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San Pablo Avenue Project Killed, Developer Cites City Constraints

Tuesday August 05, 2003

Citing five years of neighborhood opposition and bigger fish to fry, leading Berkeley developer Panoramic Interests has pulled the plug on a proposed San Pablo Avenue housing and commercial project in southwest Berkeley. 

The demise of the project, set to replace an old gas station, has revived concerns about a permitting and development process that routinely yields endless, litigious battles between developers and neighborhood activists. 

“I don’t consider this a victory,” said Douglas Press, a Mathews Street resident and attorney who unsuccessfully sued to block the project last year. “I think the problem here is that, as a community, Berkeley needs a better way to grow and develop.”  

Panoramic and its nonprofit partner, Berkeley-based Jubilee Restoration, have placed the 2700 San Pablo Ave. property on the market in the last two weeks and are asking for $1.44 million, according to their real estate broker, Don Yost of Berkeley-based Norheim & Yost. 

Panoramic project manager Chris Hudson said his company, headed by controversial developer Patrick Kennedy, is selling the property because neighborhood opposition has led to years of delays and Panoramic now wants to focus on larger projects. He said the company has no specific plans for the proceeds of any sale.  

Hudson said the designs and permits for the San Pablo Avenue project—a four-story development with commercial space on the ground floor and 35 housing units above—are included in the asking price. He said he hopes someone else will build it. 

“We think it’s a good project,” Hudson said. “The plans are good. The design is good.” 

As required by law, the project sets aside 20 percent of the housing units—or seven total—for low-income tenants. 

Yost, the real estate broker, said several large developers have passed on the project in the last two weeks because it is too small. He said most large builders say they won’t look at any proposal with less than 75 units. 

“It’s probably going to require more of a local buyer who understands the ropes of Berkeley,” he said. 

Yost added that several people interested in opening an automobile service business at the old gas station have called, but Panoramic and Jubilee have declined to sell it to those parties.  

Hudson said Jubilee Restoration is interested in buying out Panoramic, the majority partner, but has been unable to come up with the money. Jubilee did not return several calls seeking comment. 

The proposal has gone through a number of changes in the last five years, bouncing around from the Zoning Adjustments Board to City Council to the Alameda County Superior Court as neighbors have raised concerns about everything from parking to building size to the project’s potential impact on the city’s sewer system. 

City Council approved the final 35-unit project, scaled down from a one-time high of 60 units, in July 2002. This spring, the project survived a legal challenge from several of the neighbors and was ready to proceed. 

But Hudson said Panoramic, which has constructed seven buildings in Berkeley and has five more in various stages of planning and construction, has grown significantly since it first acquired the San Pablo Avenue property in 1998, and no longer wants to pursue smaller projects. 

If the neighbors had not put up such a fight, Hudson said, Panoramic would have built the project years ago. He said the demise of the plan shows that, in Berkeley, a “self-appointed” group of neighborhood activists can derail a project that would ultimately benefit their neighborhood. 

“Did they get what they wanted?,” he asked. “Did they want a gas station, or a vacant lot?” 

But neighborhood activist Julie Dickinson blamed Panoramic Interests, saying residents were always willing to accommodate a three-story project that was more in scale with the neighborhood, but Kennedy, Panoramic’s chief, refused to budge. 

“It was way too out of scale for the neighborhood—and that’s his M.O. all over Berkeley,” Dickinson said. 

Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates has formed a task force on permitting and development that is scheduled to make recommendations in September for streamlining and improving the city’s often-contentious process for approving new development projects. 

Critics have charged that the task force is stacked with development interests, but Bates says it is well-balanced.