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SQUEAKY WHEEL: CEQA Comes to Fourth Street

Toni Mester
Friday January 27, 2017 - 06:05:00 PM
1900 Fourth Street
1900 Fourth Street

Comments on the 1900 Fourth Street DEIR are due February 9 to the City of Berkeley Planning and Development Department. The hefty size of the document reflects the large scale of the project that includes 155 residential units, 30,000 square feet of rental and restaurant space, and a 372 space parking garage.

Located on the current Spenger’s parking lot on the north side of lower University Avenue along the railroad tracks to Hearst, the project has raised the hackles of the Native American community and some business people from the existing shopping area. 

The DEIR presents three alternatives: a no project alternative, required by CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act), a reduced commercial use alternative, and a reduced building alternative, which the DEIR considers “the environmentally superior alternative.” 

The DEIR summary provides the gist of the whole in tables at the beginning of the report that list impacts and mitigations. 

The project description with building footprints, floor plans, elevations and cross sections is easy to peruse and understand, like it or not. The parking garage and some of the apartments are situated next to the railroad tracks; other dwelling units face the freeway on-ramps, including some windows that directly look out on traffic. Two mixed-use buildings, with retail and restaurants on the ground floor and dwellings above, are separated by a pedestrian paseo. 

The applicants are requesting zoning waivers under the state density bonus law, bringing the building heights to 60 feet at the roofline and 71 feet at the tallest parapet. The parcel is zoned C-W (commercial west) which has a height limit of 50 feet for mixed-use buildings. 

One project objective is to “enhance and further activate the Fourth Street shopping area with new residents” but Denny Abrams, a developer of the original Fourth Street shops, dislikes the “maxed-out” scale and intensity of the proposal and laments the loss of parking. 

The current Spenger’s fee lot provides about 350 spaces for the area, while the project’s six level garage has, 158 spaces for the new residents and 214 commercial. It’s the net loss of business parking that worries Abrams, who says that the Fourth Street customer base is regional and that people travel there by car. Reduction of available parking may damage businesses that employ hundreds of people and contribute about $2 million to the City annually in taxes. 

The Zoning Adjustments Board held two public hearings on the DEIR, December 8 and January 12. ZAB vice-chair Denise Pinkston, who had a testy exchange with Abrams during the second hearing, was nonetheless candid about the need for parking, stating that people do not shop or go to restaurants by bus. 

None of the controversy about parking and traffic approach the outrage expressed by the Native American community, especially the descendents of the Ohlone people who lived for centuries along Strawberry Creek, which once crossed the project site before it was culverted and redirected to its current outlet south of University Avenue. 

The Berkeley Shellmound, considered the oldest in the Bay Area, was both a refuse pile of mussel, oyster, and clam shells as well as a gathering place for social and ceremonial occasions. A Berkeley City landmark, also listed on the California Register of Historical Resources, the Shellmound location is described in the cultural resources section of the DEIR, its most compelling chapter. 

Nothing is left of the mound itself. During the late-19th century development of West Berkeley “horse teams were routinely used to take away large portions”
that were used for building roads including San Pablo and University Avenues because the material was “nearly impenetrable after soaking.” 

Several concerns about the Shellmound dominated the two public hearings. Most Native American speakers were angry that the remains of their ancestors might be disturbed, but by the second session, it became clear that some of the anger was directed toward Andy Galvan, the President of an extant Ohlone tribe, for approving one cultural mitigation, a donation of $75,000 to the Ohlone Indian Cemetery in Fremont that he manages. Some speakers accused him of a conflict of interest. 

The other cultural mitigation in the DEIR is a “permanent display” that describes the significance of the Shellmound, a paltry and disrespectful gesture. Corrina Gould from Indian People Organizing for Change wants the City to buy the land for a park, but there are no funds available for that purpose. The developers paid $17 million for the site. 

Ms. Pinkston suggested that the building on the corner of Fourth and Hearst be eliminated from the plans and that the area be set aside by permanent deed restriction as a Shellmound memorial and open-space to be designed by Native people in consultation with an educational non-profit. Whatever happens to resolve the Shellmound concerns, we can be sure that “Berkeley can do better” will be the rule, in the words of Councilmember Sophie Hahn. 

Although the cultural impacts have elicited the most public attention and passion, the traffic study is the Achilles heel of this DEIR. Reading traffic studies is a pastime for the masochists among us. Those tiny numbers and arrows may resemble dance step diagrams, but trying to make practical sense of them is no fun. 

But even a beginner can appreciate the weakness of the Fourth Street analysis, which studies only 7 intersections compared with the 57 featured in the DEIR of the West Berkeley Project. Another shortfall, mentioned by ZAB Chair Igor Tregub, is the lack of cumulative impacts from such projects as 600 Addison Street, a massive R&D project on the shores of Aquatic Park, shortly to launch its own EIR. 

The CEQA standards for assessing transportation impacts are changing from level of service (LOS) that measures seconds of delay at intersections to vehicle miles traveled (VMT) that would include more sophisticated and detailed models to infer the amount of motor emissions. However, the new metrics are still being developed by the State Office of Planning and Research and are not used in this study. 

Other sections of the DEIR include air quality and noise. Reading the entire document is a major undertaking, so a practical approach at this late date would be to focus on one subject area. CEQA requires the consultants to answer public comments, which means that questions are usually better than statements. Typically, the consultants will simply respond, “opinion noted” if the comment doesn’t demand an answer. 

I write DEIR comments because CEQA, when used correctly, is a great democratic law that allows for a public dialogue and exposure of environmental impacts that affect us all. 

Comments should be addressed to the project principal planner, Shannon Allen


Toni Mester is a resident of West Berkeley.