adjustments Board met Thursday night to discuss the environmental impacts of the project and offer feedback to developer Mill Creek Residential, which is based in San Francisco. The public comment period about project impacts ends Sept. 25.
The project is set to include 274 housing units. The developer plans to build 55 affordable units on site or put more than $10 million into the city’s Housing Trust Fund, which is used to build affordable housing elsewhere in the city.
Community members said they are concerned about the actual height of the project — which they said is closer to 200 feet tall than 180; impacts on Strawberry Creek, which runs through a culvert buried below downtown; and the impacts on the view of the Golden Gate from Campanile Way on the UC Berkeley campus.
The Landmarks Preservation Commission voted in 2015 not to landmark the view from Campanile Way, and the Berkeley City Council upheld that decision several months later. But Steve Finacom told the board he had just filed new paperwork to try to change the formal historic status of Campanile Way itself, so the issue is likely to be hotly debated later this year. (Finacom clarified after publication that he filed the paperwork on behalf of 56 Berkeley residents, and was not one of the signatories: “This is truly a ‘citizen initiation’ not an action of one individual.”)
The Walgreens tower is one of seven tall buildings allowed, in theory, under the city’s Downtown Area Plan. The plan was adopted in 2012 after voters endorsed its concepts in 2010. The plan allows for the construction of three 180-foot-tall buildings in Berkeley’s downtown core, and two 120-foot-high buildings. UC Berkeley has the right to build two more 120-foot structures.
The tall buildings include the 18-story Harold Way; a 16-story hotel approved over Bank of America; and a 120-foot-high condo complex proposed at Shattuck Avenue and Berkeley Way. (That project appears to have stalled, however.) UC Berkeley is also building a 120-foot building on Berkeley Way.
Regarding the view issue, the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) consultant told the city there would, in fact, be “an adverse visual effect” if the project is built. But he said state environmental laws require a view issue to be designated a “less than significant impact,” particularly for “infill” projects.
Commissioner Carrie Olson said she was “disappointed there wasn’t a better discussion about it in the EIR.” And she said the view issue won’t go away. “The view of the Campanile is something that symbolizes Berkeley, and we need to protect that view corridor.”
Commissioner Denise Pinkston said she was disappointed there wasn’t “state-of-the-art photography” in the report, given that the view impact is “such a hot button topic.”
The board had asked the developer earlier this year to use drones to help provide a robust “visual simulation” and make it easier to see the actual project height. Staff said that wasn’t done because the city has “a policy against drones,” and the developer avoids drone use due to liability concerns.
Commissioner Charles Kahn said it wasn’t surprising that the EIR didn’t look more closely at the view issue — because it’s not something the state considers significant under the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA.
“I don’t think we can rely on the EIR to do these things because of the way CEQA is formulated — but that doesn’t mean we ignore them as a zoning board,” he said.
Commissioners also said they would be interested to see a project with fewer parking spaces, and better creek maps as part of the final project documents. They noted that they are worried, too, about traffic impacts on Allston Way during and after construction.
“I’m not satisfied with mitigations for pedestrian safety,” said Commissioner Shoshana O’Keefe, who said she used to be one of the many mothers with strollers to get off the bus downtown, then walk to the YMCA. “There’s a lot of pedestrians there, a lot of kids.”
She said she’d also like to see consideration of a project alternative in the EIR that is “significantly shorter.”
Commissioner Igor Tregub told the consultants he hopes the report can consider the view issue more deeply in case the city does decide to designate Campanile Way as a historic resource in the future.
“It’s probably something that the EIR should at least look at in case that were to happen,” he said. “We would not want an EIR that is caught flatfooted.”
Comments on the draft EIR can be sent to senior planner Leslie Mendez, Planning and Development Department, c/o Permit Service Center, Berkeley, California, 94704; or LMendez@ci.berkeley.ca.us. Comments must be received on or before Sept. 25. See the draft EIR under the “CEQA” section on the city website for 2190 Shattuck Ave.