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Council Must Account For Benvenue Housing Policy

Tuesday April 15, 2003

On April 18, I and other stunned neighbors from the Benvenue and Willard neighborhoods watched in dismay as eight members of City Council voted swiftly and mercilessly to destroy a fine old apartment building at 2500 Benvenue Ave. at Dwight Way. This building is just one part of the expansion plans of the American Baptist Seminary of the West. However, much to the community’s relief, the council also voted 6-2-1 to require an Environmental Impact Report (ERI) for another part of the project, a proposed massive new building slated to replace two historic homes. The purpose of the entire project is in question, since the seminary has only 40 full-time students and currently rents half its space to UC Extension. 

Both Progressives and Moderates claim they would like to improve Berkeley’s housing stock, especially for Berkeley’s long-term residents and families. 2500 Benvenue Ave. currently contains highly desirable housing: 12 spacious, one-bedroom units with hardwood floors, fireplaces, chandeliers and decorative detailed cabinetry. These units will each be cut in half, to yield poorly designed rabbit warrens of 290 to 390 square feet each. The rents per unit will dramatically increase; per square foot they will triple. None are rent controlled, nor are they available to the general public or UC students. In the past this building housed older, married seminary students and staff, an asset to a block that struggles to keep its long-term residents and few remaining homeowners in balance with its transient student population. 

The loss of these apartments and their stable tenants will permanently damage Benvenue Avenue. It is especially ironic that the seminary then wants to build other large apartments to replace the ones it is destroying, rather than just add to its already excellent housing stock. 

Why did the council permit this? I call on the council to explain itself. The seminary’s excuse that this destruction is required for earthquake retrofitting is simply untrue. The excuse that the seminary suddenly needs tiny units for young single students is also highly suspect, given that the student body is primarily older and/or married graduate students, as are other GTU students. Who will be the market for these tiny, expensive apartments? Some think it might some day be English language program students currently attending class on the seminary campus. If so, the council has just voted to destroy good housing that serves Berkeley’s own residents to create a hotel for short-term visitors who are not even California residents. How can this possibly be good housing policy for Berkeley or for Benvenue? 

The council was well aware of all these facts when it voted. In addition, the council seemed entirely unconcerned about doubling the number of units in the building without adding any more parking spaces, in a neighborhood where parking is already impossible. Is this, too, the beginning of a trend? Will this improve the quality of life in Berkeley? 

On a more positive note, the vote to require an EIR for the larger part of the project will, if the EIR is performed correctly, result in something like a comprehensive master plan for the seminary campus. The council indicated that it wanted to see a number of impacts examined, including but not limited to loss of historic resources, parking, traffic and density issues, with special attention paid to alternative solutions. This was encouraging to us neighbors. Unfortunately, however, based on statements already made by planning staff members and the seminary’s attorney, I and others fear that the planning staff, ever in favor of all developments at all costs, will be less than enthusiastic about arranging for a truly comprehensive and informative EIR. 

I believe that the majority of the council voted to see a real EIR so it can make a truly informed decision about the seminary campus, which has over the years become intensely used by UC Extension without the knowledge and oversight of the city. Legally, EIRs must examine both alternatives to, and cumulative impacts of, damaging developments. There are certainly good alternatives to the historic loss, and the cumulative impacts remain to be examined, given the existing parking problem created by the seminary’s UC rentals and the huge university housing project under construction a half-block away. We hope the council will support the neighbors in demanding a meaningful EIR that will examine the project — as the law requires — in the context of past, present and future developments both on the seminary campus and nearby. This should make the seminary produce any further development plans, so they can be viewed in their entirety, and thereby prevent such damaging fiascos in the future as destroying valuable old buildings for no reason. 

Sharon Hudson is a Berkeley resident.