Business at the July 21, 2011 City of Berkeley Design Review Committee meeting was divided between final review of a large new apartment building in West Berkeley and discussion of design guidelines for Downtown Berkeley that delved into the value of street level open space in new development, setbacks on tall new buildings, and the architectural value of bays projecting over the sidewalk.
651 Addison Street
When someone said Berkeley housing development should be concentrated along transit corridors, maybe they didn’t exactly mean building along multi-track interstate railroad lines carrying dozens of freight and commuter trains a day? Just a thought. Nonetheless, Berkeley will now have a second large housing complex bordering and overlooking the railroad tracks just south of University Avenue.
651 Addison Street is a 94 residential unit, four-story-over-parking development at the northwest corner of Addison where the street crosses the tracks. There will be two ground level commercial units facing on Addison, and 102 parking spaces. Addison extends a block and a bit more west to the edge of Aquatic Park, and also serves as a main vehicle, walking, and bicycle route to the Park and the adjacent pedestrian bridge over the freeway.
The project stands across the tracks from the block-square “Fourth and U” housing development completed a few years ago.
This development seems to be a placid, but delayed, project coming at the tag end of a long and bitter development controversy. The property was the site of the Berkeley Drayage Building, which served for many years as an informal live / work artists complex. There was heated controversy about half a dozen years ago when the then-owner sought to evict the artist residents. For a time the property was at the nexus of the unending debate over how to provide affordable artist and craftsperson space in Berkeley.
A deal for the Northern California Land Trust to purchase the property was pursued, but fell through. Eventually—after controversial intervention by the Berkeley Fire Department, which had listed numerous fire code violations and fined the owner—the building was vacated, sold, and torn down. The site has been a vacant lot for about five years.
(See the archives of the Planet for numerous articles, letters, and opinion pieces on the Drayage controversy.)
The current development was initially proposed in 2007 and has had a use permit since June 2009, but wasn’t built by the developers who obtained that permit, Hudson McDonald. According to the new owners Hudson McDonald sold, rather than executing the development themselves. “We purchased it from them about four months ago”, Amir Massih representing Arch Stone Southwest Berkeley LLC told the DRC.
(Although they are no longer the owners, the Hudson McDonald website still carries, as of this week, a description of “The Addison” as a project of that firm. The website states “construction is scheduled to begin in fall 2008”. Baum Thornley Architects was listed as the architect by Hudson McDonald.)
Arch Stone is a national corporation with numerous rental properties, describing itself as “a recognized leader in apartment operations with a portfolio concentrated in many of the most desirable neighborhoods in the nation.” Their “vision” is defined as “to create the dominant national brand in the apartment industry…” “We aim to define the future of our industry by offering superior and innovative products and services…”
In the Bay Area they operate Fox Plaza and a South of Market property in San Francisco, as well as rental complexes elsewhere, many of them on the Peninsula and the suburban East Bay. Closest to Berkeley is the “Archstone Emeryville”, where, as of July 26 on their website, one bedroom apartments were being offered “from the $1,600s”, two bedrooms “from the $1,800s” and three bedrooms “from the “2,400s”. Studios were listed “from the $1,500s”.
(A brief on-line search for Arch Stone turns up a variety of links including marketing for various projects and websites containing both complaints, and praise, of the management of the properties the firm operates.)
The final draft design for 651 Addison was presented to the Design Review Committee by Robert Baum of Gould Evans Baum Thornley, Inc. a San Francisco based architecture firm.
During the discussion period a Committee member asked if Arch Stone was related to Fourth and U, the large apartment complex across the tracks just south of the University Avenue overpass. “No, they’re Essex. We’re way better”, Massih joked. (“Essex” is Essex Property Trust, Inc., according to their website, “the Proven Leader in West Coast Apartments.” They list scores of apartment complexes on their website.)
Baum gave a quick overview of the 651 Addison project composition. Garage parking and street facing retail along Addison Street fills a ground level podium. The structure above is roughly a west facing “U” with a courtyard. “No units have their primary exposure to the (railroad) tracks” on the east, Baum said. “There are some units that have secondary exposure.”
