Developer Will Move Forward Despite Landmark Designation By RICHARD BRENNEMAN

Friday April 01, 2005

Despite the recent city decision to landmark one of the buildings he plans to demolish, developer Dan Deibel is pushing ahead with plans for a major residential and commercial block in West Berkeley. 

Deibel told a small gathering of interested residents Wednesday that he intends to tear down two of the three structures now on the site, including Celia’s restaurant, a structure recently declared a structure of merit by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC). 

Also destined for the wrecking ball is Brennan’s Irish Pub, which the LPC declined to landmark. The popular watering hole and dining spot would move into the third structure on site, the now vacant 1913 Southern Pacific Railroad Station, which was declared a full city landmark four years ago. 

Because of Celia’s new designation, Deibel can’t demolish the building without City Council approval. His Urban Housing Group (UHG) has appealed the designation, and the council is scheduled an April 26 hearing on the matter, LPC secretary Giselle Sorensen said Thursday. 

Meanwhile, Deibel said he will present a project overview to the city Zoning Adjustment Board (ZAB) on April 14, where he will request the creation of a work group of ZAB and community members to help shape the final proposal. 

Deibel’s firm is a subsidiary of Marcus & Millichap Co.—the nation’s largest real estate investment brokerage, co-founded by University of California Regent George M. Marcus—and specializes in building mixed-use projects at transportation hubs. The University Avenue site was chosen because of the proximity of rail, bus and freeway service. 

Deibel said he hasn’t decided on a final plan, having rejected an earlier design by Berkeley architect Kava Massih, who has worked on other Urban Housing Group projects. 

“His design wasn’t met with very much pleasure,” Deibel said. “Everybody hated it basically. I love Kava, but nothing nice was said about it.” 

To replace Massih, Deibel has retained Christiani/Johnson, a firm formed by a pair of Berkeley architects, one of whom was present for Wednesday’s gathering.  

“We’re hear to listen with fresh ears,” said David Johnson. 

Deibel said the biggest concerns with Massih’s design were the sheer mass of the project and its lack of permeability. Other concerns included the design’s lack of relationship to nearby Aquatic Park and the pedestrian bridge over Interstate 80. 

While the presence of ground-floor business and parking spaces along with the mandatory units for rental to lower-income tenants would give UHG the right to build 256 units of housing, UGH opted for 212 units in the Massih plan, and Deibel said the new design will probably include fewer units. 

As currently envisioned, the project will consist of two new structures, a larger building along Fourth Street extending well down Addison and University, and a smaller structure near the train station. Whatever its final form, a significant part of the larger building will reach five stories, though some parts may be lower, especially near the old railroad station. 

Unlike most of Berkeley’s recent apartment construction, which Deibel characterized as buildings with small units catering to college students, his project will offer full-size market rate one- and two-bedroom apartments with rents estimated between $1,400 and $2,600 per unit. 

Unlike many of the newer projects, which offer less than one parking space for every three apartments, Deibel said his project will offer one space for every unit. He said the commercial spaces will also be larger than the shallow and frequently unrented “window dressing spaces” in other recent mixed use projects. 

John McBride, a preservation activist, in the audience immediately thought of one such developer. 

“There are people like Patrick Kennedy who did the minimum to get the maximum, and they were approved as long as they had ground floor retail, and in many cases the retail has just been window dressing,” he said. 

“You’ll notice I never mentioned the name Patrick Kennedy,” Deibel told a reporter after the meeting ending, referring to Berkeley’s most controversial developer of mixed-use projects.  

Deibel’s presentation met with a fair share of skepticism from his audience of 14, the total response to the 600 announcements he said he had distributed to owners and residents within a 1,600-foot radius of the project site. For the previous meeting, a mailing of 175 announcements within a 900-foot radius had generated a turnout of 13. 

As trains rumbled and whistled by on the track that forms the western border of the project, one audience member asked, “Who would want to rent an apartment with all this noise?”  

Deibel said his firm had commissioned a noise and vibration study to determine the best strategies for overcoming a very real problem. 

“There are various ways to accomplish a minimal noise level,” he said, adding that the final structure will offer an interior ventilation system so residents on the track side of the project can keep their windows closed when they are home. 

Builder and preservationist Richard Schwartz told Deibel that people he had talked to “said this project is out of proportion with the rest of West Berkeley, totally overwhelming this building (the station) which is national landmark eligible.” 

Deibel said that if parts of the buildings near the station were reduced in height, other parts would have to be increased to keep the whole economically viable. 

Schwartz also worried that one parking space per unit might not be sufficient, leading residents to park second and third cars on already congested streets. 

One West Berkeley resident complained that city staff “dumps on” West Berkeley residents, adding, “They don’t want us to live here.” 

“It’s a very attractive place,” Deibel countered. “There’s transportation and what’s going on Fourth Street. It’s a very convenient place to live.” 

“No, it’s inconvenient,” McBride said. “There’s not a lot of services.” 

“And most of what was here has been driven out,” added Bart Selden. 

Architect Johnson offered the example of a similar UHG project near the main rail station in Mountain View. “It was rented right away,” he said. “And here, once you get above the first floor, you have fantastic views of the bay.” 

The meeting ended with no firm conclusions, though Deibel said he will continue to seek public input on the project.Ã