Public Comment

The “740-Shuffle”: Bait and Switch, Berkeley Style

By Curtis V. Manning
Friday January 18, 2013 - 10:36:00 PM
740 Heinz
Gale Garcia
740 Heinz

Although the permit process in Berkeley is thought to proceed neutrally, according to proposal merits under existing zoning regulations, some proposals seem more equal than others. In the case of 740 Heinz Ave,, Wareham Development has been permitted to build to 74 ft after a complete demolition of the existing historical landmark -- this in a district in which the zoning regulations list 45 ft. as the standard maximum allowed height for new construction. Wareham’s proposed building has a floor area ratio (FAR) of four (a total floor area four times the lot area), in a district with a FAR limit of 2.0.  

How is it, we ask, that a building so out of scale with the neighborhood; so universally disliked by neighbors and local businesses, could get the approval of the Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB)? Keep asking.  

This 740 Heinz proposal is trying to achieve what the City Council could not achieve by putting Measure T on the ballot -- the re-zoning of West Berkeley to essentially double the allowable building heights and massing. Not only does Council wish to give Wareham all that they ever wanted, they are taking from the quality of life for neighboring businesses and residents. Moreover, this project would provide the precedent with which a rash of such developments could be sanctioned. 

The Councilperson for the affected district, Darryl Moore, who favored Measure T, said that the Council put the measure on the ballot because they “want voters to be able to hear the issues and to be able to vote on the economic project that is the West Berkeley Project and have them weigh in." Well, now that we have weighed in, will the Council majority be chastened by the vote? Don’t bet on it. 

It should be noted that many think that synthetic biology is another bubble about to pop. Without Federal support, these industries would fade. For instance, even with large subsidies, Amyris has given up trying to upscale biofuel production and is shifting its energies in cosmetics. Cracks are beginning to show in their wall of the inevitability of the “green corridor”. A bubble that has pre-maturely popped. It’s a scam, a confidence game being run on the City of Berkeley. The question is, is Bates the chump, or is he the mastermind?  

Wareham’s proposal appears to be a prototype of what the City staff was developing to satisfy the University’s projected needs in West Berkeley. Wareham’s proposal was sculpted by the active participation of City staff. It was they who suggested retaining the facades of the Copra building to rationalize the height Wareham was asking for. Later Wareham didn’t want the facades, and staff explained that away by saying that preservation was not one of the reasons for the granting of the variance of 2009. The purpose the City saw in Wareham’s proposal was that it would provide a precedent for the change in zoning that they were trying to force through. It hasn’t worked that well since they lost on Measure T. But they still could have the precedent that the permit to build on 740 Heinz would provide. 

One problem for the City’s plan to force 740 Heinz through might be that the current proposal has a different number than the one for which the variance was granted; it is a different proposal! I am not sure what process exists for transferring variances from one permit to another, but I don’t think it was observed in this case – not in public any way. But these are things that can be clarified in court if the City chooses to try to bull on through. 

Fortunately, a group of local activists have appealed the use-permit that was granted to Wareham by the ZAB at their Sept. 27, 2012 meeting. To hear the Council act on this appeal, come to the Council Chambers on 2134 MLK Way on January 22, 2013, and see whether justice will be served. The item will be heard some time after 7:00 P.M.