The design has a “highly articulated façade”, he said, “trying to break down the mass of it.” The façade is “emblematic of a train coming through”, and the adjacent sidewalk streetscape along the north side of Allston Way, which the project will build, is “consistent with the Aquatic Park guidelines.” There will be “corrugated metal siding” along the track side of the building.
The building has a two story lobby, facing on Addison. “You can see the courtyard as you enter the lobby”, said Baum. There’s a staircase up to the courtyard from the lobby and, the designers said, they hope residents will use it and walk across the courtyard to their units, rather than always using the elevators.
Baum spent some time discussing projections on the façade. There are bay windows which extend two feet, six inches, beyond the property line, “but there’s a greater area of recesses than projections”, he emphasized. A two foot projection would be a “minor encroachment”, from the City’s standpoint, he said, but the additional six inches requires a permit for a major encroachment into the public right of way. “This is intended as a good architecture feature”, he emphasized. “It seems unfortunate that we were caught (up) in this.” The option of putting bays on a building is “an important and valuable too for architects”, he said.
“You’re preaching to the choir here”, said Committee member Bob Allen. Bays, he said are “the only tool we have to enrich a flat wall.” “Go for it.”
The building will have a roof terrace on the southern portion and a landscaped courtyard. Red alders are currently proposed as the street trees. Along the tracks there will be a “green screen fence”, with “a vigorous vine” planted on it.
“It’s not meant to be crowded with people, but it’s meant to be a pleasant place”, the landscape designer for the project said.
Committee discussion and reaction to the design was fairly positive, and focused on a few issues.
One of the few Committee concerns was exterior colors. Committee chair Jim Goring said “I’m going to take it upon myself to warn you about this dark chocolate color.” “I’m particularly wary about the big dark splotch on the corner.”
“The colors, I’m particularly uncomfortable with”, said Allen. He used as a cautionary example the housing adjacent to the David Brower Center, on Fulton and Kittredge. That building is largely painted in dark colors which “they put in without approval”, Allen said. It’s “absolute proof positive how deadly these dark colors can be.”
It looks OK in the morning sun, he said, but once the sun is no longer on the southeast face “it ruins the street façade.” “I just don’t want to see that sort of dark color”, he concluded, saying it was “heavy, deadly”.
Committee member George Allen agreed, saying “I think the Brower Center (housing) is a disaster on the color, and I think the architects secretly believe that as well.”
“I agree” on the colors, said Committee member Charles McCullough.
Goring also criticized “the little glass awning at the top” of the Addison Street façade of 931 Addison. “I’m concerned particularly close to the ocean it will become a parking place for bird poop”, he said. “If you can’t get to it easily to maintain it, years of seagull poop are going to look really gross.”
“I actually like this project a lot” said Committee member Adam Woltag. But “in terms of color, this is one of the big missed opportunities”. He noted the building would have “gray painted cement board, unfortunate…” and urged more color, particularly in the courtyard. “I love the orange” elements of the exterior, he said.
Several Committee members praised the interior courtyard of the building, particularly the way the designers had provided some separation for private spaces in front of podium level rental units, without entirely blocking them off from the general use courtyard.
“It’s a really delightful courtyard”, said member Dave Blake. He said could not think of any other recent new building courtyard designs “that have been done this well” and he said the Committee should “encourage these sorts of solutions on other projects.” “I really like this building.”
Landscape architect and Committee member McCullough had a list of specifics about elements of the building landscaping. “I really like what’s going on along Addison Street”, he said. “Over time we’ll have a nice street scene.”
He expressed skepticism that the planters on the roof deck would be large enough to hold thriving greenery, and urged that they be enlarged. “I do question what’s going to happen on that roof deck. I don’t think those plants are going to survive with the size of the planters.”
