As the Planet has reported, the project at 1885 University Ave. was tentatively approved by the Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) at its Dec. 14 meeting and is scheduled for a final vote on Jan. 11 (note there will be no further public hearing). Had I stayed on ZAB, the project would not have been approved as currently proposed, but my council member dismissed me and saw fit to appoint a pro-development person to the board, who found the project more to his liking than I ever had.
I do not question Mr. Wozniak’s right under existing law to remove me from ZAB. I do wonder whether the current law is a wise one; essentially it means that Berkeley Commissioners must be rubber stamps for the council members who appoint them. They are effectively prevented from exercising their own independent judgment in the interest of the city as a whole.
If ZAB is neutralized, who is left to objectively analyze developer proposals? Certainly not the planning department which is funded by permit and other fees paid by the developers themselves.
Trader Joe’s is a classic example; it is 20,000 square feet larger, and has 25 more apartments than allowed by our zoning laws and the state Density Bonus law. The developer proposed Trader Joe’s as the anchor tenant for this development only after the neighborhood had derailed the original monster project. He evidently felt (correctly, it seems) that a popular tenant on the ground floor would cause the public to overlook all the other defects.
City planning staff worked hand-in-hand with the developer, and supplied a lot of creative thinking. For example, the Trader Joe proposal was called a “modification” of the earlier, rejected project. This allowed ZAB to ignore the more stringent, neighborhood oriented rules that have come into effect in the meantime. It is another sad example of how our city’s zoning law is twisted and shaped to deliver larger and larger buildings—which may be what staff believes in, developers profit from, but which is not what the citizens want.
If the Trader Joe’s project had been subject to existing zoning laws, it would be a project with 82 units, 16 of those affordable. If the state Density Bonus law were applied the project would go to 111 units with 16 affordable units reserved for very low income households. Instead, ZAB has allowed the developer to reduce the required open space by 75 percent, and has relaxed the affordability requirement. Final result: ZAB approved a project with 148 units, with 19 supposedly “affordable” units, of which only half are reserved for very low income families.
On Nov. 19 I asked planning staff to answer a number of questions. I also asked how the project had gotten so close to approval without any of the information we would normally expect for a proposal of this size. The answers were not forthcoming and three weeks later I was dismissed from the board. I include some of my questions here so you can judge their validity for yourself.
1. Total Size: Where are the base project calculations for this project? At this time none had been provided. Instead it was left to ZAB itself to discover that the project involved five stories, rather than the three that would have been allowed without a use permit, and that total units exceeded both state and local limits.
2. Commercial Space. The project includes a cafe, which would normally entail added parking requirements. So far as we can tell, no added parking has been reserved for use by cafe employees and customers.
3. Setbacks: Why has staff approved reduced set backs along Berkeley Way? The impact on the neighborhood is already too great. Why make the situation worse?
4. Open Space: Are we going to lower our current standards by 75 percent? How does this make a project “green” to build to the sidewalk? And once having waived the open space requirement for this development, how would the city be justified in imposing it on competing projects?
5. Nearby Residences: The traffic barrier should be placed in the C1 zone between existing residences and the development—not in a place which separates existing homes from their neighbors. If this requires the entrance to be moved further east, so be it.
I find it interesting that planning and most of the elected officials consider me to be anti-development. This simply is not true. I am only asking questions which any conscientious commissioner should ask before any project is approved. For example:
1. What is the project being built for? More student housing? Or are the room sizes big enough for families? Doesn’t the city need a standard?
2. How does the project affect shadows, light, air quality, views, etc. in the surrounding neighborhood?
3. How are the increased traffic problems to be resolved? Use reasonable and up to date traffic studies to reveal potential problems and solutions.
4. What are the detriments/positives this project brings to our city and neighborhoods?
In most cases, development problems can be mitigated if the planning staff would work with the citizens of Berkeley and the developers. Instead, staff appears to be at the beck and call of the promoters, and avoids the need to mitigate by ignoring detriments entirely.
If the above principles had been applied to the Trader Joe’s project, Berkeley would have gotten a development the neighborhood could have agreed to. Now the project will be appealed to the city council, where it will probably be approved. The result will at best be unhappy citizens and at worse yet another lawsuit. In the end, Berkeley may lose Trader Joe’s because those who are supposed to know better approved a project that is unlikely to survive the courts.
If you want a Trader Joe’s at this location, but within a reasonably sized building, you should write to ZAB and the City Council telling them that you want and support a legal project that will be a positive addition to our city.
Dean Metzger is former member of the Zoning Adjustments Board.