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Downtown housing and hotel development deals await ZAB approval

By Hank Sims Daily Planet staff
Thursday October 04, 2001

A major makeover of one of the city’s most central downtown blocks will be on the agenda when the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board meets tonight. 

The ZAB will hear a proposal for a new five-story, 176-unit residential development immediately behind the Berkeley Public Library, between Kittredge Street and Bancroft Way. The site is currently home to a parking garage. 

In addition, the ZAB may decide tonight whether or not to grant a permit for the demolition and reconstruction of the Berkeley Inn, on the same block at the corner of Bancroft and Milvia Street. 

The residential project, called “Library Gardens,” is being proposed by TransAction Companies, which, 10 years ago, built the block-sized Berkeley Center complex, located across Kittredge from the Library Gardens site, where the Shattuck Cinemas are now housed. 

The Library Gardens project, which has already received approval from the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Design Review Committee would also include a public plaza, an outdoor childrens’ play area, ground-level retail space and expanded parking underground. 

With its 176 units, the complex would contain nearly twice as many apartments as the recently-approved Gaia Building, which Patrick Kennedy’s Panoramic Interests is building almost directly across Shattuck Avenue. It will be one of the largest housing developments ever built in Berkeley – excluding the campus – Housing Director Steve Barton said. 

The units planned are one and two-bedroom apartments, ranging in size from 525 to 793 square feet. Twenty percent of the project will be affordable to low and moderate income people. 

John DeClercq, senior vice president of TransAction, said that the project would blend in with the many historic and civic structures in the downtown area while contributing to the revitalization of the neighborhood. 

“We’re very proud of it,” he said. “Our architect has created something that is well-designed and attractive, something that’s going to contribute to downtown residential life.” 

The project has evolved considerably since it was first introduced over a year ago. Planning department staff thought the original design, which called for 196 apartments and no retail space, was “too crowded.” The view of the north facade of the Berkeley Public Library, a city landmark, would have been blocked, and the line of sight from what DeClercq characterized as a “historic window” would have been broken by the building. 

In the current plans, the project is separated from the library by a public plaza and a semi-public children’s park. The plaza would include outdoor seating for a cafe. The Habitot Children’s Museum, which currently leases space in the Berkeley Center, is expected to lease the park for programs during the day; at night, it would be available for Library Gardens residents.  

The view now carries across the plaza and down what DeClercq called the project’s “Parisian corridor,” which leads to the main entrances into the residential area. 

DeClercq said that the project, as currently designed, should pass muster at the ZAB easily. 

“In all honesty, we think this is a 9-0 project,” he said. “We’re not going to ask for extra height. We’re not looking for waivers or variances. Our project fits the city code in every way.” 

Planning staff said they had mailed out 535 notices about the project, and received only two letters in reply, both of which were in support of it. The letters were from the Berkeley Public Library and the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. 

If the project is approved, parking in the downtown area will be disrupted for six to seven months as the old “Hinks” parking garage, which has spaces for 362 vehicles, is demolished and the new garage, which will have 455 spaces, is built. 

To mitigate the problem, TransAction has proposed to lease parking space from the University of California on the weekends. During the week, valet parking would be instituted at the city’s other downtown parking garages. Additional space would be rented at Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto, on Fourth Street, and at Golden Gate Fields at the foot of Gilman. Shuttle buses, paid for by the developer, would run between those lots and downtown.  

Because this plan involves the use of city-owned parking structures, it must be approved separately by the City Council. DeClercq said he expected the council to hear the matter some time next month.  

The ZAB must approve or deny a permit for the project before Jan. 15, but may act as early as tonight. 

Also before the board is a request by Sudha Patel, owner of the Berkeley Inn. Patel has submitted plans to tear down the 13-unit motel, which was built in 1925, and to construct a three-story, 30-unit hotel. The Berkeley Inn is located next to the southwest corner of the Library Gardens project. 

Planning department staff say that they have not received any letters concerning Patel’s request. 

The ZAB must approve or deny a permit for this project either tonight or at its meeting next week. 

The ZAB meets at 7 p.m. in the City Council Chambers at 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way.