He suggested that a new tree for the roof be chosen, with small leaves, not large, and asked that Mexican feather grass not be used in the roof planters. “It’s going to throw seeds all over that neighborhood”, he worried. “You’re going to get this plant all over the place.” He acknowledged the feather grass is a striking plant and “it’s tough to get a plant that looks exactly like that.” And he expressed concern that the project might reuse soil of questionable quality from the former industrial site in the elevated landscaping, rather than bringing in new soil for the raised planters.
Along the track side fence, McCullough said, the ground has to be prepared properly for vines to thrive. “I think you need to do whatever you can to see these vines are going to survive”, he said. “Make sure there is enough soil that takes care of it.”
Others had concerns about the track side fencing. Some suggested that the fence be varied, with different sorts of panels, textures, and colors, and not necessarily have vines planted along its entire length. Allen urged a higher than seven foot fence, saying “you don’t want to have that as a hiding place for overnighters.”
Commission Secretary Anne Burns cautioned that if the fence gets higher “It’s going to be an issue if it’s on a property line.”
At the end of the discussion the Committee voted without dissent to approve the final design, with the provisos that the trackside fence would be redesigned, and the building colors rethought. “Thank you very much, build it soon, but not before you figure the colors out” Chair Goring told the applicants.
Downtown Design Guidelines
A review of the draft, revised, Downtown Design Guidelines was the other major item on the agenda. Downtown Planner Matt Taecker told the Committee that the “intent of the amendments is to implement the Downtown Area Plan” before the end of the year. “I’m hoping the revisions (to the guidelines) should be relatively straightforward.” “The intent is to keep as much of the original document as possible.”
He said the revised guidelines say more about historic resources and expand upon the different design styles commonly found in the Downtown, and will mention “contributing resources” to the historic fabric—those buildings that aren’t officially designated as landmarks or on the State Historic Resources Inventory, but have still been identified as contributing.
The guidelines also discuss green building features, “culling through to see what features really affect the façade”, and call for some setbacks at upper floors, but designed “so you don’t get wedding cake buildings”.
The revised guidelines also propose changing the approach to the west side of Oxford Street, recommending “emergence of a continuous street wall along Oxford” rather than buildings set back from the street, as had been the City’s previous preference.
“Any comments you got are pretty much appreciated”, Taecker concluded.
Bob Allen raised the issue of encouraging buildings that step back at upper floors. “It’s a terrific tool for any no-growther to come in and fight a project”, he worried. “It’s an opportunity for opposition.” He said that “Center Street now has got some very tall buildings, and I don’t find them objectionable at all.”
“The biggest waste of money we see”, Allen went on, “is every project has to come in with shadow studies. I can’t remember when ever this Committee or ZAB took that into account.” “In an urban setting you have shadows.” (Shadow studies show the extent of shadow that would be cast by a proposed building at various times of year, typically the solstices and equinoxes.)
Taecker noted that CEQA review of projects requires review, separate from the design review process, of solar impacts and shadows.
Dave Blake took exception to Allen’s comments, saying “As a pedestrian in the city I appreciate light on the sidewalk.” “It’s important to at least know” the likely shadowing impacts, he said.
“Many times we say (to developers) it would be nice if you were to entertain having the building set back”, said Chuck McCullough. “I think the design ought to take into account shadow”, George Allen said. “I think you can say the design (of new buildings) ought to minimize adverse shadow impacts.”
“Think about all the teeny streets in Paris”, Allen responded. “No one runs around saying, jeez, you’re throwing a shadow on the street.” “We’re talking about teeny, teeny, buildings in this Downtown.”
“It’s crazy not to look at it (shadow impacts)” Blake answered. “My memory of Paris is except for a very small section there are very few 80 foot buildings.”
“It’s a perfect vehicle to fight development”, Allen grumbled. “The intent is to have more livable buildings”, Goring noted.
During the public comment period on this item I talked about the practical effects of building setbacks on the Downtown streetscape. I noted that in a marine climate, even when it is sunny the air is cool much of the year, and people seek out the sun. I noted the difference between the corner by the BART plaza where two tall buildings funnel cold wind into a shadowy plaza, and the situation just a block away to the north where lower buildings allow for sunny exterior spaces enjoyed by pedestrians and diners.
