Berkeley Landmarks Preservation commissioners raised new questions about the fate of a vacant West Berkeley warehouse Monday night, which is potentially bad news for developers.
Wareham Properties, a major developer of office/industrial space in Berkeley and throughout the Bay Area, wants to demolish the landmark structure at 740 Heinz Ave. and replace it with a five-story, 105,800-square-foot laboratory and manufacturing building.
It certainly didn’t help their case that Darrell de Tienne, who is developing the project for Wareham, failed to appear for the hearing. When he finally did show at 9:24 p.m., nearly two hours after the meeting began and after the hearing had closed, the commission basically ignored his presence.
The developer’s ears should have been burning by then, considering the criticisms and suspicions voiced earlier in the evening.
First to speak was John Shea, a resident of the adjacent live/work Durkee Building at 800 Heinz Ave., who questioned why city staff didn’t require a study of how the new structure, called the Garr Building, would overshadow their own landmark building.
LPC Chair Jill Korte joined in the call for shadow studies, adding “I really have a lot of questions.”
Light is a crucial issue for many of the painters and other artists who live in one of a dwindling number of affordable live/work buildings in Berkeley.
Korte noted that Wareham had avoided the need for shadow studies by changing a property line with other property they owned because the adjusted line had been shifted in relation to the 800 Heinz building in a way that eliminated the legal trigger requiring a shadow study.
City planning staffer Giselle Sorensen said the move was legal and not that unusual.
Commissioner Carrie Olson said she’d been approached by a member of the public who voiced concerns that the owner of the Copra Warehouse was unsure what was happening.
“People were very confused,” said LPC member Robert Johnson. “I was very surprised.”
Korte said she was particularly concerned that the fate of a Berkeley landmark had been discussed in private meetings with Mayor Tom Bates and the city attorney’s office before it was presented to the LPC, which had bestowed the designation.
The LPC chair asked, “Is there was some agreement that would put this development on a track that ruled out” a rigorous analysis under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)?”
“I just hope there is no backroom dealing going on,” Korte said. “I just don’t want to see a development agreement develop behind closed doors that will prevent this commission from looking at preservation alternatives.”
Indeed, Korte said she had so many questions that only a full CEQA environmental impact report could address them all. “As is, I couldn’t approve this project, not in the context of neighboring buildings that are landmarked, or of itself. This is frustrating.”
“This is one of the great industrial buildings still standing in Berkeley,” said Leslie Emmington, the commission’s most outspoken preservationist, calling the Garr’s existing structures “one of the irreplaceable assets of West Berkeley.”
Emmington said that “somebody at City Hall, or us preferably, should look for some creative help so we don’t demolish this building. Many buildings we’ve saved we’ve been told couldn’t be saved.”
“We’ve been bombarded since a year ago that this building was about to fall down,” LPC member Robert Johnson said. “We’ve been bombarded from one side, and now I’m kind of confused where the truth is.”
Johnson observed that the existing structure is seismically unsafe, built of unreinforced masonry incapable of meeting basic structural requirements without significant work. He also noted that building owner Kathleen Garr had signed an agreement with Darrell de Tienne and Richard Robbins to develop the property.
“The question is, what do we do with the demolition? The point is to ask for alternatives,” he said.
The LPC had appointed a committee to work with de Tienne on the project, “but it hasn’t met since last October because de Tienne didn’t like the way it was going,” said Korte.
Olson said she lacked confidence in the developer, “given my experience with this applicant.”
Sorensen said the commission “can’t take formal action to require an environmental review,” adding that the LPC’s concerns “are all legitimate questions.”
“Why can’t we just ask for alternatives without an EIR?” LPC member James Samuels asked.
“We have asked for alternatives, but there’s resistance in that direction,” said Korte.
“I certainly hope there hasn’t been any back-room dealing,” Commissioner Patricia Dacey said, adding that during the last LPC meeting on the project Garr was weeping. “She said she was frightened. It seemed to me she was afraid of Mr. de Tienne.”
“Something very strange is going on,” said Johnson.
In the end, the LPC voted to close the hearing and forward their concerns to city staff.
Sorensen said that when the commission takes up the project again, he “will strongly suggest to Mr. de Tienne that he appear.”
Reached at his San Francisco office Thursday afternoon, de Tienne said he shared the commission’s concerns about the shadow study and impacts and dismissed allegations that he may have intimidated Garr.
“I knew her husband, I know her and her children. I’ve walked her to her car. I don’t think I’ve intimidated her. That’s giving me a lot more credit than I deserve,” he said.
De Tienne said he was all for conducting a shadow study and hiring a consultant to look at the project’s impact on other buildings and landmarks in the area.
“I asked [Planning Director] Dan Marks if I should hire someone, but he said no, because it would entail conducting a peer review,” he said. “I then asked him if he could recommend someone, but I received no reply.
“It all goes back to [city] planning.”
Developer Roy Nee and his architect won high praise from the commission when they previewed his plans to renovate the Shattuck Hotel, perhaps the flagship of downtown landmarks.
Nee has teamed up with leading hotelier Starwood Hotels on a project that will transform the structure into a high-end hotel that will operate under the company’s Westin brand as the Berkeley Westin.
“This is a very wonderful project,” Samuels said. “It’s exciting that you’re doing it as a whole block.”
“I’m very excited about this project,” Korte said.
The commission voted to create an ad hoc subcommittee to work with Nee and his architect as the project develops.
Commissioners voiced skepticism and concerns about another project, the three-way shuffle that would move the landmarked Ellen Blood House at 2526 Durant Ave. and the John Woolley House at 2509 Haste St. to a third parcel just south of Peoples’ Park.
The moves would pave the way for major Telegraph area multi-story mixed use projects, one at Telegraph and Haste and the other at the site of the Blood House.
Commissioner Winkel described the shuffle as “an interlocking Rubik’s Cube,” and Korte said she didn’t see how the commission could take up each project separately, since each was completely dependent on the other.
The panel took no formal action.