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Top Berkeley Developments in ’06

By Richard Brenneman
Friday January 05, 2007

Berkeley developers clocked up big wins in 2006, defeating a ballot measure designed to save Berkeley’s Landmark Preser-vation Ordinance and winning approval of projects destined to change the city’s face. 

The Zoning Adjustments Board—which approves permits—ended the year with preliminary approvals for the highly contested project dubbed the Trader Joe’s building, a five-story condo project at 2701 Shattuck Ave., the new West Berkeley bus maintenance facility for the Berkeley Unified School District and the demolition of the Drayage, once a thriving if illegal live/work center for innovative West Berkeley artists. 

The year also witnessed approvals of: 

• a new Berkeley Bowl at 920 Heinz Ave. in West Berkeley, a project which had divided residents and businesses in the area. Construction, though, hasn’t begun. 

• a 171-unit housing-over-commercial project that will occupy a block of West Berkeley at 700 University Ave. and lead to the demolition of a once-landmarked building that now houses Celia’s Mexican Restaurant. City councilmembers overturned a structure of merit designation for the building, clearing the way for demolition. 

That decision also dooms the building housing Brennan’s Irish Pub, a West Berkeley institution slated to occupy a landmarked railroad station that will remain at the lot’s northwestern corner. 

• the Berkeley Unified School District’s plans for an enhanced bus maintenance center, along with offices and classrooms, at 1325 Sixth St. at the corner of Gilman St. 

Though Mayor Tom Bates had asked the district to include commercial space on the Gilman Street edge of the project to enhance commercial uses on that stretch of freeway accessible roadway, the district said they had none to spare. 

• an unopposed ZAB vote to approve a new four story 95,771 square foot mini-storage building at 1120 Second St. 

• a City Council vote to uphold, over an appeal by neighbors, ZAB’s approval of a 30-unit, five-story residential-over-commercial project at 1201 San Pablo Ave.  

Another hotly contested project opened for business, the Library Gardens apartments, located between the Berkeley Public Library and Berkeley High School in the heart of downtown. Construction had commenced with a sledgehammer blow from Bates that began the demolition of a popular downtown parking structure. 

Downtown will lose more parking—at least temporarily—in the coming year when construction begins at the David Brower Center and housing complex planned for the city’s Oxford Street Parking lot. 

A final and equally contested project opened at the end of the year, the new Hills Fire Station at the intersection of Shasta Road and Park Gate at the summit of the Berkeley Hills, built at the cost of nearly $1,000 a square foot. 


Previews, others actions 

Several major projects were previewed for city officials and regulatory bodies, though the formal permit process hasn’t begun. 

Two are in West Berkeley and another would add a collection of upscale residences to the ground of a landmarked mansion in the hills. 

Doug Herst, the former owner of Peerless Lighting, proposes a 5.5-acre project that would cover much of two square blocks in West Berkeley and feature a signature biotech building, condos, live/work spaces for artists and spaces for “incubating” business start-ups. 

The city has already adopted one of Herst’s proposals—a new definition of “artist” expanded to include creators of high tech and digital works. 

Preliminary designs for a “green” condo complex at 2747 San Pablo Ave., presented to ZAB at their last meeting of the year, won nearly unanimous praise, both for the building’s environmentally sensitive and resource-conserving design and for a design ZAB members said reflected a rare sensitivity to neighboring residences. 

Representatives of a Southern California developer told the Landmarks Preservation Commission they plan to build seven luxury homes on the grounds of the landmarked Spring Estate at 1960 San Antonio. The mansion would be refurbished, but another landmarked structure would be demolished. 

ZAB declared two liquor stores public nuisances after neighbors and police complained. The board imposed limited hours and other conditions on Black & White Liquors at 3027 Adeline St., and the City Council upheld ZAB’s decision to order the closure of Dwight Way Liquor at 2440 Sacramento St., both because of sales to minor and other operational issues and because of conflicting statements about who actually owned the business. 


Ashby BART 

Perhaps the greatest controversy erupted over the City Council’s decision late in 2005 to grant ex post facto approval to an application for a CalTrans grant to formulate plans for what was then labeled a massive housing complex atop the Ashby BART station’s western parking lot. 