I mentioned as an example of the practical effect of setbacks the Gaia Building, on Allston east of Shattuck, where the upper floors were set back, although some had urged during the design process the building rise vertically without any setbacks from the sidewalk line. If that had happened, I noted, the heavily used Trumpetvine Court across the street would have been much more shadowed. I mentioned the David Brower Center as a poor example of design in this respect, without upper level setbacks and with a metal railing and solar panels on the top that cantilever over the sidewalk and cast shadows on the sidewalk and street even at the height of summer.
During the public comment period at the beginning of the meeting I had also asked the Committee to address in their discussion of the Guidelines the issue of commercial signage masquerading as “building identification signage” on high-rise buildings in the Downtown. (see my commentary on the Chase Building signage in the July 27, 2011 Planet).
Blake brought up this issue up in the discussion. Commission Secretary Anne Burns said that “tenant signage” had to be low on a building but “building signage” can be higher on the façade. “You don’t tell people they can’t name their building.” (Note: no one, including me, has questioned the Chase name for the building. Putting the Chase Bank commercial logo on top of the building and calling it ‘building identification’ has always been the core issue.)
“There is some concern that the Chase Building not set a precedent for what’s (signage) above 40 feet” said Blake. “Do we want to have a lot of competition for the 100 foot space so people can put up ‘branding’ that can be seen from all over town?”
Jim Goring said “the lit sign is a problem” at higher elevations. George Allen agreed the issue should be taken up in the Design Guidelines, noting “we get it started by our making a recommendation.”
Taecker said he and Burns would discuss the matter and come up with some suggested wording to put in the Guidelines. “It’s raised as an issue” he acknowledged. “Anne and I will scratch our heads about it.”
The Committee next had an extended discussion about open space provisions in the Guidelines and Downtown regulations, with a core issue being whether publicly accessible open space should be required in development.
Although much of the Committee seemed to agree that more open space should be created in Downtown, even at very small scales, there was lively discussion of how to bring that about. Some members argued that small developments or projects built on a small site couldn’t realistically accommodate on-site open space
Allen, who has worked in city zoning regulation in San Francisco, argued that it’s reasonable to expect some open space commitment from developers. He said in San Francisco the argument is that office buildings attract office workers and “they put a demand on the open space” that’s available in the neighborhood.
“When you have open space” that the public wants to go into “it’s a wonderful amenity”, Dave Blake said. He pointed to the Allston Court development on Allston just west of Oxford, which includes a small street side plaza built around an existing oak tree, and a pedestrian pass through to an alley in the rear. It’s “used constantly” he said. “If we aren’t pretty strict…developers will do everything they can [to make sure] there won’t be public open space” in their projects.
“I hear this tension going of whether there should be strictures on developers” Blake emphasized. “If you don’t make it a rule that creates open space…you’re not going to get it.”
“I worry we’re going to get crooked storefronts”, Jim Goring said.
“Snippets are nice”, said Allen, referring to tiny open spaces along the sidewalk frontages of buildings. “An open space that serves the public can break the street line.” They’re “just a nice place for people to pause.” Chuck McCullough agreed, pointing to the tiny median strip of Shattuck Avenue across from the Cheese Board where scores of people, despite city signage, sit down to eat snacks in good weather.
It’s a very small space, he said, but heavily use. McCullough noted, “that we’re talking about in Berkeley, very narrow sidewalks, very narrow streets”, while “people are looking for a place to sit, to have a little sun.”
“I’m just trying to figure out some way to seriously encourage the project” to have public open space, he added. Allen suggested it would be necessary to “get something in the guidelines and, better yet, in the Zoning Ordinance.”
