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Neighbors Defeat Disputed Seminary

By Matthew Artz
Friday November 07, 2003

Score one for the neighbors. After a dogged two-year battle, the American Baptist Seminary of the West has pulled its application to demolish two turn-of-the-century cottages and replace them with a five-story building. 

“This was David versus Goliath,” said David Baker of the Benvenue Neighbors Association (BNA), which fought the project. “I don’t know of any time in the history of Berkeley that renters have risen up to protect their neighborhood against a bad development and won.” 

The seminary told city staff last week that it lacked the funds to conduct the Environmental Impact Report (EIR), City Council mandated last April. 

The EIR, which would have studied the building’s impact on parking and traffic as well as the historic merit of the two cottages, costs between $50,000 and $100,000—too much for a religious school, according to seminary attorney David Levy of San Francisco law firm Morrison & Forester. 

The seminary retains the right to reintroduce the project if it amasses enough money to bankroll the EIR, but will have to start the permit process from scratch. 

“As far as we’re concerned, it’s dead,” said city Planning Director Dan Marks. 

The seminary had proposed three projects at its theological campus in the 2500 block of Benvenue Avenue, four blocks from the UC Berkeley campus. 

Council approved two projects for retrofitting and subdividing student dormitories, but—facing fierce neighborhood opposition—drew the line against the proposed 65-foot building at 2514 Benvenue Ave. 

The project would have included 23 new dwelling units, a 22-bed dormitory, classrooms, offices and a 48-car garage. 

“It was way out of scale and used up most of the open space at the north end of Benvenue,” said BNA President Sharon Hudson. 

For now, the site again belongs to the two cottages—one built in 1899, the other in 1906—that house seminary students and faculty members.  

Levy said it was too early for the seminary to decide if it wanted to stay at the property. “It’s been an expensive and draining process,” he said. 

Seminary President Keith Russell was not available to comment. 

The seminary is expected to move ahead with the two other projects at 2500 and 2508 Benvenue Ave. The project at 2500 Benvenue will add 12 housing units for a total of 24 and the project at 2508 Benvenue will add six units, for a total of 21. 

The two-year battle highlighted the contentious nature of Berkeley development. Neighbors accused the planning department of pushing through the building without giving adequate notice or acknowledging their concerns. 

Opponents of the project also claimed that the Benvenue expansion was nothing more than a profit center for the seminary which had rented most of their class space on the 2700 block of Hillegas Avenue to UC Berkeley. 

Neighbors fought to win landmark status for the cottages last year, but city council rejected the notion because of a state law that forbids the landmarking of buildings owned by religious institutions. 

Marks—who joined the planning department this summer— said he hoped new procedures in the works to notify neighbors earlier about planned developments improve relations between neighbors and his department.