A diverse group of 75 people attended the first public planning meeting Wednesday on the design and use for the last undeveloped site downtown – the Oxford Street parking lot.
On Dec. 5, the City Council charged the Planning Commission with drawing up criteria that developers could use to write construction proposals. The council asked that the commission focus on creating three things: the maximum amount of affordable housing, a multipurpose cultural use space and replacement of lost parking spaces.
“I was very encouraged that we had such a good turnout,” said Rob Wrenn, chair of the Planning Commission. “We had residents, merchants, environmentalists and students. There’s obviously a lot of community interest in this project.”
Wrenn said the chief goal of the commission is to build as much affordable housing as possible on the site, located on Oxford Street between Allston Way and Kittredge Street directly across from UC Berkeley.
The development, according to zoning regulations outlined in the Downtown Plan, can be five stories high, with as many as 75 units of housing. The number will not be finalized until a development proposal has been accepted. It is also uncertain how many of the units will be made available to low-income and very low-income renters.
Councilmember Dona Spring said at the opening of the meeting that there is a serious housing shortage in Berkeley and the poor are the most effected. “There is a negative flow of Section 8 housing because market rates have become so attractive in Berkeley,” she said.
Section 8 is a Housing and Urban Development voucher program that assists low-income tenants with rent payments. In the past many property owners were eager to rent housing under the program because HUD guaranteed monthly rent payments. Recently property owners have been enticed away from the program by the high rents in the tight housing market.
Wrenn said there should be a wide range of affordable housing available. “We want to have apartments available for the person who only receives a Social Security check of $750 a month, to the family of four with an income $54,000, all of which fit into a range considered affordable,” he said.
According to HUD guidelines the area median income for a family of four is $67,600. A family of four earning $54,080 is considered low-income and the same size family earning $33,800 or less is considered very low-income.
Patrick Dooley of the Shotgun Players theater group said there is a big need for the cultural space proposed in the development. “Any way we can create a space for arts organizations, many of which are nomadic and searching for space, is something we should think about,” he said. “I know of at least three or four theater companies that are fighting over La Val’s Subterranean.”
Wrenn said the current goal is to make the cultural space available for as many uses as possible so that it will pay for itself by always being in use. “We’d like to see a performance place that could be used as a theater one night and concert hall the next,” he said. “But we need as much input from arts organizations as possible as to how that would work.”
Several merchant groups and developers attended the meeting to make pleas for more parking. At one point Patrick Kennedy, who is developing the Gaia Building next door to the Oxford lot, said parking should be the main focus of the building. “If there’s not going to be any additional parking then we need to stop this meeting right now and go to the City Council for clarification,” he said.
Kennedy, who seemed agitated, repeated his desire to go to the City Council several times. Finally Wrenn suggested he do so in order that the meeting might continue.
There are 130 spaces at the Oxford Street lot and the commission has a mandate to re-create those spaces in addition to 1.5 spaces for 1,000 square feet of commercial space and one space for every three residential units.
Wrenn said that under the new General Plan currently being developed, there is a possibility that some of the residential units could be deemed car-free and therefore fewer parking spaces would be required.
UC Berkeley student Christia Mulvey, a City and Regional Planning major, attended the meeting and said she would like to see students help the commission push the envelop in terms of new environmental design techniques. “We should be the ones questioning assumptions such as the need for parking,” she said.
The Planning Commission subcommittee reviewing the project will hold a variety of meetings on various aspects of the design before submitting a recommendation to the City Council. A feasibility study on underground parking at the lot will be submitted to the council in March.