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Giant Project Leaps Nimbly Over First Legal Hurdle

By Richard Brenneman
Friday February 27, 2004

Despite misgivings by several commissioners, Berkeley’s Civic Arts Commission voted 6-3 Wednesday night to endorse a major Seagate Properties project for downtown Berkeley. If it eventually passes full city approval, the 149-apartment, mixed-use complex would replace four Center Street buildings between the City Center Garage and the Wells Fargo Annex. 

The proposed project next goes to the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board’s Design Review Committee to look at recent plan revisions, and then, on April 7, to the full ZAB for consideration. 

Though architect Darrell de Tienne and city staff have been hammering out details of the project for 32 months, the arts commissioners only got a look at project specifications two days before Wednesday night’s meeting—a point that clearly rankled. 

Commissioners Jos Sances and Bonnie Hughes, who voted against the project, lamented both the project’s late arrival and the proposed control of the project’s 9000-square-foot performance area by the Berkeley Repertory Theater. Hughes also mourned the absence of a downtown performance space that could accommodate a grand piano.  

Chair David Snippen, while voting to endorse the project, said he was also concerned that the proposal came so late to the commission which is supposed to oversee the city’s public arts. 

Thursday morning, City Economic Development Project Coordinator Ted Burton acknowledged the commission’s complaints about the lateness of their look at the proposal. 

Burton said, “It’s true they only just got it, but until the city staff report was finalized, we couldn’t take it to the commissions, and technical issues had held it up until now.” 

The commission vote followed an outburst from the otherwise tranquil de Tienne after listening to commissioners’ concerns and raise the possibility of a delayed vote. 

“For three-and-a-half years, no one but Berkeley Rep came to me and said we want to do a deal. . .It’s a great project,” the architect said, citing praises from Mayor Tom Bates. “I’ve been playing by the rules, and I’m trying to do the best goddamn job I can do...If you want to rethink, I’ll take it directly to the city council.” De Etienne added that if ground wasn’t broken within six months, the project “will go away.” 

Seagate developers of San Rafael are asking to build the nine-storey, 186,000 square-foot project a full four stories over Berkeley’s General Plan restrictions by qualifying for the additional height under city and state “density bonus” laws. 

Two floors and a half-sized ninth floor came from the state’s inclusionary housing bonus, which allows substantial square footage to developers that include housing for low-income tenants. Low-income in Berkeley is defined as $55,850 for a family of three. 

The other two extra floors came from Berkeley’s “arts density bonus,” which confers additional size on projects that dedicate permanent space to public arts. Because two of the existing buildings presently house rehearsal facilities of the Berkeley Rep, Seagate has signed a 20-year lease with theater group for the specially designed performance space. 

Under their lease with Seagate, Berkeley Rep is obligated to make the space available to other civic performance groups 52 days a year, and Susan Medak, the troupe’s managing director, told the Civic Arts Commission they have committed to 100 days a year. 

Medak acknowledged that the space doesn’t lend itself to live music. 

All the commissioners agreed that the architect’s scale model was a thing of beauty. But to a more cynical eye, it was hard to see how they could think otherwise. The model was light, airy, and—because no inconvenient walls or floors filled the inside, transparent through plastic windows set between carefully crafted strips of balsa wood.  

Adjacent buildings, conversely, were rendered in opaque, solid balsa, devoid of openings, while the buildings across center street were stark, unrelieved foam core hulks. 

While several commissioners had expressed disappointment at the lack of an art gallery on the Center Street frontage—something de Etienne had included in his original design—Burton said the General Plan calls for retail frontage. “We want to get people shopping downtown,” he said. 

Project developer Seagate is a privately held five-member partnership with extensive real estate holdings in the Bay Area and apartments in Colorado. Berkeley holdings listed on their website include the 12-storey building at 2149 Shattuck Ave., site of their local office, and structures at 1950 and 2039-2040 Addison St., 2055 Center St., and 1918 and 1936 University Ave. 

While no dollar figures for the new building were offered Wednesday night, one knowledgeable source told the Daily Planet that conventional building costs of $150 to $200 per square foot would place the value of the proposed Center Street building at $2.8 to $3.7 million.