Berkeley’s Zoning Adjustments Board has greenlighted the most controversial building yet in the downtown area, the nine-story luxury Seagate apartment—or is it condo?—on Center Street.
Only Carrie Sprague and recent appointee Dean Metzger voted against the project. ZAB’s newest member, former Planning Commissioner Tim Perry, voted with the majority.
The only remaining obstacle to the proposed building at 2941-67 Center St., at this point only theoretical, would be a challenge lodged with the city council.
Opponents have 14 days to appeal after the ZAB issues its formal notice of decision.
ZAB also approved the demolition of several West Berkeley buildings and shot down a Sixth Street project opposed by neighbors.
The demolition and use permits approved for Seagate Thursday night call for:
• Leveling of four existing buildings;
• Construction of a 181,151-square-foot tower opposite the new Vista College site, with 149 apartments;
• 5765-square-feet of ground floor retail;
• 12,067 feet of cultural space, and
• 160 underground parking spaces in two levels.
The project of Seagate Properties, a San Rafael development firm with real estate interests throughout the West, the structure would tower four stories above the five-floor limit specified in the city’s downtown plan.
The building was able to evade the height restrictions because Seagate took advantage of two city provisions, one incorporating a state mandate that grants greater densities to buildings that include so-called inclusionary units reserved for low- and lower-income tenants, and another granting higher densities to buildings that provide spaces for so-called cultural uses.
“People are going to have the nicest inclusionary units in the city of Berkeley,” said City Housing Director Steven Barton. “The direct construction costs are far above the cost for inclusionary units as set up by the ordinance. The developer has made no reductions in quality and fitting.”
“I really like this project,” said ZAB member David Allen. “By leaps and bounds it’s the best designed project I’ve seen.”
The most unusual aspect of the project is the developer’s expected minimal rate of return. According to projections worked out by Barton and Darrel De Tienne, Seagate’s representative, the building will yield a return of only one percent a year.
Under the city’s interpretation of state density bonus law, the minuscule profits could have justified Seagate building an additional 86 units to make up for the losses on the low-income units, said Berkeley Principal Planner Debbie Sanderson.
Instead, Seagate only asked for a ninth floor with 11 units.
Several board members had objected earlier in the approval process at Seagate’s plans to concentrate the inclusionary apartments in the lower levels.
Under the plans submitted Thursday, the units are now found on six of the eight housing floors, excluding the eighth and ninth floors and units with terraces and the most desirable views.
Barton said including the low-income units on the upper floor would have cut still deeper into Seagate’s small profit margin.
“The project makes sense only if there’s a 20- to 40-year holding period,” Barton said. “It’s a luxury building but a very costly one. It would have reduced their rate of return for an even distribution” of the inclusionary units.
De Tienne said Monday that he was surprised at how quickly the project cleared its final hurdle, acknowledging with a chuckle that in Berkeley, a challenge could still be lurking in the wings.
Opponents have 14 days after the project’s Notice of Decision appears to appeal.
Neighbors’ Challenge Wins
ZAB members denied a warehouse and live/work project at 1340-1346 Sixth St. after neighbors mounted a campaign to block the three-story project.
The board did authorize the demolition of an existing duplex on the site.
Developer Daniel K. David and architect/contractor Edward J. Levitch submitted their original plans two years ago, and won preliminary approvals before neighbors—who charged that they hadn’t received adequate notice—rebelled.
The project has gone through several subsequent design iterations, none to the liking of the neighbors or city staffers.
Levitch insists that the neighbors’ complaints should have no bearing on the project because they live in a residential zone across the street from the site, which lies in a Mixed Use Light Industrial zoning area.
The architect faulted the opponents for offering their own design for the project. “They have absolutely no right to be involved,” he fumed. “They had the audacity to bring you another project altogether. This is not a design competition.”
But both the commissioners, the Design Review Commission and city staffers liked the plan created by two architects in the neighborhood, who offered them to David at no cost.
“We want you to work with the neighborhood,” said ZAB Chair Andy Katz.
“The neighbors have no right,” declared Levitch.
“It’s still part of the neighborhood,” Katz replied.
Both neighbors and city staffers pointed to a collection of problems in Levitch’s designs, and the architect and his client finally stormed out of the meeting, their angry voices echoing in the second floor hallway of old City Hall.
“You have witnessed the kind of contempt and condescension you and we have had to live with,” said neighbor Gary Parsons. “We decided with talented help to show how this transitional site could be handled in a sensitive way. We’re still game. We hope the lot is developed, and we hope a building is developed.”
Several ZAB members pointed to what they called specific misrepresentations in Levitch’s remarks, but he and his client never returned to answer them.
“The neighbors have acted in absolute good faith,” said member Christina Tiedemann. “We’re not going to ignore the neighbors’ concerns. Speaking for myself, one side is being unreasonable as evidenced by the fact that they walked out tonight.”
By a unanimous vote, the board approved the demolition and denied the building permit.
The project now moves to the City Council.
Gutted Hulks Gone
ZAB members also voted unanimously to approve the demolition of fire-gutted buildings at 2318-2332 Sixth St. and 2325 Third St.
The complex had been ravaged by two major blazes in the past four years, most recently a July 14 blaze apparently started by homeless squatters.
The demolition permit authorized by ZAB requires Kavah Massih Architects to replace the structures a combination of office and light industrial uses that approximate what existed before the fires.
Emily Brown, who appeared as a representative of the firm, agreed.?