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Neighbors upset over council OK of townhouses

By John Geluardi Daily Planet staff
Friday July 27, 2001

In an unusual move Tuesday, the City Council approved the construction of three townhouses in north Berkeley immediately after closing a public hearing on the issue. 

Neighbors of the project are crying foul over the council’s quick approval of what they describe as luxury townhouses in their modest north Berkeley neighborhood.  

After the hearing was closed, the council denied the neighbors’ appeal of the project. The council’s denial automatically approved the project at 2025 Rose St. by a 6-1-2 vote with Councilmember Dona Spring voting no and Councilmembers Linda Maio and Kriss Worthington abstaining.  

Mayor Shirley Dean said the City Council took the vote immediately after hearing from both sides of the issue because it was the final opportunity before Council’s summer recess. The Council doesn’t meet again until September 11. 

Neighbors are upset about the addition of 2,000 square feet in the building. In 1997, the site was approved for four units at a total of 3,300 square feet. Though the four units were approved, they were never built. 

Four years later, the site was sold and the new owner, Bob Richerson, sought approval for a design that included one less unit but a larger overall project at 5,500 square feet.  

The larger units riled neighbors who fought hard in 1997 to keep the square footage as low as possible and thought they were protected by the original Use Permit. 

“The General Plan calls for the building of more affordable housing,” said neighbor Dana Wahlberg who said she opposes the project because it will gentrify the neighborhood. “Why would the City Council act like it’s in everybody’s best interest to build larger, more expensive townhouses?” 

Richerson said he originally intended to build the four units that the city approved in 1997 but changed his mind because the units were too small, and he didn’t feel comfortable building the project. Instead he made the decision to go through Berkeley’s difficult planning process. 

“I did not lightly decide to scrap the original plan and try to a get new one approved,” Richerson said. 

Richerson’s attorney, Rena Rickles, said the process took 10 months and six hearings before the Zoning Adjustments Board, which ultimately could not make a decision on the new design. ZAB’s inability to make a decision resulted in automatic approval of the new plan under the State Permit Streamlining Act that requires action on a proposed projects within 60 days of submission of a complete application. 

Neighbors appealed the default approval to the City Council. They said the council’s decision has raised concerns that they’re issues with the new design were not fully heard. 

Normally the Council will wait to the next meeting after a public hearing is closed before voting in order that public testimony can be verified, and factual errors corrected.  

Dean said she felt comfortable voting on the issue because she had gone by and looked at the site and carefully studied the staff reports on the project. 

“Well, we don’t normally vote after a public hearing but there’s no rule against it,” she said. “And it was clear the proposal was pretty innocuous.” 

Worthington said he was surprised the council took action on the issue.  

“I thought we should of noticed the public we were going to vote,” he said. “It doesn’t appear to be illegal but it’s confusing to the public.” 

Wahlberg said she was disappointed with the vote and felt as though she had been manipulated by the political process. She said the townhouses will alter the quality of life in her neighborhood. 

“When I work in my garden I look to the east and I see blue sky,” she said. “Now I’m going to see a building.”