Patrick Kennedy’s buildings have been passionately opposed by neighborhood conservatives and often by the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association. These residential buildings, sometimes condominiums, sometimes apartments, with cafes, offices and shops on the ground floor, have in their opponents’ views been too big, too dense, and non-conforming with the opponents’ idea of Berkeley architectural esthetic traditions.
A recent article that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, quoted three opponents of his work, and quoted Kennedy himself. The story created an impression of well nigh universal opposition, that somehow Kennedy was the only one defending his buildings.
But strangely enough, because Kennedy provides housing for many people just where they like it - in or on the edge of downtown where lots is cook’n, transit’s convenient - lots of people show up to boost his projects. Who? Minorities, disabled, environ-mentalists, housing advocates, students, seniors, transit passengers, supporters of arts in the downtown, feminists - it is the Gaia Building after all - and more.
Not just the side represented by the three people the article cited in opposition.
Now, the building is topping out and what you see is, minus the surface treatment, what you get. The surface treatment, by the way, in the hands of skilled self-proclaimed 19th century architect Kirk Peterson, will only get better. The Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association will probably one day begrudgingly end up liking it.
The Gaia Buildings, located in the middle of downtown Berkeley at 2116 Allston Way is the largest of all Patrick’s projects. Says Mr. Kennedy’s promotional flyer, the Gaia Building is “designed for downtown: innovative, efficient, stimulating. (Almost) Car-free living.” There are 91 residential units which will accommodate approximately 140 people on something less than a sixth of a city block, and it is all less than one block from the University campus and
Berkeley BART Station to the west. Among the novel features, the Gaia Building is home to terracing, trellises and rooftop gardens as originally proposed and defended by Ecocity Builders before the Zoning Adjustments Board and Design Review Committee. Kennedy adopted the ideas and we at Ecocity Builders supported his project. He built the minimum parking he could negotiate with the city - 42 spaces - and is using double car stacking on mechanical lifts to minimize automobile consumption of space in the building. The Gaia Building, he says, will be the first in the United States to provide an “in-house/real-time” car sharing program, a variant on a successful model in Portland, Oregon. Height of the building: seven stories.
So he says, say opponents.
Kennedy does not count the mezzanine of the first floor as another floor. Opponents do. Kennedy considers lofts inside a high ceiling apartment as lofts, that is, non-floors. Opponents don’t. Finally, on the roof, the codes allowed non-rental uses looking something like towers taking up one-sixth or less of the roof area to not be counted as a floor but rather as auxiliary uses to the main uses of the building. Opponents disagree. In the Gaia Building, the space will be occupied by the rental and management offices of the Gaia Building itself and not rented to tenants. It will also be used by the elevator and mechanical equipment structures. Add up the disagreement and opponents say 10 not seven stories - stop the construction! Send the workers home! Keep the new tenants out of town!
What’s the real deal here. Hell, let’s admit it, one of the reasons I like the building is that it’s named after the Goddess of the Earth in Greek mythology. But that aside, initiatives to close down the project have hit the papers locally. Yet Kennedy incorporates many design
features that enliven the neighborhoods in which his buildings are located. He cuts low income special deals for some of his tenants while producing the legally mandated percentage of low income housing units, subsidized by the richer folks in the higher cost units. Why does he cut the low-cost deals for some artists and disabled folks? They look good for his next production. He actually likes the people. You guess. I think both.
Most of the conflict in Berkeley starts with the downtown five story height limit (down from ten) established in Berkeley zoning in the early 1990s. I personally can’t get too excited about developers pushing those limits when providing housing where it’s needed, in a world of high population and the absolutely disastrous effects of low density sprawl and cars. Density with high diversity really is a large part of the healthy solution if it’s in the right place and designed with sensitivity to sun angles, shade, public streets and open public and natural space and so on.
But I have to also mention another reason I don’t particularly respect the present height limits in downtown: the process by which the heights were established was despicable. I tried to take part. I was interrupted so constantly - and the “facilitators” of the discussions sustained the interruptions not, my right to speak - that after a couple hours of trying to communicate I walked out and didn’t come back for five years. Extremely bad process.
Assessing all the complaints, I have to say that I see a healthier world and a much more interesting roofline that could begin to shape up in town, beginning with the Gaia Building. I’d suggested solar orientation to Kennedy, terraces, rooftop gardens, trellises, windscreens to capture the sun and moderate the breezes up there in the great Bay Area views. Patrick brought them into his original design.
But the Zoning Adjustments Board and Design Review Committee took the Building and turned it around 180 degrees so that it would be a solar energy loss rather than gain - which is something to think about all over again in our new “energy crisis” days - how short the memory!
Though it no longer displays architectural ways of working with natural energy systems, the Gaia Building will still look different and very interesting. The terraces, trellises and gardens are likely to strike people as nice cheerful things to see floating up there in the sky. I think some lessons will be learned from the Gaia building that will help us in the right direction. The 140 residents there who would have been locked out of town or forced to commute long distances will be happy to have a roof over their heads in a great part of a great small city. The complaints will seem overdone and we will get on with trying to see where we are in time. It’s a small step in thinking through and building a better future.
Richard Register is president of Ecocity Builders and a Berkeley resident.