Economy May Lead City to Change Office Development Policy

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Wednesday April 01, 2009 - 09:22:00 PM

Is the City of Berkeley moving in the direction of opening up more of its commercial business districts towards street-level office use? That seemed to be the indication during the last two months as the City Council considered, but ultimately rejected, granting a first-floor office space permit for a building on Solano Avenue. 

The owners of a building at 1820 Solano Ave. had requested a conditional use permit to allow them to rent one of the building’s four ground-floor spaces for general office use, a use which is normally disallowed in the Solano Avenue commercial district. The owners said they needed the variance because they’d been unable to find a retail customer to rent the space, and were concerned that it was unoccupied. In September, the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board approved the variance, but the Thousand Oaks Neighborhood Association (TONA) filed an appeal. Their appeal was supported, in what might have been a first, by the Solano Avenue merchants’ association. At a Feb. 24 public hearing on the issue, several councilmembers seemed inclined to side with TONA, but others leaned toward upholding ZAB.  

At the March 24 City Council meeting, Councilmember Laurie Capitelli, who represents Solano Avenue on the City Council, expressed some concerns about supporting TONA’s appeal. 

A proposed resolution read that “the proposed project is inconsistent with the purposes of the Solano Avenue commercial district. Generally office uses are not compatible with these purposes because they are not pedestrian-oriented, which is an important feature to ensure maintenance of the character of this business district. … The project proposes no specific type of office use. Therefore, the council has no information or other basis to find that the space would have a pedestrian-oriented use.” 

“It sounds like we’re saying that there isn’t any office use that we would find compatible,” Capitelli told city staff members. “Is there a way to leave some wiggle room in it?” 

But Acting City Attorney Zack Cowan said that he didn’t “read it as being such a broad statement” that completely banned first-floor offices in Berkeley’s commercial districts. And, in fact, at Councilmember Kriss Worthington’s suggestion (to make sure the resolution had enough votes to pass), the final resolution did have the “wiggle room” Capitelli had requested. Rather than an outright ban on first floor office use at 1820 Solano, the council upheld the TONA appeal “without prejudice,” specifically leaving the door open for the building owners to come back with a specific office use proposal that might pass council scrutiny. 

The vote on the denial was 5-2-2 (Maio, Anderson, Arreguin, Capitelli, Worthington yes, Wozniak and Bates, no, Moore and Wengraf abstain). 

There is actually no outright ban on first-floor office space in Berkeley’s Solano commercial district in the city’s zoning code. Instead, Section 23E.60.030 of the code allows such uses, but only with the issuance of a use permit following a public hearing, the most stringent requirements for an allowable use. 

But the recent downturn in the local economy, including the loss of many businesses on Solano Avenue and in other sections of the city, have caused some city officials to consider taking another look at that policy. 

During the Feb. 24 public hearing on the 1820 Solano appeal, Capitelli said that he had “struggled with this issue” ever since he’d heard it had come to ZAB.  

The zoning code sets aside Solano “to encourage the location of businesses on Solano Avenue that serve the everyday needs of local residents,” and discourages the location of businesses on Solano Avenue that “serve a larger regional clientele, and should more appropriately be located in the Central Business District.” Capitelli said that Solano isn’t “a neighborhood-serving commercial district in the sense of people being able to walk out their front door and support a business. I don’t think that’s realistic any more. Too many of my neighbors drive to Cosco to buy their chicken breasts and their toilet paper in bulk, or whatever.” 

Capitelli said that both the downturn in the economy and other factors have caused many commercial establishments to leave Solano Avenue in recent years, ticking off a list that included a hardware store that turned into a household goods store and then a children-oriented store, a shoe store in the same building that was requesting the office space, a dance studio, and a real estate office. 

“And we all know that the video store next to the post office, its days are numbered because of broadband Internet access,” Capitelli said. 

Capitelli noted that he owns a real estate office where “we have between 100 and 150 people who come into our office each day, not counting staff. We also have dozens of people who look at the displays in our windows to find out what houses are for sale in the neighborhood, and what prices their neighbors are charging for the sale of their homes.” He said that “while I don’t want Solano Avenue or any other similar district to turn into an office district,” he suggested that in the future the city might want to make adjustments to the zoning code to allow more office use in first-floor spaces on the street. 

Councilmember Susan Wengraf echoed that sentiment, saying that she would “like to see if we could figure out a way to allow some office use [on Solano], but to control it so the fears that it doesn’t become dominant are satisfied.” Wengraf said she wanted feedback from staff about possibly limiting first-floor office use to “a low percentage per block.” 

And saying that “we are in changing times,” Mayor Tom Bates, who voted in the minority, said that the city needs to look at the issue of the commercial-office mix in certain business districts “in a different way than we’ve been looking at it before.” The mayor said that Solano was a “vibrant district,” and bringing in a 1,500-square-foot office space to Solano Avenue as proposed in the 1820 Solano project was “not going to kill the district. I’m more flexible, I’m more in favor of saying that the market should take care of it.” 

While the City Council made no specific request to city staff or the Planning Commission to revisit the issue of opening up the ability to put first-floor office space on Solano Avenue and in other commercial districts, this is an issue that appears likely to come up again.