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Drop-Off Recyling Site Faces Probable Closing

Tuesday July 20, 2004

As Berkeley charts a course to meet its goal of recycling 75 percent of its waste by 2010, it is doubtful the 32-year-old recycling drop-off center at Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Dwight Avenue will be part of the plan. 

A deal is in place to sell the 8,731-square-foot parcel to a father and son development team that plans to replace the recycling center with a four-story structure that includes 21 condominiums above a commercial space and 23 parking spaces. 

The project has already won unanimous support from the Design Review Commission and heads to the Zoning Adjustment Board Thursday. 

Prospective buyers Paul Ugenti, a San Jose businessman, and his son Paul Jr., a 2002 UC Berkeley graduate, said they hope to begin construction as soon as they get their requisite permits, probably by the end of the year. It would be their first project in Berkeley. 

News of the pending sale came as a surprise to Kathy Evans of the Community Conservation Center, the nonprofit contracted to run Berkeley’s two drop-off centers. The other one is located at Second and Gilman streets. 

The property has been on the market for several years since longtime owner John White died, but several bids have fallen through, Evans said, because of environmental concerns about the site, which at one time housed a gas station. 

The MLK-Dwight drop-off center receives only about 840 of the city’s 17,000 tons of recyclable material a year, said City of Berkeley Recycling Program Manager Rebecca Dowdakin. However, if the condos rise, Dowdakin added, many apartment dwellers would lose access to their most convenient recycling location. 

Berkeley’s curbside recycling program, run by the Ecology Center, only includes private homes and apartments with fewer than 10 units. Larger complexes, whose large bins are incompatible with the Ecology Center’s trucks, are served by a voluntary city-run program. 

“A lot of buildings choose not to provide the services,” Dowdakin said. Tenants with cars can go to the city’s other drop-off center at Second and Gilman, but others wouldn’t have a viable alternative. 

In the 1970s drop-off recycling centers dotted Berkeley and other nearby cities. But when Berkeley became the first city on the west coast to implement curbside recycling in 1973, drop-off centers fell out of vogue. Besides Berkeley, El Cerrito is the only East Bay town to have a recycling drop-off near the city center. 

With real estate prices at a premium, and recycling centers requiring ample room for trucks to make pick-ups, Evans didn’t expect the CCC to find a new location. 

“The economics of recycling don’t really work in a densely populated town,” she said.  

Dowdakin said she had talked to the city’s office of economic development, but hadn’t heard of other available sites. 

Last February the City Council soundly rejected a proposal from Councilmember Dona Spring to buy the lot—listed at $475,000—through increasing city refuse fees. 

“Without the center, we might fall below 50 percent [of waste recycled],” said Spring. As a member of the Alameda County Waste Management Board, she added that Berkeley—which recycles slightly more than 50 percent of its waste—has fallen behind neighboring cities.  

“[The city of] Alameda is recycling 63 percent of its waste and nearly every city is recycling food waste except for Berkeley,” she said. 

Still, at the drop-off center Sunday, most recyclers seemed willing to haul their waste to Gilman. 

“Maybe housing is more important,” said Joe Willingham. “I’d rather see a handsome building with tax-paying homeowners.” 

Jim Novosel, the project’s designer, said the owners had knocked on neighbors’ doors and received positive feedback about the project. 

“Can you imagine living next to a site with all those noisy trucks rumbling through?” he said. 

Those interviewed appeared less upset by the loss of the recycling center than by the fourth story planned for the condominium project’s eastern half. 

“It sounds like it would be way out of proportion with MLK,” said Rosemary Vimont, who lives several blocks from the recycling center. “If it were two or three stories, I could lump it, but four stories seems extreme.” 

Novosel said a three-story building wouldn’t have been profitable, so he added a fourth floor to the design, thanks to a state law that grants 25 percent more space to projects that include affordable housing. Three of the 21 condominiums will be affordable, Novosel said. Final unit prices haven’t been determined, Ugenti Sr. said. 

The 46-foot project will include four one-bedroom condominiums, nine two-bedroom condominiums and eight three-bedroom condominiums, a roof-top deck, parking lifts, and a ground floor commercial space. 

Since the area is zoned for 35-foot buildings and the law requires structures on Dwight to be set back from the sidewalk, the project must go before the Zoning Adjustment Board for a use permit. 

If the Ugentis get their permits, they will have to perform environmental mitigations during construction, said city hazardous materials specialist Geoff Fiedler. The site—a former gas station— is assumed to have contaminated soil and ground water below. 

In 2003, the Bay Area Regional Water Quality Control Board signed off on a finding by the city’s toxics department that contamination of the site was not too severe to prevent properly mitigated development. 

Recently, Berkeley has approved new developments above former gas stations at 1797 Shattuck Ave. and at the intersection of Solano and Colusa avenues. 

At both sites, Fiedler said, unknown sources of pollution were found and treated. “The unexpected happens at these sites all the time,” he said.