A City Council majority affirmed approval Thursday night of an 18-story building with 274 units planned at the site of the downtown Berkeley Walgreens at 2190 Shattuck Ave.
Six council members voted to uphold an earlier zoning board vote to grant the project its use permits after four people appealed that decision in November. Three council members — Sophie Hahn, Cheryl Davila and Kate Harrison — abstained from the vote, while the rest voted in favor.
The appeal was motivated in large part by concerns about the loss of the historic view from Campanile Way on the UC Berkeley campus down to the Golden Gate. Hahn said she didn’t want to oppose the project but could not “bring myself to vote to take away that view.”
More than 50 people, many of whom were young, racially diverse UC Berkeley students, pleaded with council not to prioritize a view over the housing that’s so sorely lacking in the city. Community members credited the “More Student Housing Now” group for mobilizing that faction.
Many supporters of the appeal asked council to send the project back to the zoning board so it could be turned into a shorter building. The demographics of those speakers offered a sharp contrast to the student group: Nearly all of the 18 or so speakers asking for a remand were older, white longtime Berkeley residents.
Some told students they would not be helped by a project like 2190 Shattuck, because it would be too expensive for them, and said students would come to regret the loss of the historic view once they realized its significance.
Several council members and speakers said they appreciated the attachment many have to the view from the base of the Campanile — but also noted there are many other places in the city to get memorable views of the Golden Gate. Some students said the view from Campanile Way will be covered by trees in the next few years, regardless.
Appellants said city officials had not adequately considered the view issue and received incomplete guidance from staff as to applicable laws that might give more weight to it.
In its round-up of the appeal points, staff told council most appeared to be “without merit.”
Mayor Jesse Arreguín asked developer Mill Creek Residential to commit to an early payment of $2 million into the city’s Housing Trust Fund for affordable housing. The project is set to bring $10.1 million into that fund rather than build on-site below-market-rate units. The full payment would generally be due in three or four years when the project is ready to open. But Mill Creek agreed to pay part of the fee in 12-18 months, when it gets its building permit.
Arreguín said the early payment will be a significant benefit, letting the city move ahead faster to build affordable housing to address the housing crisis.
“I do believe we need the money now,” said the mayor, adding that the city will be able to leverage the payment 4-to-1 as it takes advantage of other funding sources: “We’re really talking about $40 million to be able to build affordable housing in the city of Berkeley. That is extremely important.”
Councilwoman Lori Droste said it’s critical for the city to approve projects like 2190 Shattuck to fulfill its sustainability goals.
“The most dramatic way that we can have an impact on climate change is by building infill housing. We need to build housing near job centers and transit,” she said.
Council members Harrison and Hahn tried to get Mill Creek to agree to reduce parking significantly — a two-story underground garage is in the plans, despite being right on top of the downtown Berkeley BART station — and allow public access to the roof deck. Mill Creek said neither suggestion was feasible.
Many said they’d like to see less parking in the project because of its proximity to BART. Councilwoman Susan Wengraf said she’s seen estimates for underground parking stalls as high as $150,000 or $160,000 per space, and asked if taking out parking could help make the project smaller.
Senior managing director Don Peterson of Mill Creek told Wengraf that change would make the project financially infeasible and require a redesign: “As we all know, we’ve been at this for three years. These are all significant issues that would have significant impacts on the project.”
Peterson said the parking ratio, of 33%, is in line with Bay Area properties in San Francisco and Berkeley.
Harrison, who represents the downtown, said she was concerned the city wasn’t getting its “fair share” in terms of community benefits.
An economist from Economic & Planning Systems, which ran the numbers for 2190 Shattuck as part of Mill Creek’s required submission to the city, said his firm’s assessment had been bullish in both projected costs and possible rents.
The community benefits package “takes us to that limit” of feasibility, he told Harrison, even though “every assumption broke towards optimism.” (That analysis was vetted by an independent financial firm on behalf of the city as per standard city protocol.)
As part of its community benefits package, Mill Creek signed a project labor agreement to use “wall-to-wall” union workers for construction. A representative from the building trades told council that’s rare for a project of this size. An arts niche and community room for non-profit use and community meetings is also part of the plan.
Berkeley voters approved three buildings up to 18 stories in the city core as part of the Downtown Area Plan. A 16-story hotel at Shattuck and Center street is currently under construction and 18-story Harold Way, between Allston Way and Kittredge Street, is in the midst of pre-construction design work.