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Compromise Rekindles Stalled Library Gardens

Tuesday December 23, 2003

With the window of opportunity closing quickly, developer John DeClerq of TransAction Companies and the Downtown Berkeley YMCA are hammering out a deal to salvage 100-public parking spaces and end merchant opposition to Library Gardens—the biggest housing development ever proposed for the city center. 

An agreement would call for both sides to jointly finance construction of an underground parking level that would give slots to Y members during peak hours and the public at other times. 

Should the deal fail to materialize before Jan. 8—the day DeClerq is scheduled to present his 176-unit project before the Zoning Adjustment Board (ZAB)—DeClerq said he would submit his present proposal, which provides just 11 public parking spaces to replace the loss of 350 spaces.  

Y members previously enjoyed parking privileges at DeClerq’s 350-spot Kittredge St. garage, which Library Gardens will displace. 

After DeClerq outlined his compromise proposal to the Downtown Berkeley Association (DBA) Thursday, the merchants announced they would withdraw opposition to Library Gardens if a deal were struck. 

The DBA turned on the project last year after DeClerq—citing prohibitive costs to construct two levels of underground parking—reneged on his promise to maintain the downtown parking supply as part of the Library Gardens Project. His current design includes only 116 street-level parking spaces, of which 105 are reserved for future residents of the complex. 

The plan meets city codes, but downtown merchants fear that without accessible parking for the Y, library and nearby movie theaters to the north and east of the garage, local businesses will lose far more revenue than Library Garden’s projected 300 tenants can provide. 

“Those anchor tenants collectively bring in between 3,000 to 5,000 people a day,” said DBA Executive Director Deborah Bahdia. “We want to make sure that our network of businesses can continue to profit from that economic chain of purchases.” 

Rather than battle the merchants at the ZAB hearing, DeClerq has negotiated behind the scenes to appease downtown interests. 

In November, the Library Board of Trustees voted to withdraw their opposition to the development, to be built just west of their building, after DeClerq offered an undisclosed number of parking spaces for the disabled and parents bringing their children to library events, as well as more bicycle spaces. 

Since getting the library on board, DeClerq has reopened negotiations with the YMCA, which he sees as the key to winning over downtown business interests. 

“This comes down to YMCA parking downtown,” he said. 

Price estimates for a 100-space underground lot differ, with DeClerq coming up with $10 million, and a city-funded survey with $6.8 million, said Principal Transportation Planner Matt Nichols. 

DeClerq would not disclose how much he expected the Y to kick in for the project, though he said a final deal would likely guarantee them access to between 50 and all 100 spots during their peak hours before 9 a.m. and after 5 p.m.  

The underground lot would not include mechanical lifts, DeClerq said, citing the costs of hiring valets to run the machines. The DBA opposes lifts, insisting the hi-tech system would confuse downtown visitors. 

In November, DeClerq severed a long-standing relationship with the Y that gave members free peak-hour access to 75 parking spots at the Kittredge garage, one block from the Y. 

Downtown YMCA Director Fran Gallati declined comment 

Even if a deal is reached, downtown parking capacity will undoubtedly remain a hot-button issue. With the loss of the 50-space lot on Center Street—soon to be the new home of Vista College—and the inevitable demise of either all or most of the Kittredge garage, Berkeley faces the loss of up to 400 parking spaces—more than a quarter of its total supply. 

Although Berkeley’s general plan specifies that the city should first work to reduce parking demand before spending public money to build new parking, the sudden depletion of spaces has planners and city officials considering options to increase supply. 

The most likely plan of attack, Nichols said, would be to demolish the city’s 420-space, structurally unsound Center Street garage in favor of a bigger facility, paid for possibly by floating bonds or an assessment on downtown businesses.  

The Kittredge Street garage has been a source of controversy for a half-decade. In 1997, the progressive majority on Council carried a 5-4 vote recommending an eminent domain expropriation of the garage as the future site of the Berkeley Municipal Courthouse, with the county paying to replenish lost parking spaces.  

DeClerq, then the Chamber of Commerce president, sided with City Council moderates and led the charge—with the backing of the DBA—against the progressives’ plan, arguing, among other things, that the temporary displacement of parking caused by construction of the new courthouse would damage downtown businesses. 

Amid the internal division, the county moved the Berkeley courthouse to Oakland. Shortly thereafter, DeClerq proposed Library Gardens, a mix of four stories of one and two-bedroom apartments above parking and five retail shops along Kittredge Street.  

His original plan called for two levels of underground parking—455 spaces in total—to preserve the city’s parking supply, but he withdrew that proposal last year after determining that building parking underground was too expensive. 

Assuming the ZAB approves either project, which the planning department will reportedly recommend, DeClerq said construction would begin in April and finish in July 2006.