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Developers appeal 48-unit project permit

By John Geluardi Daily Planet Staff
Tuesday March 20, 2001

The City Council will decide tonight whether to hear an appeal by developers of a proposed four-story project consisting of 48 units of housing with a floor of commercial space at 2700 San Pablo Ave. 

The Zoning Adjustments Board denied the 44,300-square-foot project in November by a vote of 7-0 with two abstentions because it said the project was too dense and too tall. Developers argue in their appeal that the project conforms with the West Berkeley Plan, which calls for increased housing stock and more neighborhood-oriented businesses.  

It is likely the City Council will accept the city manager’s recommendation and set a public hearing on the appeal for April 24.  

The project includes 5,400-square-feet of commercial space that will likely be used as a “quick service food” outlet. In addition, the housing units will include nine units of affordable housing. 

Councilmember Miriam Hawley said she will recuse herself from voting on any aspect of the appeal at the recommendation of City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque. According to Hawley, Albuquerque said she has a conflict of interest because of a letter she wrote last June to the ZAB supporting denser development along transit lines. Hawley was an AC Transit Director at the time. 

“My philosophy is that if I ask the city attorney’s opinion, I will follow her advice,” Hawley said. “I think we have a good and conscientious city attorney and if we don’t have faith in her judgment we’re in trouble.” 

During the November permit hearing, the developers of the project, Panoramic Interests and the nonprofit Jubilee Restoration, refused an offer from ZAB members to reduce the size of the project by one story, which board members said would likely be approved.  

Panoramic Interest project manager Chris Hudson told the board that the project was appropriate for the site and the developers would rather take their chances by appealing to the City Council. 

“Our plans are still the same as they were in November,” Hudson said. “We feel that the ZAB didn’t consider what the West Berkeley Plan, a plan that took 10 years and a whole lot of neighborhood input to make, calls for.” 

The project has faced strong opposition by a group known as Neighbors for Responsible Development. They submitted a petition with over 400 signatures from neighbors who are against the size of the project. 

NRD member Howie Muir said in a letter to county and state representatives that the project site is surrounded with one and two-story private homes and “the proposed design is hugely out of scale: it is too high, too massively composed, and too densely populated for its location.” 

Muir said 20 percent of the vacant and under utilized lots in Berkeley are on San Pablo and his group has fought the size of the development because they are concerned it will set a tone for future development. 

“We’d love to see development along San Pablo, just not this type of oversized design,” he said. 

Former ZAB member Ted Gartner, who voted against the project in November, said it was frustrating dealing with the developers because they resisted most of the ZAB’s suggestions. “They flatly refused to take mind of suggestions from the Design Review Board and the ZAB,” Gartner said. “Clearly they felt confident they would be able to get what they wanted from the City Council.” 

Gartner said his appointing councilmember, Margaret Breland, removed him from the ZAB in January because of differing visions about future development on San Pablo Avenue. 

Jubilee Restoration project manager Gordon Choyce said the developers have not made any plans in case the appeal is denied. “We’re pretty optimistic about the project being approved,” he said. “City staff has consistently recommended that the project be approved and we’re confident the project meets zoning requirements.”