A 12-story, 156-unit project in downtown Berkeley won praise and nearly unanimous approval Thursday night from the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board.
“From now on, whenever a developer comes in and says, ‘What can we do to be the gold standard?’ — right now, in my book, you guys are the gold standard,” Commissioner Igor Tregub told the Grosvenor Americas development team shortly before the vote.
The block where the project is to be located, at Shattuck Avenue and Berkeley Way, has been transformed in recent years, with construction underway for the 205-unit Acheson Commons wrapping around Shattuck to University Avenue. There’s also a new office building under construction at 2120 Berkeley Way in the former UC Press building. Just north, the eight-story Berkeley Way West building, completed in 2018, houses educational and office space for UC Berkeley.
Board members pointed to a number of notable features in the project, at 1951 Shattuck Ave., from its LEED Gold certification goal and its plan to be primarily powered by electric rather than gas. The development team has also signed a project labor agreement — valued at $3.8 million — to ensure that union workers are responsible for construction. The board was also impressed by Grosvenor’s work to help find Berkeley Vacuum & Sewing Center an appropriate new home.
“Why can’t all applicants be as thorough, transparent and cooperative as you guys have been?” asked Commissioner John Selawsky, who lauded Grosvenor’s efforts with relocation assistance.
According to the development team, Berkeley Vacuum & Sewing Center, at the corner of Berkeley Way and Shattuck, is slated to move to a new location about six blocks south in downtown Berkeley. Many community members have expressed concern about the fate of the popular shop, and had pleaded over the years, with officials and developers alike, to find a way to keep it open.
During public comment, a representative from Copy Central, which also has a storefront on the block, told the zoning board that the chain — which began in Berkeley — has been struggling, in part, due to all the construction in Berkeley: “New retail spaces are not coming online as fast as they’re coming off,” he said. That’s driving rents up and making it tough to stay in the city, he said. The board asked Grosvenor’s development team to talk with the man and also advised him to call city economic development staff for help.
The project is not planning to include affordable units and will instead put from $5.5 million to nearly $6 million, depending on when the payment is made, into the city’s Housing Trust Fund. In addition to those fees, which are set by the city, Grosvenor said it will put another $462,000 into that fund as part of its “significant community benefits package.”
Other fees the project is set to pay include about $552,000 to the Berkeley Unified School District, $480,000 for public art, and $330,000 for street improvements, for a total benefits package of more than $11 million, according to the development team.
A representative from the Building & Construction Trades Council of Alameda County told the board, in relation to the project labor agreement, that “this project is a home run for local organized labor.” He said hundreds of the group’s members live in Berkeley and would benefit from the work.
“It’s nice to see a developer come here and do the right thing,” added a representative from the Carpenters Union.
The city also determined, as part of its review of the project, that a new traffic signal will be needed at Berkeley Way and Shattuck because of the increase in pedestrians that will use the intersection. The project will cover about $173,000 of the $820,000 cost for the light, with other buildings nearby also pitching in.
In addition to housing, the project is set to include 5,000 square feet of commercial space on the ground floor and an 80-space underground parking garage. Parking for 90 bicycles is also included.
In a June 19 letter to the city, Steve Buster, Grosvenor’s senior vice president of development, told the city the project will support hundreds of full-time jobs over its two-year construction period, and bring in $2.3 million annually to the city in tax revenue, “which is $2 million more than the tax revenue generated by the existing property.”
Thursday night, Buster described the parcel as “a great site due to its location downtown and proximity to BART: “We’re very picky about the sites we choose,” he told the board: “We just fell in love with it the moment we saw it.”
Buster credited zoning board and Design Review Committee comments with helping to improve the look of the building significantly. Thursday night, he referenced direction from a zoning board commissioner in November to “funk this thing up.”
As he walked the board through updated project designs, pointing out an improved corner element, residential entry area, ground-floor retail space and overall color scheme, he noted: “This was the funked up version.”
In November, Buster said Grosvenor’s goal for the building had been “really livable units for Berkeley residents, professionals, downsizers and certainly families.… We’re designing them for people to live longterm in downtown.”
As part of its plan to seek LEED Gold certification, “The project’s sustainability features include: roof gardens to reduce the heat island effect and delay stormwater runoff; a focus on reducing the dependence on natural gas in building systems and in-unit ranges; and Transportation Demand Management features including two car share parking spaces, at least ten pre-wired electric vehicle charging stations, and secure bicycle parking.”
Board members did not share many criticisms, but there were a few.
Commissioner Carrie Olson took issue with the photo simulations from the architect, noting, “We love to see diversity on our pictures and you’ve got all young white people.”
Commissioner Patrick Sheahan praised the construction materials but said he could not vote in favor of the project because he does not believe it complies with the 75-foot setbacks described in the city’s Downtown Area Plan. He said he would vote “no” because “I do not believe we have the authority to approve.”
Commissioner Teresa Clarke disputed his assessment: “This is what the downtown plan imagined,” she said. “We’re getting these benefits because of work we did on the downtown plan.”
“I think Patrick is misunderstanding what a use permit is. All these use permits are allowed,” she continued. “This is how our process is supposed to work.”