Berkeley zoning board to 12-story developer: ‘Funk this thing up’

1951 Shattuck Ave. project rendering. Source: Solomon Cordwell Buenz

This month, zoning board members got their first chance to weigh in on plans for a new 12-story building proposed at Shattuck Avenue and Berkeley Way. Their advice? Have some fun with the design so it reflects more of Berkeley’s unique nature.

“Berkeley is a quirky place. We’re full of quirky characters,” said Commissioner Charles Kahn, appointee of Councilwoman Susan Wengraf, at Thursday night’s meeting. “Meet us here in front of you: We’re a good cross sample right here.”

Kahn urged developer Grosvenor Americas to “have some fun” with the design’s color and patterns: “Our buildings are quirky and there isn’t one standard. But I would like a building that has some character, that has some interest and some quirkiness and fun — like the citizens of our city.”

Added Commissioner Nicolaus Wright, a temporary appointee of Mayor Jesse Arreguín: “I think there’s this opportunity to funk this thing up a little bit.” Wright urged the project team to look at the “color and weirdness” of the existing retail on the block and “let the character of the retail spill out on the street and not be so bound up in the building.”


At least one of those existing businesses, Berkeley Vacuum & Sewing Center, has intense community support and many people have wondered about the shop’s future. Thursday, co-owner Susan Hedjazi told Berkeleyside the shop will stay put until the project has been approved: “We don’t want to worry about that anymore until something happens,” she said, noting there have been several years of uncertainty already. “We don’t have any plans to move out yet.” She said the business will aim to find a nearby location when it does need to move.

Retail at 1951 Shattuck Ave. in a recent project rendering. Source: Solomon Cordwell Buenz

Grosvenor submitted its plan to the city for 1951 Shattuck Ave., at Berkeley Way, in July. The 350-year-old British company has been building projects in the Bay Area since the 1970s, Steve Buster, senior vice president for development for Grosvenor Americas, told the board Thursday. The project preview was a chance for board members to offer feedback, not vote, on the plans.

An earlier proposal to build 92 condos at the site was abandoned last year. Now, Grosvenor is planning to construct 156 residential units, 5,000 square feet of ground-floor commercial and a 100-space underground parking garage at 1951 Shattuck. There are no immediate plans for what the retail might include, he said.

Buster said the $132 million project will result in about $14 million in fees to the city. There are plans for a project labor agreement to use union workers, as well as a payment of $5.7 million into the city’s Housing Trust Fund to build affordable housing elsewhere. Buster said the project will have no below-market-rate units on site.

He said a project analysis found about $630,000 within the budget for additional community benefits. About 40% of this will help support the city’s Pathways center, while the other 60% would be an additional payment into the city’s Housing Trust Fund.

Buster also noted that the idea for 1951 Shattuck is to build “really livable units for Berkeley residents, professionals, downsizers and certainly families.… We’re designing them for people to live longterm in downtown.”

What Shattuck and University may one day look like: Acheson Commons and 1951 Shattuck. Source: Solomon Cordwell Buenz

Commissioner John Selawsky (appointed by Councilman Ben Bartlett) said he’d like to see more three-bedroom units in the project — if possible — to create more family housing in the city. The current proposal is for 22 studios, 70 one-bedroom units, 59 two-bedroom units and five three-bedroom units. The average unit size is about 760 square feet. Selawsky said he liked the underground parking garage and asked the project team to look closely at traffic impacts.

Commissioner Shoshana O’Keefe (appointee of Councilwoman Sophie Hahn) said she’d like to see the project reduce the amount of parking and use those cost savings, perhaps, to create more affordable housing or other benefits. She too was concerned about the traffic plan, particularly as it might relate to pedestrian safety.

Other commissioners focused more on the building itself.

Commissioner Teresa Clarke (appointed by Councilwoman Linda Maio) said she would save most of her comments for the Design Review Committee meeting Nov. 15. She urged the team, however, to consider reducing the amount of glass in the building because it seemed to be overpowering.

Carrie Olson (appointee of Councilwoman Kate Harrison) urged the removal of “male elements on the corner,” adding: “Women don’t care. It doesn’t need to hold the corner. It’s not a node,” as defined in city planning rules. She said the project should not take its cues from the UC Berkeley building — Berkeley Way West — across the street: “We had nothing to do with that glass building. It doesn’t fit in with anything.”

Olson described Berkeley Way and Shattuck as “our main intersection of the downtown” and said other elements of the design were also out of place.

“It just is so massive I don’t find it comforting. And the fenestration, these odd balconies that you’re doing … I mean most of downtown has symmetry, so this is something new for us. You’d have to really convince me of it,” she said. “And ditto the undulating walls up above. We don’t have anything like that.”

Commissioners Kahn and Patrick Sheahan (appointee of Councilwoman Cheryl Davila) commended the project team, which includes architecture firm Solomon Cordwell Buenz (SCB), on its choice of high-quality materials that seemed to spare no expense. Sheahan noted this was rare for Berkeley. But he agreed with Olson that there was too much glass in the design.

Sheahan said the building might take more notes from historic elements downtown, and perhaps use masonry for the entire structure: “We haven’t seen a new masonry building in Berkeley and I think it’s high time for it. I think you could still, in a modernist context, make a nod to the historic in a way that could be very positive.”

Kahn pushed back a bit on the idea of more masonry, but agreed with other thoughts from his colleagues. He said the building should fit in more with the local vernacular, and move away from a design that looked like “a building that could be plopped anywhere.” Kahn said he’d like to see a contemporary building that brought in more of Berkeley’s charm.

“I really do think that a little more time spent in Berkeley just walking around and getting familiar with our downtown would benefit your project,” he said.

See the project website created by the developer. Project documents are on the city website.