Impact of West Berkeley Condos Questioned By RICHARD BRENNEMAN

Tuesday October 11, 2005

Citizens concerned about the impacts of a proposed 173-unit condominium project planned for 700 University Ave. will have a chance to raise their questions Thursday afternoon. 

That’s when the city of Berkeley’s Planning Department will hold a 4 to 6 p.m. scoping session in their second floor conference room at 2118 Milvia St. to help prepare an environmental impact report (EIR) on the project. 

Urban Housing Group (UHG), a San Mateo firm which specializes in development of mixed-use residential and commercial projects at urban transit hubs, wants to tear down the buildings housing Brennan’s Restaurant and Celia’s Mexican Restaurant to make way for two four- and five-story buildings featuring housing built atop ground floor commercial spaces. 

The project site includes the block bounded by Fourth Street on the east and the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks on the west between Addison Street and University Avenue. 

If all goes as planned, Brennan’s would move into the landmarked railroad station at the northwest corner of the lot—although a notice recently on display inside the pub said that “Brennan’s has not had any negotiations with UHG to decide the future of our building and our business.” 

While Brennan’s has several years remaining on its lease, Celia’s is renting on a month-by-month basis, said manager Carlos Robles, who has been with the restaurant since it first opened in West Berkeley in 1977. 

While Celia’s has opened a new restaurant in Hayward, Robles said the owner is looking for a new location in Berkeley. In the interim, the Mexican eatery continues serve its loyal customers at their present location at 2040 Fourth St. 

UHG is a subsidiary of Marcus and Millichap Co., a leading national real estate investment brokerage. Chair George M. Marcus is a member of the University of California Board of Regents and an advisor to the Haas Real Estate Group of UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. 

The project generated opposition from Berkeley preservationists, leading to applications by Gale Garcia to give landmark protections to both restaurant buildings. Berkeley’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) awarded structure of merit status to the Celia’s building, a decision later overturned by the City Council. 

But a pair of recent California appellate court decisions have held that recognition of a building’s historical merit by an expert body like the LPC, even though later overturned by a higher, non-expert body like the City Council, is sufficient to require a full environmental impact report when a project calls for demolition of the building. 

Another set of objections which had focused on the possibility that archaeological remains from the leveled West Berkeley shellmound might be present on the site were dismissed after soil core samples showed no evidence of artifacts or human remains. 

As currently planned, the project will consist of two buildings, a smaller one on the north end of the property running between Fourth Street and a parking lot for the railroad station and a larger structure at the southern end running the full width of the property between Fourth Street and the tracks. 

The smaller building would contain 60 residential units over ground floor commercial and parking, while the larger building would house 113 residential units with no retail. The project calls for 31 of the units to be marketed at so-called affordable rates. 

In addition, plans call for 214 parking spaces for cars and 24 spaces for bicycles. 

Thursday’s scoping session will gather public comments to be used in determining the full scope of the EIR. 

For those unable to attend the meeting, the city will also take written comments through next Monday. They should be addressed to City of Berkeley, Current Planning, Attention: Greg Powell, 2118 Milvia St., Berkeley 94704. 

The city’s initial study on the project can be found on the Internet at www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/planning. 

That document identified seven different areas where the project could have significant impacts, including aesthetics, air quality, cultural resources, geology and soils, hazards and hazardous material, hydrology and water quality, land use and planning, noise and transportation/traffic.?