Why Appeal ZAB’s Roberts Campus Decisions? By ROBERT LAURISTON

Tuesday December 14, 2004

Readers of the Daily Planet’s Dec. 7 issue could easily come away with the impression that NIMBYs appealed the Zoning Adjustments Board’s recent decisions on the Ed Roberts Campus in an attempt to block the project. In fact my co-appellants and I support the project: this appeal is part of the ongoing fight for fair and open permit approval practices. 

In 1998, the ERC presented its original three-story, 130,000-square foot design in a series of community meetings. Many neighbors said that proposal was out of scale with the neighborhood, provided insufficient parking (only 100 spaces), and would exacerbate existing traffic problems. Naturally some of these neighbors were NIMBYs, but those were real issues that needed to be addressed. 

At that time, some neighbors suggested the building would make more sense in another location, such as downtown Berkeley, where it would not be out of scale, or on the other side of Adeline, where the much larger lot would allow a lower, less bulky building. The North Berkeley BART station was also mentioned, not as a practical alternative but expressing longstanding South Berkeley resentment: BART gave North Berkeley greenbelt parks and open space, we get asphalt and big buildings. 

Over the course of these community meetings, the ERC modified its plans to respond to complaints about parking and traffic, but didn’t back off an inch on height and bulk until mid-2002, after the current architect took over the project and worked with the partner organizations to figure out how much space they really needed and what they could afford to build. The resulting two-story, 80,000-square foot design ended most neighbors’ concerns about the project’s height and bulk. Unfortunately, a lot of people thought the new design was ugly, a complaint they’ve made that complaint at every meeting and public hearing since. 

The Design Review Committee took up the project in late 2002. By their last hearing in January 2003, involved neighbors and the ERC were on accord on almost every issue. The plan to move the BART parking lot entrance would reduce traffic through the neighborhood. The ERC would build a 143-space garage to meet its own parking needs and reduce the current 250 BART spaces only as necessary to save trees (an architect neighbor estimated that might mean losing 20 spaces). The main remaining point of contention was the design of the facade: a majority of attending neighbors complained that it was ugly, too modern, and wouldn’t fit in the neighborhood. The DRC disagreed, and voted 6-0 to recommend approval. 

This year, the project finally came before the Zoning Adjustments Board. In August there was an informational preview, on October 28 a public hearing with no clear purpose (scheduled by mistake?), and on Nov. 15 the public hearing at which ZAB made the two decisions we are appealing. 

ZAB’s first decision was to adopt the “negative declaration” required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Per CEQA, the negative declaration and supporting documents (including an initial study prepared by staff and 21 documents referenced by that study) had to be available for public review for 20 days before ZAB could adopt it. Members of the public alerted ZAB at both the Oct. 28 and Nov. 15 hearings that staff had failed to make the documents available as required, giving ZAB two chances to delay its decision and allow the full public review required by law. 

CEQA also required ZAB to check the negative declaration for accuracy and omissions, discover public concerns, and disclose agency analyses. The ZAB failed on all these counts, most notably in regard to the section of the initial study regarding impact on historical resources. Members of the public alerted ZAB prior to its decision that the initial study failed to disclose that the city had received a letter from the state Office of Historic Preservation disputing staff’s conclusion that the ERC would have “no impact” on historical resources. 

In sum, the main reasons for our appeal are that ZAB virtually ignored the state requirements, acted prematurely, and approved an inadequate negative declaration without identifying and addressing fatal defects. The City Council should reverse that decision and take steps to avoid similar errors with future projects. ZAB should hold a new hearing to determine properly whether the project meets CEQA standards as is, or if to avoid significant adverse impact on surrounding historical resources the facade should be revised to look less like a 1960s-era airport terminal. 


Pro-democracy activist Robert Lauriston lives across the street from the Ed Roberts Campus site.