Pace of City’s Construction Not Likely to Subside Soon

By ROB WRENN Special to the Planet
Friday July 11, 2003

This is the last in a three-part series on Berkeley’s housing boom.  


The current housing boom in Berkeley shows no signs of letting up. There are at least 600 units more being planned by for-profit and non-profit developers that have not yet come before the Zoning Adjustment Board for approval.  

Panoramic Interests, Patrick Kennedy’s development company, has plans to build a 190-unit mixed-use project at Martin Luther King Jr. Way and University Avenue to replace the unsightly Kragen Auto Parts strip mall.  

If built as planned, this project would be the largest housing development in Berkeley, surpassing Redwood Gardens, the housing development for seniors on Derby Street above College, which has 169 units. 

The City has also done a feasibility study to analyze the possibility of building housing for teachers and other public employees on the western part of the Ashby BART parking lot. Unions representing school district, city and UC workers prompted the proposal to look into developing the site. 

In the Southside, the city has agreed to waive liens if the owner of the Berkeley Inn site at Telegraph Avenue and Haste Street obtains permits to build housing there and housing is planned for Durant Avenue near Telegraph. 

Berkeley’s for-profit and non-profit developers are not the only ones building more housing. The University of California is also adding more housing to ease the crunch that students have faced in recent years and to accommodate the expansion of the student body that is under way.  

The University has added 100 beds with newly constructed housing at College Avenue and Durant and is in the process of constructing an additional 931 beds and 191 student apartments on Channing Way as additions to the high-rise Units 1 and 2 dorms in the Southside.  

Nor is this the end of UC’s housing development plans. The New Century Plan identifies three more sites in the Southside for future housing development, including the Tang Center parking lot on Bancroft Avenue and the Anna Head surface parking lot on Channing near Telegraph. 



ABAG demands more housing 


With the building boom now under way, Berkeley will have little difficulty meeting Berkeley’s share of the “regional housing need” as determined by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG). Berkeley was asked to produce 1,269 units of housing during the seven and a half years between July 1, 1999 and December 31, 2006.  

In response to the concerns of state housing officials related to the Housing Element of the city’s 2002 General Plan, city staff assembled housing data that showed that the number of units built or approved between July 1, 1999 and December 1, 2002 or in the pipeline as of the end of that period, totalled more than the required 1,269 units due by December 2006. 

ABAG’s “Regional Housing Needs Determination” calculates housing needed to accommodate projected growth. But in addition to that, there is a clear need for more affordable housing to address the needs of current residents who are paying much more than they can afford in rent to live here. The Bay Area has some of the highest housing costs in the country, which has created a crisis for people with lower incomes. 

To meet this need, it has been estimated that approximately 5,600 units of housing would be needed. According to the General Plan housing element, that’s how many “very low-income non-student households” there are in “privately owned, unsubsidized housing.” Virtually all of these are overpaying for rent and “would be eligible for some form of rental assistance if it were available.” 

And there are also many people working in Berkeley at low pay retail, clerical, service, and blue-collar jobs, but living elsewhere, who might like to live nearer to where they work if they could afford it. 

While the City is producing more than enough market-rate housing, it is falling short of meeting the need for affordable below-market units. The city’s General Plan has set an ambitious, but very difficult-to-achieve goal of “providing an additional 6,400 permanently affordable housing units for low- and very-low-income households through acquisition of existing housing and new construction.” 

And what the city is achieving with respect to producing affordable units is threatened by possible legal challenges to the inclusionary zoning ordinance.  

TransAction Companies, developers of the planned Library Gardens project, whose vice-president is Chamber of Commerce president John DeClerq, filed a challenge to the city’s inclusionary housing requirement in October 2001. But the company withdrew its appeal in February 2002.  

In response to a referral from City Council, the city’s Housing Advisory Commission proposed giving affordable housing proposals higher priority treatment over other development proposals before the Design Review Committee and the ZAB. But City Council has yet to adopt any policy for priority processing for low-income housing projects. 



How development has changed 

In the 1980s, a majority of the units being produced were affordable units. For-profit developers accounted for a relatively small share of the housing being produced. Contrast this with the last two years when only 25% of the units are below-market affordable units and only two projects are by non-profit affordable housing developers. For-profit developers today account for a large majority of the units being produced, and also account for a majority of the below market units produced in the two year period from May 2001 to May 2003. 

While the percentage of affordable units being produced has fallen, the absolute number of affordable units being produced now is greater than the number in any two-year period in the 1980s. 

The apartment projects being built now are, on average, denser than the housing that was produced in the 1980s. Compare Savo Island, the U/A coops or the scattered site low-income housing from the 1980s with the projects being approved today. Instead of two or three stories, buildings today are typically four or five stories. Of the 17 projects approved by ZAB, 10 will be five stories in height; six will be four stories; and one will be three stories, but will be 50 feet tall with loft units.  

Developers are also receiving concessions and bonus units under the state density bonus law and are taking advantage of the flexibility in development standards in certain zoning districts (notably C-SA, the city’s “South Area” zoning, in South Berkeley). 

Developers are getting extra stories, reduced setbacks, reduced open space, increased lot coverage and reduced parking. Of the 17 projects approved by ZAB, 13 received at least one concession that allowed them to exceed development standards.  

Four projects received an extra floor. Residential parking requirements have been reduced for several projects, in some cases with a provision that residents will not be eligible for residential parking permits in the adjacent residential neighborhoods. 

While projects are denser, units are, in some cases, on the small side, though there is considerable variation. Some have studio units with as little as 340 square feet (visualize 17 x 20 feet). Units over 1,000 square feet are relatively scarce.  


Housing in the neighborhoods 

Since the passage of the Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance in 1973, almost all of the new apartments that have been built are located on commercial corridors. This is also true of a large majority of housing approved by ZAB in the last two years. 

The two cases where ZAB and City Council have balked at approving new housing have both involved projects in the middle of residential blocks that would have displaced existing housing.  

Sixteen of the 18 projects considered by ZAB since May 2001 are located either in the Downtown close to Shattuck Avenue and within easy walking distance of the BART station, or on a “transit corridor,” a street served by at least two bus lines. Almost all of these projects are on commercially zoned parcels. Sites include vacant lots, the former Fine Arts Theater, a former gas station on North Shattuck, the Hinks parking garage, and sites with one- or two-story commercial buildings. 

The other two are the proposed projects at 2500-2514 Benvenue Avenue and at 1155-63 Hearst Avenue. Both locations are in the middle of residentially-zoned blocks in established residential neighborhoods. 

Both projects would have replaced existing housing with taller, denser buildings. Both projects generated strong and well-organized opposition from immediate neighbors. ZAB rejected the project at 1155-63 Hearst by a vote of five to zero with three abstentions, and the council subsequently upheld ZAB by a 6-3 vote. 

The Benvenue project was narrowly approved by ZAB with the five vote minimum. The Benvenue Neighbors Association appealed. City Council heard the appeal and decided to approve a portion of the proposed project that involved retrofitting two existing buildings to create more, smaller units in place of the existing apartments.  

The council called on the developer to do an environmental review of the most controversial portion of the project that called for construction of a five-story building in place of two existing turn-of-the-century homes, one two-story, the other one-story. The building would have been taller than any existing housing on the block and would have included classroom and office space along with housing. 


Rob Wrenn has lived in Berkeley for the last 21 years and is member of Berkeley’s Planning Commission.