Page One

Neighbors sue to stop development

By David Scharfenberg, Daily Planet staff
Thursday July 11, 2002

A group of 250 neighbors and business owners in central Berkeley filed a lawsuit against the city Tuesday seeking to block construction of a four-story building at 2517 Sacramento St. that would include a mix of commercial space and affordable housing for seniors. 

Neighbors for Sensible Development claim the city approved the project without a valid General Plan in place to guide the process, without adequate parking and without a report detailing the environmental impact of the proposed development. 

The City Attorney and other officials said they had not yet received copies of the suit and could not comment on pending litigation. But, in discussing the approval process that unfolded earlier this year, some officials cast doubt on the plaintiffs’ claims, arguing for instance that an environmental impact report was not necessary. 

The neighbors say they are not opposed to affordable housing or commercial development in their neighborhood. They say they simply do not want a building as tall and bulky and as the project proposed by the developer, the non-profit Affordable Housing Associates of Berkeley. 

“It’s out of character,” said Marie Bowman, one of the residents involved in the suit, raising concerns about parking, traffic and the shadows the building would cast on neighboring homes and apartments. 

But Kevin Zwick, project manager for Affordable Housing Associates, said the neighbors worked to block another low-income housing project at the corner of Dwight and Sacramento and are simply at it again. 

“We think it’s unfortunate the levels that some neighbors will go to oppose an affordable housing project in their neighborhood,” said Zwick. “The intent is to delay or kill the project and we will continue to fight, as we have for the past three years, to see the project through.” 

Bowman replied that the neighbors had legitimate concerns about the public process surrounding the Dwight and Sacramento development. 

The Zoning Adjustments Board approved the Sacramento St. project, which includes 40 residential units, Feb. 14. After an appeal by the neighbors, the City Council upheld the ZAB ruling May 28 by a 5-2 vote. 

The neighborhood and the developer were in the midst of mediation when the City Council voted to approve the project. Neighbors, who did not attend the May 28 meeting because mediation was scheduled to continue into June, say the city should have waited for the mediation process to end before voting on the project. Mayor Shirley Dean and councilmember Betty Olds, who voted against the project, say the neighbors have a point. 

“I thought, ‘why do this when we were moving towards some kind of resolution?,’” said Mayor Shirley Dean. 

But Councilmember Kriss Worthington said approval was necessary so the developer could apply for state tax credits by a July 16 deadline. 

“Creating senior housing and affordable housing is a very high priority,” he said. 

Arthur Friedman of Steefel, Levitt & Weiss, a San Francisco law firm representing the neighbors, said the city approved the project based on adjustments to its General Plan in December that were not in compliance with state law. 

“It was built on a strawman,” he said. “They don’t have a valid General Plan.” 

Friedman also argued that the city improperly allowed a reduced number of parking spaces, and said the Zoning Adjustments Board should have called for an environmental impact report, or EIR, given the traffic and congestion the development will create. 

“I don’t think an EIR was necessary for this project,” said Andy Katz, a City Council candidate and member of the Zoning Adjustments Board, arguing that the project is not large enough to warrant a report. 

Katz also said ZAB approved a relatively small number of parking spots, 13, because the tenants will be low-income seniors who are less likely to own vehicles.  

Bowman countered that discount car insurance plans for the elderly make heavy car ownership a real possibility. 

David Blake, another ZAB member, said that 13 spaces may not be adequate given that the development does not have a shopping center nearby and tenants may therefore be more likely to own cars than they otherwise would. Still, he voted for the project Feb. 14.