Over the protests of neighboring business and property owners, Zoning Adjustments Board members Thursday issued a mitigated negative declaration and a use permit for a major University Avenue project.
Barring an appeal to the City Council, Pacific Bay Investment has the city’s green light to build a five-story condominium and ground floor retail complex at the site of the former Tune-Up Masters facility at 1698 University Ave.
Only members Dean Metzger and Carrie Sprague voted against issuing the documents.
The board also took its first formal look at plans for the new Ed Roberts Campus at the site of the Ashby Avenue BART station, and heard concerns of neighbors who compared the architecture to a typical airline terminal.
The center will provide training for the disabled and office space for disability rights, job training and related programs.
Meredith Sabini, one of the most vocal opponents of the University Avenue project to testify before the board, has vowed to file a legal challenge.
A clinical psychologist, Sabini owns the landmarked Fox Commons cottages, which will be thrown into three hours of morning shadow when the new building is completed.
The board rejected pleas from project critics—including the Rev. George E. Crespin, pastor of the landmarked St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church, and Ifshin Violins owner Jay Ifshin—to require an environmental impact report (EIR) for the project.
“I am very concerned about the traffic and parking impact in a neighborhood that is already congested,” wrote Crespin, addressing similar concerns raised by Ifshin.
Eric Cress, project manager for Pacific Bay, said the developers had made significant changes in the project following a series of eight meetings with area residents, five design charettes and seven meetings with the city Design Review Commission.
“We have reduced the number of dwelling unites from 38 to 25, reduced the height from 64 feet to 50 feet and increased the parking spaces from 16 to 33,” Cress said.
The developers gained additional height for the building under the state density bonus law by including four so-called inclusionary condos, priced to be affordable to those earning 120 percent of the area median income.
Rental figures for inclusionary apartments are based on much lower income figures.
Many of the critics who appeared Thursday are members of PlanBerkeley.org, a group of University Avenue area residents and merchants which has been critical of the large residential/commercial structures rising along the main thoroughfare into the city.
While neighbors were concerned with the immediate impacts of traffic, parking and noise impacts of construction, criticism also focused on the way the density bonus has been used to create structures taller than those fixed by the city plan and zoning requirements.
One critic, architect John Alff, said that because the city doesn’t mandate densities for specific neighborhoods, “an averaging is taking place which is inflating the bulk of buildings to the point where they are becoming artificially large.”
Alff said the city “needs to calculate densities in a way the average human can understand. I’m an architect, and I find it confusing. We need to nip this in the bud and decide what an appropriate density is. I wish you could say ‘We don’t want a five-story building here.’”
Robin Kibby, who lives near the project and is an active member of PlanBerkeley.Org, agreed. “I’m concerned about how the density bonus is calculated. The general plan calls for a three-story building here.”
“They are allowed a 25 percent bonus under the existing state law,” said city Principal Planner Debbie Sanderson.
The developer did reduce the structure’s bulk, scaling back the fifth floor, but that wasn’t enough for Sabini.
“I really resent the impact on our buildings,” she said. She also charged that the city shouldn’t build atop a site where hazardous chemicals had been used without requiring an EIR.
The one unqualified neighborhood proponent was Dorrit Geshuri, a community organizer who lives at 1630 University Ave. “This is the kind of infill, development that should exist,” she said. “The density creates a population that will shop and use public transportation locally.”
Most of the critics acknowledged that the developer had significantly improved the structure’s design, reducing the grossest impacts the building might have made. But they said they remained unconvinced the compromise was appropriate for the neighborhood.
ZAB member Sprague agreed.
“Compared to where we started, the building has really improved,” said ZAB Chair Andy Katz, while acknowledging that “the density bonus law results in enormous confusion.” With further changes allowing for increased density mandated by a new state law that comes into effect in January, “I’m glad we’re going to start putting our procedures in writing to really clarify things and allow people to all be on the same page.”
Acknowledging that the density law poses serious problems, “if we step back from neighborhood concerns we can see that there are really profound reasons the Legislature provided” for them, said member Cheryl Tiedemann.
“I don’t think we have a choice in terms of denying the variances” requested by the developer, said ZAB member and City Council candidate Laurie Capitelli. “The law compels us to grant the variances.”
Board member Robert Allen told the critics they were preaching to the choir. “I dislike five-story buildings, and the city’s parking requirements are ridiculously low,” but he said he had no choice but to vote for the project.
The proposal carried on a five-to-two vote.
The Ed Roberts campus wasn’t up for a vote, although supporters turned out en masse in a carefully staged appearance managed by the center’s public relations firm.
Every speaker who urged approval was greeted with applause, and critics—who largely found fault with the architecture—were met with silence. The proposal returns to ZAB for a second hearing next week.