If Planning Commissioners have their way, the city-owned parking lot on Oxford Street (between Allston Way and Kittridge Street) may one day be home to a world class environmental education center, a community theater and the largest single concentration of affordable housing built in the city in the last
And it would all fit under one roof.
That, at least, is the vision described in the Oxford Lot Project Recommendations document approved by the Planning Commission Wednesday.
The question of what to do with the Oxford lot is not a new one. Most agree that it is the most significant parcel of land available for new development in downtown Berkeley today. As recently as four years ago, according to Planning Commission Chairperson Rob Wrenn, city officials and UC Berkeley officials discussed the possibility of building a multi-level parking structure on the site to accommodate the increasing numbers of cars visiting the downtown area.
That, said Wrenn, would have been “an atrocious use of that site.”
A few years later the City Council approved a statement saying the preferred use for the Oxford lot, under any future development plans, would be for affordable housing and “art space” – performance and exhibition space for the numerous “nomad” art groups in Berkeley who have no dedicated facilities of their own.
But when the city made no moves to actually develop the site, Wrenn and
Planning Commissioner Vice Chair Zelda Bronstein asked council members for the chance to come up with a more specific development plan – to help get the ball rolling. (Any plan created by the Planning Commission would then be submitted to the City Council as a non-binding recommendation to be considered whenever the council found time to put it on the agenda.)
Wrenn, who has led 11 subcommittee meetings and two public workshops on the Oxford lot project since December, said Wednesday that the a Planning Commission subcommittee came at the project from the point of view of trying to determine “what public benefit we can provide with this public land.”
The subcommittee identified four things that serve the public interest, but are extremely hard to come by in Berkeley, Wrenn said: affordable housing, community art space, nonprofit office space and parking.
The final recommendation to the City Council, approved by the Planning Commission at its Wednesday meeting by a vote of 8-to-0 with one abstention, constitutes one of the most ambitious mixed-use development projects ever envisioned for Berkeley’s downtown, according to Stephen Barton, Berkeley’s interim director of housing.
On top of two floors of underground parking – with somewhere between 150 and 200 public parking spaces – the Planning Commissioners have envisioned a five-story building. The top three floors would include at least 90 units of housing, with no less than 50 percent of them reserved for people with a household income at 60 percent or less of the median household income for the Berkeley area (today around $70,000 for a family of four).
Affordable housing in Berkeley has been built in increments of 10 and 20 in recent years, Wrenn said, and has fallen far short of meeting the demand.
The first and second floor of the building envisioned by the Planning Commission would be divided between a 100-seat community theater and gallery space (on the ground floor) and office and conference meeting space for the recently-formed David Brower Center, an international environmental education center proposed by a consortium of environmental groups including the Earth Island Institute and the Rain Forest Action Network.
“This is a very complex and ambitious process that we’re putting forward, and it would be wonderful if we could pull it off,” said Zelda Bronstein Wednesday.
Stephen Barton warned the commission, however, that it is still far from clear that its plan is feasible.
“We need to clearly see what’s being put forward by the Planning Commission as an ideal, rather than what’s going to come out of the other side of the process,” Barton said.
In an interview Thursday, Barton said the proposed project would have to involve numerous funding sources to get off the ground, including a major investment from the city to build the parking structure and the affordable housing. Furthermore, Barton said, the sheer number of arts groups which would have to collaborate on the project, helping to raise money for the art space and then keeping the space rented out after its built, complicates the project.
There are still no good estimates of what such a project might cost, Barton added. If the cost proves to be too high, the city might have to consider a different mix of uses for the building, such as a mix that could provide more future revenue to balance the development cost.
Still, Gilbert Chan, a construction and project management consultant working with the proposed Brower Center, said the group has already raised $2 million for the project and expects to raise up to $10 million more in the months ahead. The are numerous wealthy benefactors who revere David Brower, the Berkeley native and founder of the Sierra Club for whom the center is named, and are eager to contribute to a center in Berkeley that would work to uphold his legacy, Chan said.
Furthermore, Chan said he has worked on projects more complex than the one proposed for the Oxford lot, in terms of the number of players expected to collaborate in the work and the multiple sources of funding that must be tapped.
“If we didn’t think it was possible, we wouldn’t be in there pulling for it,” Chan said.
Chan said he hopes to see the City Council adopt the Planning Commission’s recommendation this summer and begin to advertise for developers, so more detailed project planning can begin in the fall. It could be three to four years before the project is completed, Chan estimated.