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Library Gardens Parking Deal Near, Says Developer

By Matthew Artz
Tuesday January 13, 2004

Following a unanimous rejection by Zoning Adjustment Board commissioners Thursday, the developer of the controversial Library Gardens project says he’s been hammering out a compromise to add public parking spaces to the largest apartment complex ever planned for the city center. 

If approved by the project’s diverse foes, the pact could jump-start the stalled development, according to TransAction Companies Senior Vice President John DeClerq. 

“We’re very close to a deal,” said the developer, who has been negotiating for the past month with the Berkeley-Albany YMCA to jointly build a level of underground parking for use by Y members and the public. 

DeClerq hopes a deal can sway skeptical ZAB commissioners who Thursday—more than two years after giving him a unanimous thumbs up—denied the use permit, pending further analysis, for a plan that threatens to erase one out of every four downtown parking spaces. 

“It feels like we’ve had the effects of a bait and switch,” ZAB commissioner David Blake told a packed house of downtown merchants sharply divided over the project. “This is like someone got a permit to build Manhattan, came back and said sorry we’re not going to do Central Park. It’s not the same project.” 

Library Gardens would replace the 362-space Kittredge Garage with a five-story, 176-unit apartment complex that would house roughly 280 residents and five new retail shops just west of the library. 

The original proposal, approved by the ZAB in October, 2001, would have replaced all of the parking spaces with two levels of underground public parking, but higher than anticipated construction costs forced TransAction to scrap plans for the subterranean lot. 

Instead, TransAction resubmitted the development with just 116 ground-level spaces, all but 11 dedicated to future tenants. That move infuriated many downtown merchants, who feared that an ensuing parking crunch would drive away customers. 

City planners backed the proposal, asserting that it conformed to city guidelines and that, over time, commuters and parking providers would make adjustments to bring the parking supply back to equilibrium. 

ZAB commissioners, however, were unmoved, unanimously voting to postpone any decision until a Feb. 26 meeting, when planners were to offer possible mitigations to increase parking at the development. 

DeClerq hoped a deal to add 124 underground spaces—mostly for Y patrons—could be wrapped up within two weeks. That agreement would effectively end opposition from downtown merchants and could potentially get the development back onto the ZAB calendar and approved before Feb. 26, allowing TransAction to proceed with construction in April, avoiding costly delays. 

The Y had been the garage’s biggest tenant, comprising 43 percent of all customers, until TransAction booted them in November to prepare for construction. 

Negotiations appeared stalled through early last week, with DeClerq proposing the Y contribute $1 million towards the cost of the garage plus a $5,000 monthly rent, and the Y offering to make a one-time $500,000 payment. 

But DeClerq, refusing to divulge details, said both sides have since budged from their original offers and that an agreement was nearly reached before the Thursday ZAB meeting. 

Construction estimates vary for the lot. City officials put the price tag at just over $6.8 million, while DeClerq insists the final cost would be closer to $10.6 million. 

Berkeley-Albany YMCA President Larry Bush refused comment on the negotiations, but expressed optimism, saying, “We’ll work through this and we’ll be alright.”  

The conciliatory talk coming from both camps this weekend contrasted sharply from the combative two-hour hearing that divided downtown businesses at times pitting co-worker against co-worker. 

Speaking as incoming president of the board of directors of the Downtown Berkeley Association, Mechanics Bank Branch Manager Raudel Wilson told ZAB Commissioners the project would harm businesses by keeping shoppers from driving downtown. 

Just minutes earlier, his boss at Mechanics Bank, outgoing DBA Board President Rauly Butler argued for the development on grounds that TransAction shouldn’t be held responsible for the city’s parking issues. 

After Public Library Trustee Jorge Garcia gave tacit approval for the project, noting DeClerq had promised the library 10-15 parking spaces for disabled patrons, Reference Librarian Jane Scantlebury delivered the most extensive case against the project, linking the 57-year-old lot built by the owners of the Hinks Department store to the local businesses along Shattuck. 

When TransAction acquired both the garage and the Shattuck storefronts that housed the former department store in the late 80’s and early 90’s, Scantlebury said their financing arrangement included an easement on the lot for the businesses to ensure their profitability. 

Over time, she added, TransAction sold off the Shattuck buildings and severed their legal ties to the garage, before unveiling its development plan. 

“This is a case of a corporation once again dropping the responsibility onto the tax payer,” she said in an interview after the meeting. 

DeClerq said TransAction had designs on developing the lot long before it sold the neighboring real estate and that the deals were unrelated, yet Scantlebury’s argument seemed to carry the day. 

In explaining his vote, ZAB Chair Laurie Capitelli said that while he “was loath to the idea of imposing a public need on a property owner”…TransAction had an additional obligation because of the “historical link” between downtown businesses and the garage. 

Capitelli also pressed Assistant City Manager for Transportation Peter Hillier about other ramifications from the lossed Kittredge garage. Hillier declined to speculate on whether shoppers would choose Emeryville or El Cerrito, claiming there were too many variables to consider, but said that the 420-space Center Street garage regularly had over 100 available spaces during peak parking times. 

But the Center Street facility is seismically unsafe, and will likely be torn down and rebuilt in the next several years. A new garage could have as many as 800 spaces—enough to fill the gap left by Library Gardens—but Hillier said cost factors would likely result in fewer spaces.