South Berkeley’s Flying Cottage hit yet another patch of turbulence Thursday night, this time from members of the Zoning Adjustments Board.
Capped by an increasingly tattered collection of blue tarps, besmirched by gang graffiti and littered with trash and weeds, the remnants of an Edwardian cottage stacked atop a two-story plywood box have met with little favor over the past three years.
The structure at 3045 Shattuck Ave. was back on ZAB’s agenda after owner Christine Sun and her architect Andus Brandt opted to stop meeting with the city Design Review Committee (DRC), which had been demanding changes to Brandt’s design.
“A few years ago we started with proceedings, and now we’re dealing with design issues. No one on staff can recall a situation quite like this,” said city Principal Planner Debbie Sanderson.
Sanderson acknowledged that the staff report on the project to ZAB members “may have treated Design Review as the appellant,” noting that “this is the first time that staff have considered making a different decision than Design Review.”
While the staff had originally considered that the project should go back to the DRC, Sanderson said Deputy City Attorney Zach Cowan ruled that it couldn’t and that it should instead be referred to city staff alone.
“We came to the highly unusual conclusion to overturn Design Review and approve the design with additional changes,” she said. “Staff has recommended three changes and the decision is up to ZAB.”
Brandt opened with a shot across the bow of the DRC. “There seemed to be great confusion at DRC about its role.”
Noting that the original permit had been vacated, Brandt said that “if people really understood the many improvements” to the design, “they would think it was quite nice.”
But neither the five DRC members present for the meeting nor the well-organized neighborhood opponents agreed.
Brandt singled out one critic, declaring that he believed that some neighbors would have approved his latest design, “but they would only meet with the mediation of Robert Lauriston.”
When it came his time to speak, Lauriston called on ZAB members to uphold the June 16 DRC decision and reverse the staff conclusion that found the project in compliance. “I also want you to encourage Ms. Sun to negotiate with the neighbors,” he said.
Victoria Ortiz, who lives next door to the project at 3051 Shattuck Ave., told ZAB members that “for more than eight months she hasn’t bothered to remove the mouldering trash that has become a hazard and for more than eight months hasn’t bothered to cut the grass.”
Ortiz also said the structure “has seen a steady stream of homeless people and drug sellers,” and despite complaints to the city police and fire neighborhood liaisons, the structure is adorned with highly visible gang graffiti.
“Please require her to put forward a plan to fix the property,” Ortiz pleaded, noting that a July 4 grass fire on the property might have had disastrous consequences but for the prompt arrival of firefighters.
Neighbor Jennifer Elrod, who said she lives “32 feet from that monstrosity,” said Brandt had never contacted her to ask her opinions on the project.
“I support the DRC,” said Jack Appleyard, another neighbor. “It is important as a matter of principle and practice not to overturn the decision of DRC. It’s a signal to developers.”
Appleyard said he suspected that city staff might have responded different had the project not been in South Berkeley.
DRC Chair Burton Edwards said he was “disappointed in the staff report that recommended that you overturn the DRC decision,” noting that “the DRC comments were under-represented in the staff report.”
Edwards said that “because the building got to be larger than anyone expected, it needs to be a really good design to compensate. The purpose of the Design Review Committee is to get developers to make their buildings compatible with their neighbors. This isn’t.”
He also pointed out that the June DRC decision was reached on a unanimous vote.
Brandt acknowledged that the DRC process had resulted in a “much better looking building,” but said that because the size of the latest design had reduced the structure to less than 5,000 square feet, it was no longer the concern of DRC.
He then accused Lauriston of “character assassination,” saying that he and Sun didn’t want to limit who they could meet with. “The client specifically said she wanted to meet with the two immediate neighbors, but both refused to meet with me.”
After a long discussion, ZAB member David Blake recommended the creation of a subcommittee formed of a ZAB member and two DRC members to work with the developer on a compromise.
After a lengthy discussion, his proposal passed with only Dean Metzger voting no.
With Bob Allen as the ZAB representative and Burton Edwards and David Snippen representing the DRC, the panel is scheduled to report back to ZAB on Sept. 22.