Though the application specified a minimum of 300 units—far larger than any other private housing project in the city—project consultant Ed Church said the figure was based on an erroneous calculation of the developable area of the site. 

Outraged neighbors and supporters of the Berkeley Flea Market—which is held on the lot every weekend—raised a ruckus, leading the council to disavow their earlier action and support creation of a task force by the South Berkeley Neighborhood Development Corporation (SBNDC), the non-profit picked as the official developer. 

More confrontations followed, and Mayor Tom Bates, neighborhood City Councilmember Max Anderson and Church retreated somewhat, saying he 300-unit figure was based on an errononeous conception of the available lot area. 

CalTrans, bombarded with complaints from neighbors, rejected the grant application, and Bates said he suggested expanding the area for development to the length of Adeline from Shattuck to Martin Luther King Jr. Way. 

Councilmembers voted a $40,000 to fund a task force picked by Church and SBNDC to develop proposals. But by the year’s end, the task force was in limbo after challenges were raised about private meetings the group had held private meetings without public notice, and whether the panel was governed by the Brown Act, which regulates public meetings in California. 

A polarized neighborhood is waiting to see what happens next. 


Artists banished 

2006 also brought an end to two Berkeley havens for artists, the Nexus Collective and gallery and the Drayage. 

The last artists were evicted from Nexus in August following a legal confrontation that pitted a pair of honored non-profits in courtroom combat. The Drayage community was gone even before the year started. 

For 31 years, Nexus had provided a home to a collection of artists and artisans who created works in its studios and displayed them in its gallery, both housed in a collection of buildings owned by the Berkeley East Bay Humane Society at 651 Addison St. 

The fracas arose from the humane society’s need to expand it facilities, and its choice to evict its long-time tenant. A move to landmark two of the buildings, one a brick structure and the other a metal shop building resulted in a decision by the Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate the former and reject the latter. 

But that didn’t stop the humane society, which pressed ahead. Costly litigation only left the artists poorer, and led many to sever their ties even before the eviction became final. 

The last of the artists was evicted in August. 

When the year started, the Drayage was already vacant following eviction orders from the city and protracted negotiations between the owner and angry tenants. 

A former warehouse illegally but innovatively transformed into an imaginative collection of live/work spaces, shops and studios next to the Union Pacific tracks in South Berkeley, the Drayage provided a unique space and a strong sense of community. 

In the end, developer Chris Hudson and Evan McDonald created a limited liability corporation to develop the site and won approval of demolition during ZAB’s last meeting of the year. 

Two similar buildings had already vanished a few years earlier, leaving Berkeley with ever-fewer spaces for working artists. 

Another collective, the Crucible at 1036 Ashby Ave., was forced to move to Oakland after run-ins with city officials in 2002, and the artists who inhabited the live/work spaces in another former warehouse at 2750 Adeline St. were evicted after a sale in 2001.  

Artists in one of the last remaining sizeable live/work buildings at 800 Heinz Ave. ended the year worried about a proposed development next door at 740 Heinz that could shadow much of the building from the natural light the artists say is crucial for their work. 

Plans for that project, proposed by Wareham Development, are still pending. 


Trader Joe’s 

With their year-end approval of the Hudson/McDonald project, now known as the Trader Joe’s building, ZAB set the stage for an inevitable appeal by neighbors, who have threatened legal action if they can’t win a change in the plans for a project that will be 148 new apartments and a trendy market for the heavily traveled intersection of University Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Way. 

The developers scored a major coup by landing Trader Joe’s as their principal tenant, ensuring an outpouring of support. 

Strangely for Berkeley, the aggressively non-union chain owned by a German big box retailer which once belonged to the Hitler Youth (albeit membership was compulsory for boys at the time) boasts a following verging on the fanatical. 

Neighbors objected to the size of the project, along with the threat of vanished parking and increased congestion on already crowded neighborhood streets. 

But barring a court ruling to the contrary the project once known as the Kragen Auto Parts project after a current tenant of the mini-mall that now occupies the site seems a foregone conclusion.