A law intended to increase construction of affordable housing units was invoked at Tuesday’s Berkeley City Council meeting by attorney Rena Rickles, in an attempt to push the council to approve a controversial mixed-use housing and commercial development at San Pablo Avenue and Harrison Street.
The council put off a decision on the project and will hold a special meeting to discuss it on Monday.
Also, at Tuesday’s meeting, the council approved construction of nine traffic circles to slow circulation in southwest Berkeley and called for a hearing on a proposed sunshine ordinance, the intent of which would be to open the processes of city government to the community beyond what state law mandates. The council also put off deliberation on cultural uses at the Allston Way Gaia Building.
The five-story San Pablo and Harrison development proposes 30 condominium units, of which six would be affordable as defined by state law. The plan is to build the condos above retail space.
In an Oct. 10 letter written by Rickles to Mayor Tom Bates and the council on behalf of project developer Jim Hart and delivered on the day of the meeting, Hart rescinded recent project modifications, concessions he had given neighbors who said the project was too dense.
Concessions that would be off the table included reducing about 500 square feet of the project’s upper two floors, pulling them farther away from neighboring residences and adding 18 parking spaces, Rickles said.
Rickles’ letter said Hart now would offer the affordable units to people earning 80 percent of the area median income ($67,040 for a family of four) rather than to those earning 120 percent of the area median ($99,600 for a family of four), which had been written into the earlier project.
The new offer triggers a state law which mandates that only health and safety issues can be considered for the council to deny the project, according to Planning Director Dan Marks.
“The [Rickles] letter narrows our ability to deny the project,” Albuquerque said.
Calling Rickles’ move a “brilliant legal maneuver,” Councilmember Max Anderson contended: “This is obviously intended to put us in a box.”
But Councilmember Betty Olds argued for the project, saying she did not see how the council could refuse to accept the benefit of the low-income housing.
To the applause of about a dozen of the proposed project’s neighbors who had come to the meeting to oppose it, Councilmember Dona Spring called for modifying the project. “There are other options,” she said. “We don’t have to accept the project the developers are giving us.”
And Councilmember Linda Maio, participating in the meeting via telephone from Hawaii, argued that it was inappropriate for the developer and his attorney to place “an 11th hour letter” before the council.
Maio called on the council to reject the letter and Hart’s newest proposal. The council was about to vote on that option when Mayor Tom Bates called on the body to put off a decision for a week, allowing the developer to meet one more time with neighbors and come to a mutual agreement.
The council will continue to discuss the project at a special meeting, for that purpose only, at 7 p.m. Monday in the 6th floor conference room at 2180 Milvia St.
At the Tuesday meeting the council briefly discussed a proposed sunshine ordinance and a number of enhancements and decided to hold a workshop/public hearing on provisions that might become part of the ordinance. The workshop date has not been set.