Council approves South Berkeley co-housing units after zoning board denial

3000 Shattuck. Image: Devi Dutta Architecture

Citing the “tremendous” need for new housing in Berkeley, and its location near BART along key transit lines, Berkeley officials have overturned the zoning board’s rejection of a five-story “co-housing” project at Shattuck and Ashby avenues.

Last Tuesday night, the Berkeley City Council voted 5-2 to overturn the zoning board vote and grant the project its use permit. Councilwomen Kate Harrison and Cheryl Davila voted no, while Councilwoman Sophie Hahn abstained. Councilman Ben Bartlett, who represents the South Berkeley district where the project site is located, was absent. The corner lot currently features a gas and smog station.

The zoning board had voted in July to deny the project, which the development team presented as co-housing and community living. Tuesday’s public hearing — which began Nov. 13 and was continued until last week — came after the development team appealed the zoning board’s July decision to the City Council. Appellants wrote that they did not believe the zoning board had an adequate factual basis for its denial.

In its review, staff agreed. It urged the City Council to side with the appellants and give the project its use permit, writing, “staff remains concerned that the findings for denial of the project were not sufficiently backed by factual statements or substantial evidence.” According to the staff report prepared for council, the zoning board had taken issue with the scale and density of the project, traffic safety concerns and a lack of loading zones, among other concerns.


Project representatives said 3000 Shattuck would offer 80 bedrooms — limited to one bed each — in 23 units that would range in size from studios up to as many as six bedrooms. The project would not include below-market-rate housing on-site, project rep Nathan George told city officials Tuesday. Instead, it will pay more than $800,000 into the city’s fund to build affordable housing elsewhere in Berkeley. But George said rents would be significantly cheaper than studios in the neighborhood. Average bedrooms south of campus currently rent for $1,500-$1,800, he said, compared to $2,500 for a studio.

George said he was inspired to create the co-housing project after his own experience as a UC Berkeley grad student sharing housing with three men in his PhD program. They “enjoyed living in community” and ultimately moved into a larger space with more bedrooms, adding more residents to the mix and becoming “lifelong friends.”

The 23-unit co-housing project proposed at 3000 Shattuck Ave., which is currently a gas station. Image: Devi Dutta Architecture

Co-housing — historically arranged among strangers using bulletin boards or websites such as Craigslist — has been a common approach for many renters sharing single-family homes in Berkeley. It nonetheless proved controversial in the context of a brand-new building. There were charges before the zoning board and City Council that the developers behind 3000 Shattuck were trying to “game” the system: reducing the number of units to reduce the associated fees.

Some council and community members pointed out Tuesday that the original proposal for 3000 Shattuck had 44 units, which would have brought nearly twice as much money into the city’s affordable housing fund than the current proposal.

George told council the unit count reduction had been driven more by other fees than the one for affordable housing, including $35,000 per kitchen, $16,000 per unit from the East Bay Municipal Utility District, PG&E charges and more. Project representative Mark Rhoades also noted that the city had doubled its inclusionary housing requirement after 3000 Shattuck was submitted, which forced the team to rethink the layout.

“The city changed the ground underneath the project so we had to adjust,” Rhoades said this week. Co-living, he added, is “a really terrific idea that isn’t at all new. It’s what people have been doing in Berkeley for 100 years. It’s just taking that model of people coming together and living as a household and putting it in a new building — versus something that’s evolved in an old building.”

In addition to the 23 housing units, the project includes about 3,500 square feet of retail and café space, according to the applicant statement. Shared open space includes a large kitchen and lounge on one floor, as well as a courtyard and roof deck. There would be six parking spaces for commercial uses, but no parking for residents. Green building features include “solar residential hot water or solar PV and will use flow-through planters.”

Courtyard at 3000 Shattuck. Image: Devi Dutta Architecture

Public comment split between approval, denial

Zoning board Commissioner Patrick Sheahan implored council Tuesday to uphold the zoning board decision. He told officials “the prospect of approval undermines the zoning code, it undermines the state density bonus, it undermines affordable housing. It undermines the zoning board. And I think it calls into question: What is the zoning code for? What is the zoning board for?” Sheahan spoke during a five-minute rebuttal time period generally provided during a public hearing to the side opposite an appeal.

His fellow zoning board commissioner, Teresa Clarke, spoke just after him and called the hearing process “odd” — because Sheahan had no official role regarding the appeal and had not been elected to represent the board’s position during the council meeting.

