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Residents Oppose Seminary Growth

Friday April 04, 2003

Residents and officials from American Baptist Seminary of the West squared off Tuesday over the seminary’s proposed campus expansion in the Benvenue neighborhood. 

A capacity crowd filled the City Council Chambers Tuesday for a public hearing on the plans.  

The seminary has proposed three projects on the theological campus in the 2500 block of Benvenue Avenue. They include demolishing two turn-of-the-century cottages to make way for a new five-story building and the retrofit and reconfiguration of two existing buildings.  

The Zoning Adjustments Board approved use permits for the proposed projects last June. The board’s decision was challenged by neighbors of the project, Sharon Hudson and David Baker, who filed an appeal on behalf of the Benvenue Neighborhood Association. 

The three projects will add 41 new dwelling units, a 22-bed dormitory, classrooms, some office space and a 48-car garage to the seminary campus.  

After listening to arguments from both sides, City Council closed the public hearing well after midnight but is not expected to make a decision on the project until the meeting next Tuesday.  

Seminary representatives said the development is needed to provide housing for students, faculty and staff.  

Neighbors argued the scale of the project is too large and will change the residential ambiance of Hillegass and Benvenue avenues. They also claimed the two cottages marked for demolition have historical significance and would be a loss to Berkeley’s architectural heritage. 

The seminary is located four blocks south of the UC Berkeley campus on roughly half a block bounded by Dwight Way and Hillegass and Benvenue avenues. Currently on site are 11 buildings, which are used as classrooms, offices and housing for students, staff and faculty. 

Seminary President Rev. Keith Russell said project approval will improve safety in the two existing buildings in the event of an earthquake and will alleviate the seminary’s housing shortage.  

“Primarily this is about housing, affordable housing, that will be used exclusively for students, staff and faculty,” Russell said. “We also have two buildings that have to be renovated and restored. There is a safety issue that puts our students at risk.” 

The proposal calls for eight affordable dwelling units and five affordable dormitory beds. But a letter from a seminary attorney included in the council’s communications claimed the residential rents are not subject to affordable housing regulations and can be raised any time after construction.  

A group of neighbors said they opposed the 65-foot-tall building proposed for 2514 Benvenue Ave. David Baker, who lives in the area, argued that the institutional building will transform the avenue’s residential nature. 

“This building is nearly three times larger than adjacent buildings, which are three stories,” he said. The building “will have a staggering impact on the Benvenue neighborhood and should be put on a traffic corridor.” 

Neighbors also argued that the two cottages — one built in 1899, the other in 1906 — are worth saving. The Landmarks Preservation Commission approved both cottages for historical status last year, but City Council rejected the approval because of a state law that forbids the landmarking of buildings owned by religious institutions.  

Neighbors said there is still enough evidence, including the documented support of seven UC professors, for the council to deem the cottages historically significant — or at least to order an Environmental Impact Report, under the Californian Environmental Quality Act.  

But architectural historian Tim Kelley, hired by the seminary, argued the buildings did not merit historical designation because they do not relate to any significant historical event, nor were they designed by an architect of note.  

Some councilmembers indicated they would support the project with some changes. Mayor Tom Bates and Councilmember Linda Maio said they were concerned about the height of the proposed five-story building.  

“I think I could support a project that was four stories tall,” Bates said.