City Tries New Tactic With Tune-Up Masters Site

By ANDREW BECKER Special to the Planet
Tuesday January 20, 2004

In hopes of creating a new approach to community involved development in Berkeley, developers, neighbors and city staff will meet Thursday to discuss plans for a proposed mixed-use redevelopment of a University Avenue auto lubricant shop.  

A disputed interpretation of a state law that requires more density in new developments to allow for affordable housing has led to frustration for neighbors and city staff. Some homeowners, opposed to increased housing density and taller buildings along University Avenue, believe city staff isn’t doing enough to represent residents when it comes to the proposed redevelopment. 

City staff, however, contends that a recent state law requiring more affordable housing for new developments forces them to accept what developers want to build at the Tune-Up Masters site, located at 1698 University Ave. 

The crux of the issue is that the state law mandates a 25 percent density bonus for new developments in order to provide more affordable housing. Developers can build more than the maximum developable area allowed by local zoning and can construct higher buildings closer to property lines because of the law. 

Before the law was passed Berkeley already required a 20 percent bonus for affordable housing. Now planning staff says that the city must make added concessions for affordable units, to the detriment of some neighborhoods, according to residents. 

Tune-Up Masters neighbors like Michael Popso believe city staff can come up with more creative ways to represent residents while satisfying developers’ financial needs. They would like to see the city try to get a state exemption for its affordable housing efforts, Popso said, or at least push for re-examination of the state density bonus law.  

“It feels like staff is guiding developers to five stories,” he said. “The city is not defending residents.”  

University Avenue corridor residents, city staff and the developers met last week to discuss the plans and to air frustration over a seven-year-old University Avenue Strategic Plan that has languished. Members of the Addison Allston Roosevelt California Neighborhood Group called the meeting to ask city planners why the strategic plan isn’t being applied to this development.  

Despite the fact that the strategic plan has guidelines that dictate building heights along the University Avenue corridor, state law pre-empts the plan at present, said City Planner Mark Rhoades. Where four story buildings are supposed to be the maximum, five stories are allowed because of the density bonus. 

The University Avenue Strategic Plan is finally being revisited after Mayor Tom Bates and Councilmember Linda Maio recently called for the city to develop new zoning code to implement the plan, which was adopted by the City Council in November 1996. Until then, some residents fear, projects that are inconsistent with the plan’s guidelines will continue to be proposed and built, if state affordability law can override the current Berkeley zoning standards. Tune-Up Masters is one such project. Because the plans for redevelopment of the site were complete before the renewed interest, the guidelines would not apply, Rhoades said.  

At the meeting, Kwan Lam Wong, the architect, presented what he called a “a more neighborhood friendly design.” City planners asked him in August to come up with a design which was no more than 5 stories high. A 50-foot five-story mixed-use building is now proposed, with 32 residential units in a 28,516-square-foot space. A 43-foot four-story alternative was also presented, consisting of 33 residential units in a 28,958-square-foot building. The previous design was 62 feet tall, with 38 residential units. It had a smaller area, by a few hundred feet. 

Thursday’s experimental workshop will take place at 7 p.m. in Council Chambers at Old City Hall before the Zoning Adjustments Board meeting. The workshop was born out of the Mayor’s Task Force on Permitting and Development, at the suggestion of neighborhood activist Sharon Hudson, who was an observer of the Mayor’s Task Force. She does not live in the immediate vicinity of the Tune-Up Masters site. 

At the workshop the developers, Quality Bay Construction, will make a presentation on the two updated design proposals. A question-and-answer and comment period will follow. 

Organizers say they want the workshop to alleviate the acrimony between stakeholders, while avoiding a “rubber stamp” approval by the Zoning Adjustments Board. If successful, the workshop will bring “a new day for Berkeley,” Hudson said.  

The idea comes, Hudson said, because of developers’ complaints. After maneuvering through the review process, many were frustrated to have the Zoning Adjustments Board put a stop to the plans. With an earlier review at the workshop, the Zoning Adjustments Board can get a sense of where the project is, what the concerns are and what would make the project more acceptable to neighbors, developers and city staff, Hudson hopes. It also diminishes the “unfair advantage” these developers enjoy over laymen neighbors.  

“It’s not the most intelligent thing to let the most important board or commission go last,” Hudson said. Nonetheless, “how much of a problem this actually is for developers, is probably an arguable question.”  

But the workshop concept doesn’t come without some potential future pitfalls, Hudson said. One is a buy-in from the Zoning Adjustments Board and staff. Part of that has to do with developers thinking that what is advice could be construed as approval. With more time and money invested in the project, and the misperception of approval, the board might be forced into accepting a proposal that isn’t the best for neighbors, Hudson thinks. 

As it stands, the system (and its inefficiencies) gives neighbors more time to organize and learn the laws concerning redevelopment in their area, she said. This inefficiency levels the playing field of what is often an adversarial situation, Hudson said. With this presentation pushed up in time, neighbors still might not have enough time to prepare.  

This is probably not as likely in the case of Tune-Up Masters site, she said. Developers submitted a proposal and received staff design review before plans were sent back to the architect last August. 

Aaron Sage, the city’s project manager for 1698 University Ave., said that the Planning Department strives to do what’s in the city’s best interest. He acknowledged, however, the frustration of both residents and city staff.  

“If I lived two houses down from this site I would be very frustrated,” he said. “Given our interpretation of state law and application of state law, this is the size of building we must accept. We don’t want five stories up and down the avenue.”  

Resident Robin Kibbey said she was surprised that the proposed building is roughly the same size as the original design submitted in August. She worries that the workshop is “illusory” because the project has already been decided.  

“The staff talk about doing something [with the University Avenue Strategic Plan] but where’s the real action?” she said. 

In the interim the strategic plan will be a work item on the Planning Commission’s agenda next month, Mark Rhoades said. A staff report will indicate the strategic plan and the zoning ordinance are not consistent.