The clock had ticked into the early morning minutes Friday when what may become one of the most controversial buildings in downtown Berkeley made it into the limelight at the Zoning Adjustments Board.
Darrell de Tienne, project manager for the Seagate Building—the largest structure planned for downtown in recent years—had already received a warm welcome from one ZAB member earlier in the evening Thursday.
In the break following City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque’s briefing on the city’s new and complex ex parte communications rule, it was time to ex parte down when ZAB member Deborah Matthews spotted de Tienne in the hallway outside the hearing room.
Matthews rushed over and graced the developer with a warm hug and a peck on the cheek.
When the hearing began the developer hadn’t even unpacked his elaborate scale model, which remained carefully nestled in boxes piled adjacent to where Berkeley City Planner Mark Rhoades sat with Greg Powell, the senior planning staff member assigned to the project.
“The logic of the project is very simple,” said de Tienne. “It’s a residential building in downtown Berkeley with a quality above the student level”—a remark clearly intended to differentiate his edifice from those of controversial developer Patrick Kennedy, who targets the UC student market.
Looking at the drawings de Tienne submitted, ZAB member Dean Metzger mused that “with 70 percent of the apartments under 700 square feet, are we just building another dorm here? Who’s going to live in 500 square feet if not a student?”
De Tienne said that while the project was entitled to 149 units based on the housing set aside for lower- and lower-income residents, “there may be much less as building goes forward.”
Because of the dramatic view he said the units would include, the San Rafael-based Seagate Properties, Inc., is looking both at building larger units and converting the project to condominiums, with the likelihood that contractor insurance issues will govern the final decision.
“We can’t tell you right now what it will be,” he said.
The builder is allowed four stories above the general downtown height limit, two of them for providing “inclusionary” housing for those earning lower-than-average incomes and two more for providing cultural arts space for non-profit groups—in this case, the Berkeley Repertory Theater.
The cultural bonus was awarded on the basis of the 6-3 vote by the Civic Arts Commission on Feb. 25, based in part on the theatrical space and in part on Seagate’s agreement to pay a city-hired curator to present the works of local artists in 800 square feet of corridor display space.
Arts Commission chair David Snippen, who voted for the project, and Jos Sances, an opponent who chairs the commission’s Public Art Committee, submitted a joint letter to ZAB protesting Seagate’s about-face on the exhibit space.
Sances weathered that long meeting to testify at Friday’s early morning hearing, where he reported that Seagate now insists on hiring their own curator, a move opposed by the commissioners, who want stipulations inserted in any final use permit requiring that the curator be a Seagate-paid city employee and calling for the use of two streetfront windows for public viewing in addition to the corridor.
“This is not acceptable to us,” Sances said of Seagate’s revised proposal. “This is not a great deal for the arts community. This change has made it very unacceptable to us.”
While City Planner Mark Rhoades said the city didn’t want to be in the position of hiring a curator, Sances proposed using the same curator the city already employees for the Windows gallery.
Planner Greg Powell said that a condition of city approval would require the curator to select works from a list selected by the arts commission, though he acknowledged the Seagate employee could chose other works from artists not on the list.
ZAB member Metzger worried that unless ZAB “put some teeth” into the agreement governing the theatrical space, “it probably won’t happen.”
Rhoades said that if the space remains unused for a specified period, it would be offered to the next candidate on the arts commission list at half the cost.
The final controversy centered on the placement of the low-income units in the building.
When ZAB member Laurie Capitelli questioned why none of the units were located on the top two floors of the building, Rhoades said that the city zoning ordinance precluded placing them in the extra floors which were granted as a result of including the units.
“The inclusionary ordinance does not apply to the density bonus floors, and those are the top two floors of this project.”
“That’s an absolute disgrace,” declared member David Blake.
“This is consistent with all of the infill projects that we have approved in the last five years. None of them have inclusionary units in the top floor,” Rhoades said.
Matthews said she had spoken to the city housing department, “and they still felt this was a very good situation.”
Landmarks Preservation Commissioner Lesley Emmington Jones questioned the wisdom of building more infill development projects in the city at a time when apartments are going vacant, but Rhoades said the reason rents were dropping was because of the addition of new housing, which he called a blessing for the city.
And so, just after the clock ticked off 1:20 a.m., ZAB Chair Andy Katz declared the meeting at an end.
But it wasn’t the end of the Seagate proposal, which comes back to the board for a second hearing and final action on the 9th.w