The “Trader Joe’s” project at the intersection of Martin Luther King and University Ave is almost complete. The building façade is draped with a NOW RENTING banner, and workers are planting trees. In a few months the project’s 148 apartments should be occupied, 22 of them by people who are eligible to pay less than market rents. Some of the new tenants will look out their windows across University Ave to the civic center park and the tower of Old City Hall; some will look over the trees and low bungalows of the pleasant residential areas stretching along Ohlone Park. But for some, in as many as 33 apartments, their only view will be a wall on the other side of a light shaft and less sun than an immigrant in New York’s Lower East Side might have enjoyed 100 years ago.
Soon the zoning files, all 4,303 pages of them, can be sent out for microfiche. It has been almost eight years since the developers presented an application for 176 apartment units plus a floor of retail, six months later increasing their proposal to retail plus 191 apartments, and finally accepting a floor of retail plus 148 apartments. During the run-up to approval of this project the Planet’s headlines usually described it as “controversial.” Opponents focused on traffic and parking impacts, on the shadows the building would cast on the adjacent neighbors, and on the high number of apartment units it would contain. After all was said and done, there are 37 more apartments than the developers would have been permitted under regular city zoning, had they not received special approvals from the Zoning Adjustments Board and, on appeal, from the City Council. The developers and their defenders in the community and on the Council justified the project’s new retail as a boost to downtown and justified the high housing density because 22 apartments would be made available to low-income tenants. It’s too early to judge the traffic and parking impacts or to see if the retail benefits the city. But it’s not too early to evaluate the building as a piece of architecture and a place to live, which is what I want to do.
The Trader Joe’s project (known by the name of its major retail tenant) fills the entire block frontage on the west side of Martin Luther King from University Ave. to Berkeley Way. Below grade is a basement for parking. The ground floor will be devoted to the Trader Joe’a grocery store, another retail tenant, and additional parking. Above this podium are two four-story apartment buildings. The southern building on University Ave. and along about two-thirds of the Martin Luther King frontage is decorated in a Spanish colonial style. The ground floor base has been covered with brick and colored tiles. The apartment building above has walls of bright ochre stucco interspersed with pink bas-relief panels under the windows. The northern apartment building and the ground floor base below it depart completely from the Spanish theme. This part of the building is a kind of neo-Craftsman style, with shingled or timbered walls and projecting eaves with heavy timber brackets.
Little in the official or journalistic record of the lengthy city approval process focuses on the architecture of the project, but one can speculate that the Spanish colonial motifs of the University Ave. building are intended to echo older buildings in downtown, such as the Shattuck Hotel and the Corder Building (home of CVS Pharmacy) south of it. Not unexpectedly there are also echoes of the recent Gaia building, which was designed by the Trader Joe’s architect. Possibly for budgetary reasons the facades of the completed structure have been modified from the drawings submitted during the approval process. The depth of the “reverse pilasters” between apartment windows has been reduced and the windows themselves have been set in the same plane as the stucco; both changes attenuate the sense of a masonry wall which the Spanish colonial style demands. In addition, the color scheme is more Mardi Gras than Mediterranean. Nonetheless, the overall scale of this portion of the building successfully and gracefully reminds us of other downtown buildings, both old and new.
Unfortunately, things go awry as one moves north. Presumably the Craftsman-style motifs are intended to respond to the architecture of the bungalows in the residential neighborhood to the north and along Berkeley Way. The street facades of the project’s north building are broken up by projecting bays, roof dormers, and a variation in materials between stucco, shingles and vertical boards. But, alas, the original Craftsman-style in Berkeley and elsewhere was almost always used for one- or, at most, two-story houses. Bulked up to the scale of Trader Joe’s it looks like a hippopotamus in a tutu.
On the west side of the northern building, where the project is immediately adjacent to existing single family homes, the apparent height is reduced by recessing the fifth floor; however, as a look at a drawing submitted during the approval process showed, the scale of the building remains overwhelming. The tall Victorian right next door is overshadowed, and even more so are the Craftsman-style cottages further down Berkeley Way. From the street a tall redwood softens this abrupt transition in scale, but for the residents of these adjacent homes, there is no such relief. While the west wall of the Trader Joe’s project which is adjacent to these existing homes is a floor lower than the rest of the project, its shingled surface is unrelieved by any of the decorative elements used along the street façades—still a hippopotamus but without her tutu.
The real architectural problems, however, begin inside the building, which most of us will never see. Once the bright ochre stucco fades a bit, the building will also fade into our consciousness as we wait in traffic (perhaps a bit longer than we like) for the light to change at Martin Luther King. Those running into Trader Joe’s for their supply of Two-Buck-Chuck will hardly look up at the oversize Craftsman brackets. But 148 households will encounter the daily reality of these apartments. Thirty-six of them will live in apartments that face into the light wells which bisect the southern Spanish colonial style building. The light wells are 16 feet wide, a dimension such that 24 of these apartments will not be able to see anything except the wall on the other side, a view consisting of the windows of their neighbors but without the bas reliefs that decorate the street facades. From at least 18 of these apartments the tenants will not be able to see the sky, except by sticking their heads out a window.
No apartments in the northern Craftsman-style building will have only a light well view, but nine bedrooms divided among six apartments will look out 10 feet to blank walls; the bedrooms of four other apartments will look upon a blank wall five and a half feet away. Because of the overhanging roof it is doubtful that any occupant of these rooms will ever see the sky, even by craning out the window. At no time, even at the summer solstice, will direct sun reach these windows. It is unlikely enough daylight will enter at any time of year to permit the occupants to read or perform most routine tasks without turning on the lights.
I know members of the Zoning Adjustments Board and the City Council serve long hours in meetings, and if they are conscientious, they must try to read reams of paper ahead of time. During the approval process for a project such as Trader Joe’s they are badgered by community activists who are pushing all sorts of agendas, almost none of which include architecture, unless it is the preservation of old architecture. But one could wish that someone on ZAB or the Council had thought not just about the people who live in the neighborhood now but those who will come to live there. If someone had looked carefully at the plans and then asked him or herself, “Could I live in such an apartment, without ever seeing the sun and sky?” would the project have been approved? In the name of boosting retail and creating more cheap rentals, our city has come close to creating a twenty-first century tenement.
When our daughter was six, we took her and the teenage daughter of friends to New York City for a visit. The very modest hotel where we stayed had no suites so we stayed in two separate rooms; theirs opened to a light shaft with the window facing a graffiti-sprayed wall about 8 feet away. “What is this,” our daughter said on entering, “Westside Story?” I thought about that trip when looking at the almost finished Trader Joe’s. Our daughter, now a graduate student, would certainly qualify for one of the low income units in this new building, whose inclusion formed much of the justification for the enormous density bonus. If she remembered her New York trip, she might find it looks like “Westside Story,” without, so far, the graffiti.
Christopher Adams is an architect and city planner and long-time Berkeley resident.