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Hearst Avenue rezone goes to the Planning Commission

By Hank Sims, Daily Planet staff
Friday October 26, 2001

The Planning Commission voted unanimously Wednesday night to hold public hearings on whether one side of a block of Hearst Avenue should be “downzoned” to restrict large, multi-family housing developments. 

The block in question is the north side of Hearst Avenue, between San Pablo Avenue and Curtis Street. It lies a half-block from San Pablo Avenue and one block from University Avenue.  

The proposed change would affect only 10 properties. 

Neighbors in the area began pushing to rezone the block when Alice Landis, the owner of the property at 1155-63 Hearst Ave., proposed to demolish the six units there and rebuild a three-story, 14-unit complex. 

Landis filed for a use permit on the project on Sept. 12. The day after she filed papers, the City Council asked the Planning Commission to study a neighborhood association’s request to change the zoning of the block so the project would not be allowed. 

Though the tactic would seem to contradict normal city procedures, in which opposition to specific developments are fought at the Zoning Adjustments Board meetings, Planning Commissioner Rob Wrenn said Thursday that the neighbors’ request to rezone the block was the result of years of battles about developments. 

“This is more in opposition to a series of battles that have happened over the last few years,” said Wrenn. “They’ve decided to look at the overall zoning rather than fighting each development one at a time.” 

Paul Shain, a neighborhood resident, said that the request to rezone the block was “sparked” by Landis’ project, but in fact is the result of a series of developments is the neighborhood and an “anomaly” in the city’s zoning map. 

“We’re not against development,” he said. “We’re just looking for development that’s in scale with the neighborhood.” 

Linda Hart, Landis’ daughter, said on Thursday that she had been talking to her neighbors for months, informing them of their plans and soliciting their opinions. After investing several months and “tens of thousands of dollars” to try to accommodate the neighbors, Hart said, the neighbors told her that they would oppose any development that exceeded the size of the current building on the lot. 

Shain, though, said that the changes to the project proposed by Hart were superficial in nature, and never really addressed their concerns about the size of the project. 

Though the block does bump up against areas zoned for higher-density development, Shain said most of the residential neighborhoods touching the block are zoned for low-density housing. 

“All through the years there has been development on this street, but it’s developing in a way that’s organic,” he said. “It’s individual homeowners adding a room for a member of their family.” 

“There’s a categorical difference between that and massive development.” 

Hart said her openness to neighbors was what gave them time to prepare to fight the project at the Planning Commission.  

“I think that it sends a message to anyone who wants to build anything in Berkeley,” she said. “Don’t try to negotiate with your neighbors – file your papers quietly and prepare for your battles at the Zoning Adjustment Board.” 

Hart said her attorneys were preparing a lawsuit that would be filed if the Planning Commission and the City Council succeeded in downzoning the block. 

Karen Kho, the director of the Sustainable Cities Project at Urban Ecology, a nonprofit organization that advocates “smart growth,” argued against the rezoning. 

“Encouraging opposition to specific projects to argue for downzoning in response is not a good precedent for the city to set,” she said Thursday. 

“This project is right off San Pablo, which is targeted for rapid bus transit. It’s the kind of place we need to keep for higher density.” 

The Planning Commission has not yet set a date for public hearings on the matter.