They came. They saw. They scoffed.
Zoning Adjustments Board members and neighbors had little good to say Thursday night about the Old Grove, a two-building, five-story 186-apartment complex proposed for the site of the mini-mall that now houses Kragen Auto Parts at 1695 University Ave.
Berkeley developers Christopher Hudson and Evan McDonald presented their plans at a special preview session held before the regular ZAB meeting. It was their first appearance as independent developers following their split from the always controversial Patrick Kennedy.
“You’ve exceeded the planning code in nine different areas, and I stopped counting the number of city policies the project doesn’t meet,” said ZAB member Bob Allen. “It would be a waste of your time to bring it to the Design Review Committee.”
“Building A”—the larger of the two structures—“looks like a Ramada Inn,” said ZAB member Chris Tiedemann. Referring to comparisons provided by project neighbors with plans presented two years earlier, Tiedemann said “the new project looks like it’s on steroids.”
“The design is overwhelming. It’s not going to work,” said ZAB member Dean Metzger.
“We believe we can make it much more attractive,” Hudson said, “but we are not going to be constantly coming back to address the rules, which would become a circular process. The idea is to create class buildings that look like they’ve been around for a while.”
Architect for the project is Kirk E. Peterson, whose best-known Berkeley designs were created for Kennedy’s Panoramic Interests—the Gaia Building at 2116 Allston Way and the Bachenheimer Building at 2119 University Ave.
While his other two buildings might be taller, neither approaches the street front massing of the larger Old Grove building, which presents a block-long five-story frontage along Martin Luther King Jr. Way (formerly called Grove Street.)
The smaller building, situated west of the main structure on Berkeley Way, reaches five stories at its apex, and residents of the residential street appeared at ZAB to complain that the structures would cast their homes into shadow.
Parking Worries, Density
Metzger said he was particularly worried about the plan’s inclusion of only 71 parking spaces in a complex with nearly 200 apartments and ground floor retail space as well.
Further complicating the parking problems are city policies that will bar residents from applying for residential parking permits that would allow them to park on neighboring streets.
Parking becomes even more problematic in light of the targeted residential population—working adults, and not the students who occupy the smaller units built by Hudson and McDonald during their long association with Kennedy.
At the project’s inception, 1695 University Ave. was to have been another development of Kennedy’s Panoramic Interests, but the developer ceded the project to his former associates when they set out under their own flag.
As with Kennedy’s projects, another lightning rod proved to be the city staff’s application of density bonus calculations in determining the mass and height of the project.
“The density bonus has been abused,” said Metzger.
“There’s a lot of disagreement among the board about the way the density bonus is being interpreted,” said Allen. “It does not state, in my opinion, that you can violate any and all zoning codes and still get two or three concessions—and you’ve asked for eight. I would like to see your project fit the spirit of the Berkeley zoning code and still get the most density bonus you can.”
Member Rick Judd told the developers that “city staff has gone out of its way to be helpful to you.”
Steve Wollmer and other neighbors have enlisted a powerful ally in their efforts to bring the project to more sedate dimensions. Oakland land use attorney Rena Rickles—who usually represents developers and builders—made the first of two Thursday evening appearances on the side of project critics.
“We too would like to know the rules from the beginning, so that it doesn’t turn into an exhausting situation going from ZAB to the City Council and back,” Rickles said. “We’re very uncomfortable with the growth of the project,” noting that the average per unit size had grown by 20 percent from the last plans presented to ZAB.
Rickles also challenged the city staff’s recommendation of reduced side yard setbacks along Berkeley Way. “The law is clear on its face and unambiguous, and not as recommended by city staff,” she said.
Under plans endorsed by the staff, the smaller building would be built to within five feet of the Victorian home at 1838 Berkeley Way.
Tom Hunt, whose home is just across the street from the project on Berkeley Way, voiced his concern for neighbors who live in the home. “This is a very large building up against a very small building. Their garden will be pretty much useless,” he said. Hunt also worried about shadows that will result in a loss of solar heat and light to his own home during the winter.
Too Little Commercial?
Wollmer also charged that the project violates city policy by limiting ground floor commercial use. “The city is losing sales tax revenue,” he said. ZAB member David Blake endorsed Wollmer’s concern.
“It needs retail along MLK all the way to Berkeley Way,” said Chair Andy Katz.
Rob Browning, an area resident with a small business on University in the same block, offered some historical perspective on the site, referring to its inspiration for Allen Ginsberg’s 1955 poem “A Supermarket in California,” written when a U-Save market stood on the spot, and Robert Bechtle’s choice of the locale for his 1971 painting “‘60 Chevy.”
“Compared to this project, that lonely little strip mall begins to seem lovable,” Browning said.
Peterson has styled himself a “19th Century” architect, but Hearst Avenue resident Travis Ritter said the project “wasn’t something Bernard Maybeck would have been happy to drive by.” Maybeck is Berkeley’s most celebrated turn-of-the-20th-Century architect.
While no one opposed the project outright, and neighbors said they like the inclusion of apartments for low-income tenants, their key issues remained mass and parking.
“Most people are still going to have cars, and the business customers will only exacerbate parking conditions, which are getting worse in this neighborhood,” said an Addison Street resident.
Hillary Goldman, who lives on Grant Street, shared the parking worries. “I’m also concerned that you’re protégés of Patrick Kennedy,” she said. “I hope you’ll take this seriously.”
Density Panel Formed
The conversation kept coming back to the always thorny issue of the density bonus, which by city calculations allowed Hudson McDonald LLC a 35 percent bigger building for setting aside one fifth of their apartments for low-income tenants—raising the base project from 135 apartments by an additional 48.
By the very end of Thursday night’s meeting at 1 a.m. Friday, ZAB members had voted to create a four member ad hoc subcommittee to look into the density bonus.›