After some higher profile appearances in public reviews, the large Acheson Commons project Downtown has moved back into temporary review obscurity as a joint subcommittee of the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Design Review Subcommittee meet with the architects, developers, and City of Berkeley staff to discuss massing and design details. However, the lower profile meetings are no less important; it’s from this sausage-making that a close to final design for the complex with arise.
The project, as previously described in my articles for the Planet, covers most of the square block bordered by University, Walnut, Shattuck, and Berkeley Way, at the northern center of Berkeley’s Downtown. It involves converting the existing Acheson Physicians Building to residential units, moving or demolishing two historic brown shingle apartment buildings on Walnut Street and replacing them with a new construction residential infill building, and adding new residential upper floors to the old Sill’s Grocery (Ace Hardware), and McFarlane’s Building, and another older commercial building along University Avenue. An existing one-story structure housing a creperie would remain, although refurbished on the street façade. The project would renovate or alter the entire block length along University and Walnut, and nearly half a block along Shattuck.
The latest meeting of the subcommittee was during the lunch hour on Tuesday, August 7, 2012. Two DRC members (Jim Goring and Adam Woltag), one Landmarks Commissioner (Gary Parsons), and Carrie Olson, who wears both appointment hats (Chair of the LPC, member of the DRC) sat down around a big rectangular table in the City’s planning offices with architect Kirk Peterson and his staff, representatives of the developer including consultant Mark Rhoades who formerly ran the Current Planning unit for the City, and several current City staff.
Two members of the public—myself, and John English—also attended (disclosure: I made some comments on the design at this meeting, and have commented on it in the past, including on one occasion as a temporary Landmarks Commission member.)
The table was loaded with three-dimensional models showing the scale and generally proposed design of the existing and proposed buildings on the block, prepared by Peterson’s office. One of the buildings, the expansion of the Sills Grocery / Ace Hardware structure at Walnut and University Avenue, was represented by three separate models, illustrating different alternatives.
It was also the subject of much of the discussion and the most questioning by the reviewers, all of whom had some problem with the design for a five-story residential tower on top of the present one-story-plus-mezzanine commercial building. Parsons said the design for the façade was “completely unremarkable” and ‘still needs further study.” Woltag asked for a revision that would “provide a cutback in the building, to really open the building up”, but added, “everything else is moving in the right direction.”
“What I hear is that you want this fairly similar, but much better somehow,” said Peterson, who has a gift for wry observation.
The upshot of that discussion was that Peterson would be asked prepare two new alternative designs for the building, showing a larger setback on the upper two floors and different articulation of the façade, particularly along University Avenue.
The reviewers also had several things to say about the proposed residential tower at the corner of University Avenue and Shattuck, atop the old McFarlane’s Candy store building with its existing wedding-cake-style painted metal cornice. There seemed to be general agreement that the proposed structure, which will sit at one of Berkeley’s most prominent intersections, is moving in the right direction but still requires some design tweaking.
“My chant at all of these meetings has been ‘more heroism, please’,” said Goring, especially so for a building on that corner. “We’re getting close, but we’re not really there yet”, said Parsons. Rhoades noted, and the reviewers generally seemed to accept, that the building would be a reasonably solid block, with an open-air slot or light well facing westwards, towards Shattuck, in the upper residential floors.
The subcommittee concentrated on building massing for the project and generally stayed away from design details at this discussion, despite occasional questions. But Peterson reminded the members that he had presented the city with concepts and preliminary drawings for design details at a much earlier stage, and they were still current and available for review and discussion.
There was also some discussion of the interior courtyard of the project, which would be a deep, narrow, space behind the existing Acheson Physicians Building surrounded by five and six story building walls. Rhoades noted the space would be about 4,000 square feet and “it’s the crossroads—it’s meant to be shaded, it’s meant to be quiet.” He added that most of the useable open space in the project would be on roof decks in more sunny locations.
At one point Rhoades called a narrow open air passage between structures into the courtyard from Walnut Street “a tunnel” and Peterson ironically corrected him, “Mark, we never call anything a tunnel. It’s a paseo”. The space is now 15-16 feet wide, Rhoades explained, with a seven story wall on one side, and six stories on the other.
Bob Allen, a Zoning Adjustment Board member was not in the room, but a presence nonetheless, since the developers were at pains to explain how they had widened some of the gaps between residential structures, so apartment windows wouldn’t look out into such narrow spaces. Allen has pungently and forcibly railed at previous reviews about such narrow spaces. At a joint DRC / LPC meeting on June 7 he had called the narrow gaps “entirely indefensible.”
Another issue raised by John English, a retired public planner who has been a careful and detailed critic of the project, was the effect on the several formally landmarked structures on the block which would have large residential additions installed atop them. “This isn’t historic preservation”, he said, and the project doesn’t conform to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for treatment of historic structures.
“There’s just too much build being added on top of one story.” “It would help a little to have greater setbacks” of the upper floors from the historic facades, he said, arguing that the addition at University and Shattuck “will look like it’s crushing the (McFarlane’s) Building at ground level.”
“You make (that point) every time, but it’s true”, said Parsons. “We’re not in favor of that. But we see this (project) is inevitable.” Rhoades smoothly interjected, “the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards are guidelines.” “This project has a lot of problems to solve that adherence to the Secretary’s Standards wouldn’t allow.”
“This shouldn’t be taken as a precedent for other, worse, projects to besmirch landmarks”, countered Parsons. But “we’re staying on board so that we can protect what we can protect.”
The issue raised by English and Parsons has long been of concern to preservationists, worried that the Acheson project will encourage other downtown property owners to propose tall additions on top of historic one or two story landmark buildings. The two LPC Commission members present, Parsons and Olson, signaled that developers shouldn’t make that assumption about other sites downtown.
The meeting closed with an agreement to meet again on Thursday, August 16, from 4-5 pm. Olson noted that the staff and Commission members are trying their best to craft a workable public review and deliberation process for the out-of-the-ordinary subcommittee, that melds together the policy spheres and procedural obligations of two separate commissions. “This is an unusual process and we want to be unusually scrupulously clean about it”, she said.
Olson and City staffer Terry Blount directed that between the subcommittee meetings, any communications or questions from the project architect and commissioners should go through City staff—including Anne Burns, the Design Review Committee staffer—rather than taking the form of separate discussions between the design team and individual commissioners.