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‘Popup’ House Plans Create Neighborhood Discord By RICHARD BRENNEMAN

Tuesday June 14, 2005

The latest addition to Berkeley’s growing “popup” house collection got the go-ahead from Zoning Adjustments Board members Thursday despite nearly unanimous neighborhood opposition. 

A trio of developers won approval of their plan to turn a single-story Victorian cottage at 2901 Otis St. into the upper floor of a three-floor trio of three-bedroom condos that will rise above the other homes on the block. 

A poll conducted by neighbors counted 47 residents opposed, four in favor and one ambivalent—numbers that developer Eric Geleynse blamed on “one of the neighbors (who) has effectively whipped up the neighbors into being strongly opposed.” 

Earlier, Geleynse said, “most people were happy that blight was going to be removed.” 

“The only four residents who said they were in favor are all connected with the developer,” charged neighbor David Raymond. 

Neighbors tried to stall the project by presenting a petition calling for a landmark designation for the property, but the effort failed at a short-handed Landmarks Preservation Commission on June 6, where the proposal managed to win a majority of members on hand but failed to capture the five votes needed for passage. 

The Otis Street popup follows in the wake of ZAB’s approval last month of the “Flying Cottage” at 3045 Shattuck Ave., where another modest cottage was raised up atop a two-story plywood shell. 

Neighbors also charged that the structure was out of character with the neighborhood, overshadowed nearby homes and posed the threat of yet more parking on seriously overcrowded streets. 

In both cases, neighbors were thwarted in their attempts to stop the development by municipal zoning codes that allowed such changes. 

In the case of the Flying Cottage, the issue was zoning along the Shattuck Avenue commercial corridor, where three-story buildings can be built at will. 

In the case of the Queen Anne house on Otis, the issue was R-4 zoning, which favors multiple-family residential structures. The developers’ plans fell well within the code’s provisions, which allow three-story units without a use permit and up to six stories with a permit. 

Though some ZAB members—most vocally, architect Robert Allen—said they didn’t like the idea in concept, only Allen and Dean Metzger voted against the project. 

“If I lived in the neighborhood I’d be upset,” said Allen, “but we’re here to administer the zoning code, which is terribly inadequate... It’s clearly zoned for that height.” 

Allen ridiculed the code’s notion that inhabitants of each of the units would restrict themselves to one car, “even though we know that that’s not going to happen.” 

Finally, he found fault with a design that replaced the present home’s graceful Victorian porch and entry with a more mundane entry, flush with the wall. 

Still, he said, “the architect has done a very good job, unlike another flying house I won’t mention by name.” 

The project, developed by Geleynse and partners Xin Jin and Danny Tran, calls for 4,436 square feet of housing on a a 5,015-square-foot lot. 

Neighbor David Raymond, who lives next door to the project at 1930 Russell St., charged that the actual lot was closer to 4,984 square feet, which would make it too small to meet the 5,000-square-foot minimum the code requires. 

City records support the larger measurement. 

Geleynse defended the plan’s inclusion of only three on-site parking slots because, he said, “our belief is that the owners will be transit-oriented families” who will take advantage of the Ashby BART station two blocks to the south. 

“If that were true of our neighborhood, our neighborhood would have adequate parking spaces,” said neighbor Dean Mayeron. 

Ross Blum, who lives on Russell Street across from the cottage, charged that “with three spaces on the lot, there’s going to be more (cars) on the street,” and even more if parking fees are imposed on the BART lot. 

Geleynse depicted the project as a boon for the city, which would more than double the property taxes while removing urban blight and “adding three units of affordability with a block of BART.” 

The developer said he estimated that each of the units would sell for about half-a-million dollars. 

“Who is it that thinks this is an affordable home when you have to pay $500,000 for a condo?” scoffed ZAB member Jesse Anthony, who is African American. “Are they trying to drive us out of this town? Something is wrong when they say $500,000 is low-income. Puh-lease!” 

Critics in the audience applauded his comments. 

“The idea of demolishing this house is a very painful and unpleasant idea. It shouldn’t happen. It should be repaired and used as housing for a family,” said ZAB member Carrie Sprague. 

“There are no development standards for units in R-4,” lamented member David Blake. “It’s wide open.” But, he acknowledged, “by the spirit of the code, it fits the code and because it’s a corner lot, I don’t see how we’re going to change it.” 

Allen proposed delaying the vote until the developers submitted designs for an entry that was more in character with the existing structure, and Geleynse declared that he would do just that. 

Things got testy when chair Andy Katz said, “It’s really clear to me that the project falls within the inclusionary ordinance because it falls within the R-4 zone and it could support five units.” 

The inclusionary ordinance is a provision in state law that requires affordable housing units in all new developments of five of more units. 

Allen criticized Katz for raising the issue. “It’s politically motivated,” he declared. 

“It’s not motivated by anything other than meeting the goals of the General Plan and meeting the needs for affordable housing in this city,” Katz responded, adding that inclusionary standards would call for six-tenths of a unit—closer to a whole unit of affordable housing than not. 

Allen called Katz’s comments “counter to everything the neighbors have asked us to do. It’s really obscene.” 

“We know that we’re being cheated out of affordable units,” declared Anthony.  

But the conditional approval passed, with only Metzger and Allen in opposition. The rest said they felt bound by a code that clearly allowed the project to go forward.