Public Comment

Comments on the 2211 Harold Way Mixed Use Project Environmental Impact Report

Christopher Adams
Friday December 04, 2015 - 05:24:00 PM

The project "objectives" are vague justifications for exploitive development. The benefits of the project are not defined. It is important to read the first project objective with particular care. It states:

"Implement the Downtown Area Plan and Street and Open Space Improvement Plan by leveraging the full development potential under Zoning Ordinance standards in order to generate the revenue necessary to provide all the community benefits envisioned in the Downtown Area Plan plus additional community benefits proposed in the project application and maintaining project financial feasibility [italics added].'' (p. 2-57)

Note the phrases in italics. The applicants want to leverage the full development potential, i.e., extract the maximum height and square footage they can get from the City in order to generate revenue for "all the community benefits envisioned" in the DAP and for "additional community benefits proposed in the project application." 

The "community benefits" in the DAP are not described in the EIR so it is not possible to know what any of them are, much less "all" of them. The project application seems to consist of several separate documents which are not part of the EIR. After reviewing them I was unable to find a description of any "community benefits." 

The final statement in italics "maintaining project financial feasibility” is reasonable but misleading. Financial feasibility means making a reasonable profit; it does not mean the applicant has the right to make the most money possible. In order to be meaningful the EIR should explain what the "benefits" are and should provide an explanation of how each increment of increased leverage relates to benefits. The City is the official preparer of this EIR, and ultimately the City must approve it. The EIR must contain sufficient information so that the City and its Council, ZAB and LPC can determine if, in fact, the necessary overriding considerations are present to justify approval. This requires that the EIR establish the link between the "leverage"· being sought by the applicant and the "benefits" to be gained by the City, and the "benefits" must be defined. The EIR must explain enough so that the City can decide if the project should be approved to obtain "all" the benefits or whether a different or smaller project which generates less revenue and fewer benefits would be better for downtown and for the citizens of Berkeley. As written the EIR is completely deficient in providing this essential information. 


The EIR fails to confront the lack of compatibility of the project with its setting.The EIR states on p. 2-16 that "ZAB must find that the project is compatible with the visual character and form of the district." It may be argued that the 180-foot tower at the southwest corner is "compatible" with the Wells Fargo Building and the Great Western (now Chase) Building. But there is no way that the block-wide 120-foot high slab along Harold Way is compatible with anything nearby. Figures 2-21, 2-22 and 2-24 demonstrate that this slab extends for the full width of the block frontage. Including the south tower, which is 180 feet tall, the total width of the slab along Harold Way is approximately 235 feet. It will overwhelm the historic buildings which face it. The EIR utterly fails to explain how such a slab, forming a wall to views and sun, is compatible with the current character of downtown or with.the drawings included in the OAP and its Design Guidelines. 

The EIR is elusive about the support for below market housing. The EIR states on p. 2-19 "lf the project residential units are to be rented, 10% or 28 units are to be designated as below market [italics added]." What does this mean? Will the residential units be rented or not? Ifthe residential units will be sold rather than rented, does this mean that fewer than 28 units or even no units will be designated as below market? One of the few obvious benefits of the project is additional below market housing which is offered as some kind of balance to justify the many environmental impacts the project creates. These weasel words get the developer off the hook. 

The EIR rejects the impact of loss of views from the UC campus for specious reasons and fails to consider adequately the impact of loss of views from the west. The view impact discussion within the EIR (p. 4-1-34) focuses entirely on the views from Campanile Way within the UC campus which will be blocked by the project. The EIR verbally stands on its head to explain that this view blockage doesn't matter because the precise point from which the views are blocked is not a designated historic site. This is an absurd legalism to use in evaluation of an environmental impact, perhaps providing some protection from an EIR lawsuit but in no way conforming to the spirit of the law. 

Only in Appendix A to the EIR is there anything about views toward the campus and Berkeley hills from the west which will be blocked, and this discussion is limited to the impacts on views from streets adjacent to the proposed project. The Campanile is a visible landmark from points outside Berkeley as well as from major city arteries such as University Avenue, and there is no analysis of what impacts a 120 foot high block-wide slab will have on the views of the Campanile or the Berkeley Hills from major city arteries or either points west of downtown. 

The Downtown Area Plan EIR considered that "reduction of existing views of the Berkeley hills available to observers traveling east along east west streets in the Downtown Area (e.g., University Avenue, Center street and Allston Way) ...would represent a potentially significant impact." For unknown reasons the OAP EIR established as Mitigation AES-1: Conduct Site-Specific Visual Analysis for Buildings only for buildings proposed between Shattuck Avenue and Oxford Street; as if no one further to the west (for example from Berkeley High School) cared about this view. As proposed, the 120 foot-high slab of the proposed project will obliterate any view of the hills. The EIR should examine this impact and propose mitigations. 

The EIR fails to consider an alternative with a smaller number of residential units and less square feet. The EIR analyses, as it must under CEQA Guidelines, the "no project" alternative on p. ES-2, but of the other project alternatives considered none is a smaller project. The two alternatives examined contain the same or an insignificantly lesser number ofresidential units and commercial square feet as the proposed project. No smaller alternative is considered which would 1) reduce traffic and air quality impacts, 2) reduce the overpowering visual impact on surrounding historic properties, and 3) reduce the impact on views, sun, and light by reducing the height of either the 180-foot tower or the 120-foot Harold Way slab. In the opinion of this commenter a reduction in the height of the Harold Way slab would be the most effective way ofreducing the worst aspects of this project's impact. 

Any development that increases the density of the property will make a profit. In this regard it is important to remember that the City, not the project applicant is the author of the EIR (see the title page and the page following). The City is not obliged to grant complete maximization of the development of the land. The purpose of an EIR is to give the City enough information to balance the environmental impacts against other objectives. The applicants will make a profit from any difference between what the value of the underlying land is under current height limits and what the City allows them to develop. Ifthey build fewer than 302 units and less than 389,470 square feet, the land will still be worth much more than its current value. There is nothing in the OAP which requires the city to allow the maximum possible development within the increased height envelope. A less dense development can still meet the goals of the OAP, meet the basic goals of the developer, and, most importantly, have less deleterious environmental impacts. It appears that the project proponents have not included a project alternative of lesser density because they believe that they are exempt under Section 15183.3 of the CEQA Guidelines. But the EIR quotes CEQA Guidelines 15183.3 which state that "an infill project consistent with the general use designation, density, building intensity, and applicable policies for the project area..." 

The EIR itself states that the project is not consistent with the permitted density and building intensity of downtown where it notes that the City must give the following discretionary approvals: 

"Use Permit to construct more than10,000 square feet of area 

"Use Permit to exceed a building height of 75 [sic. The correct number is 60] feet." (page ES-2) 

The development standards incorporated in the City codes under 23E.68.070 may be applicable to this project, but reference to them seems to be completely missing in the EIR, and there is no discussion which demonstrates if the project complies with these standards. 


Qualifications of Commenter: Christopher Adams is a registered architect and holds a Master in City Planning degree from UC Berkeley. His experience includes the design of high-rise office and university projects in downtown Montreal, Quebec, Canada. He is now retired from the University of California, where as Director of Long Range Planning at the Office of the President he was responsible for the review of environmental documents prepared by all the campuses of the University. In addition he was the Campus Planner for UC Merced and oversaw the preparation of its first master plan and accompanying EIR and the design of its initial academic buildings. Note that these affiliations are listed for identification only.