Jim Goring said that public open space at street level “works in San Francisco because people aggregate lots and build new buildings” on larger sites, which doesn’t happen as often in Berkeley. But look at the Acheson Commons project on University between Shattuck and Walnut, Blake countered. “They’re aggregating all these little things” (several freestanding buildings and land parcels, covering much of a city block) and they have pathetic open space” currently proposed.
Allen was worried about what access building owners would be required to provide to open space. He wanted “open space on private land completely controlled by the landowner”. He pointed to streets in Salt Lake City, where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints controls the entire frontage and can regulate who enters Temple Square.
“It’s a good discussion, I’ve got some ideas on how to address this”, Taecker said. “I think we can come up with some language.” “The language is there, the teeth aren’t there” to require good open space, Goring worried.
Allen pointed out that a developer could financially opt to provide onsite public open space, or pay into a City fund for Downtown open space improvements. “The dollar hit to the developer is the same. Either you do it on site, or you pay cash to the City.”
The Committee then turned to the encouragement of historically sensitive restoration and design in Downtown. “I don’t have any problem with the ‘celebrating historic stuff’ that gets put up now and then”, said Goring. But “lots of people make the point that design guidelines encourage brand new 90 year old buildings.”
“That’s the kind of section of design guidelines that a lot of architects looking in from the outside say ‘tut tut’ about.”
“I think it would be pretty cool if someone were to have Herzog & de Meuron to do a building in Downtown Berkeley”, he mused. That firm is best known in the Bay Area as the architects for the De Young Museum in San Francisco.
“Is it supposed to make me happy that you might have the De Young” architectural style in Berkeley?" shot back Dave Blake.
Goring noted elements of the design guidelines that encourage things like cornices, which are often omitted in Modern architecture. You can have a cornice line in a “Modern expression” Taecker argued.
“You get a really good architect, I’m not going to give a damn whether it has a cornice or not”, said Allen.
“So long as there’s the prospect of a historic district being established, we’re obliged by the EIR to develop as if it is a historic district”, Taecker said.
“The intent of this is to eliminate contemporary architecture from Downtown Berkeley”, Goring objected.
The discussion then moved to the issue of projecting bays on buildings, which had earlier come up in the 931 Addison review. The DRC is a strong proponent of relaxing City restrictions on projecting bays over the property line in order to allow more varied and interesting facades in the Downtown.
Goring noted that objections to projections came about with the Berkeleyan Building, developed by Panoramic Interests, at Oxford and Berkeley Way. At that site much of the building was extended over the sidewalk.
Blake said he was opposed to that approach “massively—massingly, I should say.” The other Committee members appeared to agree that what they wanted to encourage was not projections of entire facades, but an in-and-out rhythm where only portions of a building would extend over the property line.
The Committee had asked city planner Steve Buckley to sit in on this discussion, and he provided some background on the procedural issues with bays. He noted that the “hiccup is the (zoning) ordinance says the applicant needs to get an encroachment permit” to propose bays, prior to more detailed design and planning review of a project.
“The ordinances says they have to get their encroachment permit before any other permit is issued.” That means, in effect, that a developer has to prove they need to extend the building over the property line before the City has ruled on other building details through the DRC and the Zoning Adjustments Board.
Buckley noted that encroachment permits are reviewed by the Building Department and that when taking them into account City staff consider issues like the effect on street trees, street lights, and rainwater discharge onto the public sidewalk and street. “Minor encroachments” may be issued by the Director of Public Works. “Major” encroachment permits must be approved by the City Council. (As noted in the 531 Addison discussion earlier in this article, a difference of six inches—between two feet and two feet and six inches, can make the difference between ‘major’ and ‘minor’.)
Blake suggested that “to protect us from the Berkeleyan, we would need to say that any projection out into the street could be considered minor, up to a certain percentage” of coverage along the property line. Other Committee members seemed to agree that the issue could be addressed by limiting the total amount of encroachment that can be proposed, without specifying exactly how, or where architecturally, it sits on a façade.
“Set outer limits, get that legislated”, said Allen.
(This writer left the meeting while this discussion seemed to be wrapping up, but was still in progress.)