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Five-Story Project Proposed For San Pablo Avenue Site By RICHARD BRENNEMAN

Tuesday December 07, 2004

A controversial development project on San Pablo Avenue, first proposed in 1999 and then abandoned amid neighborhood opposition a year and a half ago, has taken on new life with a different developer. 

Berkeley’s Zoning Adjustments Board will consider Thursday the proposed 34-unit, five-story residential and commercial condominium project at the site of a former gas station at 2700 San Pablo Ave. 

City Planning Department staff are recommending approval. 

Just 17 months ago, neighbors defeated a similar rental project for a four-story 35-unit residential and commercial project at the same site, proposed by developer Patrick Kennedy’s Panoramic Interests and Jubilee Restoration, run by the Rev. Gordon Choyce. 

The new proposal calls for 18 one-bedroom apartments, 12 two-bedroom units and four street-level lofts (four live/work and one residential) in a 40,161-square-foot structure with 38 ground-floor parking slots. A cafe is planned for the ground floor corner at the intersection of San Pablo Avenue and Derby Street. 

Because the ground floor lofts include a second, residential level, they are counted as two-story units, and the developer is seeking approval of the project at five stories as a concession for offering inclusionary units affordable to families with incomes earning from 80 to 120 percent of area mean income. 

Six of the units, including one of the ground floor lofts, will be inclusionary units, affordable to low-income tenants, said Berkeley Senior Planner Greg Powell. “There will be affordable units on all floors and distributed throughout the building,” he said. 

The use permits and plans for the earlier projects were packaged with the land, and bought by the new developer, Curtis & Partners, LLC, of San Francisco, headed by Charmaine Curtis. A former executive with San Francisco developer AF Evans, Curtis started her own company earlier this year. 

Because of the additional floor and other changes, the project requires a modification to the previously issued use permit. 

“I became involved in the project after a friend told me about the site, and I contracted Patrick Kennedy. I’ve been working on it for nine months now,” Curtis said. 

She has a purchase agreement for the property, which has not yet closed. 

The project is her first since leaving AF Evans. “I’m focusing almost exclusively on entry-level urban infill projects,” she said, “and I hope to do more in Berkeley.” 

ZAB will consider a modification of the existing Kennedy/Choyce permit to accommodate the new design for the site from David Baker & Partners, a San Francisco architectural firm. Powell said the plan is more interesting than the previous plans. “David Baker does good buildings, and the individual units are bigger than before,” he said. 

Under the Permit Streamlining Act, ZAB has to act at Thursday’s session unless the developer agrees to an extension. 

Douglas Press, whose day job is serving as a lawyer for the state attorney general’s office, filed a lawsuit against the previous project in August 2002, along with three other area residents. 

“I’ve not received any notice on the new project, although I’d assume the city would realize I was an interested party,” Press said Monday. “What does it take to be known by the city as an interested party?” 

Powell said the city wasn’t required to notify Press because he lives more than 300 feet from the project, but “it probably would’ve been a nice thing to do.” 

He said that, in addition to mailings, posters were installed around the project area to notify residents. 

Press said his objections to the original project were raised by the project’s size, density and potential impacts on the surrounding community. “Our concerns were such things as increased traffic, shadow impacts and water concerns.” 

Helga Alessio, another of the litigants, said she wouldn’t contest the current project. 

“I fought for four years through two lawsuits, and I just don’t see any realistic chance of fighting it this time. I’ve given up on democracy in this city,” she said. “I’m very disillusioned by the process and I put way too much energy into it.” 

Panoramic originally acquired the property in 1998 and the original Kennedy/Choyce plans called for a 48-unit building, until they were scaled down to 35 by the time the City Council voted their approval on July 23, 2002, despite two petitions signed by more than 400 residents. 

The lawsuit followed a month later. 

Litigant Howie Muir also co-wrote an unsuccessful November 2002 ballot measure that sought to restrict the height of new buildings in the city and was the plaintiff in another suit challenging the city’s approval of a 40-unit low-income senior housing project at Sacramento Street and Dwight Way. 

At the time he filed suit, Muir lived a block-and-a-half up Derby Street from the project site; today he lives in Nevada City in the Sierra Madre, though he’s keeping tabs of developments in Berkeley. 

“Basically, the courts have held that because Berkeley is a charter city, staff is not bound by the West Berkeley Plan, the General Plan or any similar documents,” Muir said, “and the City of Berkeley has not demonstrated good stewardship for its citizens when it comes to land use. 

“The rules of the game in Berkeley are not published, and consequently they’re not accessible to the general public and are prone to manipulation by developers,” he said. 

“No one begrudged the idea of having low-income housing there. It was the sheer bulk of the project, and the way it ignored the context of the surrounding area of one- and two-story buildings.” 

At the time Kennedy and Choyce killed the project, litigant Julie Dickinson told the Daily Planet that neighbors would have accepted a three-story project, blaming Kennedy for his refusal to consider neighborhood pleas for a smaller building. 

“It was way too out of scale for the neighborhood,” she said. 

Monday DIckinson said she and other neighbors will challenge the project at Thursday’s meeting. 

“We wish we could’ve had some impact on the design. We’re glad to see condos and affordable housing, but there’s been no Environmental Impact Report. no discussion of the ramifications of actual construction in a neighborhood where parking is already difficult,” she said. 

Dickson said she was also concerned about the possible release of toxins released into the soil by leaking tanks from the gas station that stood on the site, and she says the ultimate goal of neighbors is the creation of a San Pablo Avenue are plan.