“I really take exception to a lot of what Patrick said,” said Clarke, who was in the two-vote minority that opposed the July zoning board denial. Clarke said everything the project had asked for was, in fact, allowed by the code under various modifications, and that Sheahan had misrepresented how the zoning code works: “The real issue was — we didn’t get as much affordable housing fee as we wanted. But we did get more bedrooms.”

Several other public commenters also spoke in favor of the project, and said its scale and location were appropriate for Berkeley. But another speaker, representing a relatively large neighborhood coalition called Friends of Adeline, said the city should deny it.

“I have lived in communal housing all of my adult life. I raised my children in a house with other families,” said local resident Margy Wilkinson. “This is not communal housing. This is a way to make profit off of people’s needs to have space to live in.”

Droste: “We have to figure out a way to move forward”

Most members of the City Council kept their remarks about the project relatively brief. Councilwoman Linda Maio said the city needs to be flexible and creative to get more housing built as construction costs rise. Councilwoman Susan Wengraf said she would support the project even though she wasn’t happy with everything about it.

“We need the housing. The location is great. And I feel like we can’t keep demanding perfection in order to get housing built,” Wengraf said. “We really need to give a little bit.”

Councilman Kriss Worthington used his time to emphasize the more than $800,000 that will come into the city’s affordable housing fund if the project is built.

On the other side of the debate, Councilwoman Cheryl Davila said her “main concern is that ZAB [the zoning board] said no. And I think that should be honored because, why waste their time? That’s what they’re there for.”

Councilwomen Sophie Hahn and Kate Harrison both spoke at length. Hahn made a motion to send the project back to the Zoning Adjustments Board for a deep dive into the technical definitions for the type of housing proposed, along with other factors. She said she’d like to see the project proceed — but not until more analysis could take place.

She also noted that, at its prior meeting in November, council had expressed a variety of concerns about the project, including a desire for a loading zone. The development team came back Tuesday with drawings for a yellow or white loading zone on Ashby. Hahn said that wasn’t enough for her to give the project the green light.

“We brought a lot up at our last meeting and what we’ve got here is a curb,” she said.

Harrison said she didn’t want to send the project back to the zoning board because that would just draw out the process more and be “time wasted on a project that I think that we should do.” Harrison said she would like to see housing “replace this less than functional land use with something better.” But she said she could not support 3000 Shattuck because she had “not seen the kind of compromise and work together that I would expect on this kind of project.”

Harrison also questioned the need for more market-rate housing in Berkeley, saying “the idea that building at any income level is good because prices will come down I think is failed economics.… I’m very concerned about this sort of rush to say any project is good. I don’t really believe that.”

Harrison said, too, that the city has taken steps it hopes will streamline the permit process to get more housing built faster. She balked at the idea that the city has not been receptive enough to new housing.

“The … fake news from my perspective is this idea that the city of Berkeley is engaged in an ongoing effort to resist building housing. I don’t accept that and I don’t believe it.… I’m challenging this rhetoric here and now, because I’m really kind of tired of it. I’m kind of tired of us being told, we’re the people in the way, the ZAB’s in the way, the council’s in the way. I just don’t, I don’t see that. At all,” Harrison said, before ultimately voting against the proposal.

Councilwoman Lori Droste, who spoke at some length to lobby for project approval, said the city’s need for housing is “tremendous.” She spoke strongly against Hahn’s suggestion to send the project back to the zoning board: “That impacts affordability right there” by creating “more roadblocks” for projects “that will provide a chunk of money for affordable housing.”

Droste said it will cost the city more than $700 million to build the 1,400 subsidized units Berkeley has been calculated to need: “How can we figure out how to make our city more affordable?” she asked. “We’re not going to make it more affordable by not building housing. That’s what gets us into this situation.”

Droste said experts have found that infill housing on transit lines will make the biggest difference in reducing the city’s carbon footprint. She also said the city may find it has set its affordable housing fee too high and needs to reconsider it — if it means projects aren’t coming forward or getting built.

“20% of zero is still zero,” she said. “If we charge a fee that we can’t get, we’re still not getting that money.”

Droste’s motion to approve the project’s use permit won the night, with Mayor Jesse Arreguín, Maio, Wengraf and Worthington voting in support.

Wengraf said Tuesday that she is working on a proposal to change the way the city calculates the affordable housing mitigation fee so it’s based on square footage rather than unit count. She invited her colleagues to join with her in that effort, which would ultimately go before the city’s Planning Commission for development and review.