Neighbors Confront Developers over Project Proposal By Richard Brenneman

Friday February 17, 2006

A big five-story building is going up at the northwest corner of University Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Way and there’s nothing neighbors can do to stop it. 

That’s the one thing 50 or so of them learned Monday night in a packed meeting room at the Lutheran Church of the Cross a block to the west of the project site. 

“They’re going to play hardball,” said Steve Wollmer of Neighbors for a Livable Berkeley Way, a group formed in response to the project. Wollmer is also the principal figure in PlanBerkeley.org, a group which has been active on development issues along the University Avenue and San Pablo Avenue corridors and which has posted project plans on their website. 

Should critics kill the current project, the developers say they’re already entitled to build something even bigger and denser—and without the sweetener awaited by lots of folks in Berkeley. 

The incentive offered by developers Chris Hudson and Evan McDonald is Trader Joe’s, the eccentric and eclectic market that’s as much a cult as it is a store, and the source of potentially lucrative sales taxes. 

The home of “Two Buck Chuck”—that popular and inexpensive red wine that even some ardent oenophiles admit to tippling—and countless gourmet oddities and delicacies, Trader Joe’s has spawned a zealous following in 20 states from coast to coast. 

With the closest outlets at the Powell Street Plaza in Emeryville and at El Cerrito Plaza, the prospect of the popular “T.J.’s” opening in Berkeley has many locals salivating. 

Not that there’s a done deal. 

“There’s lots of interest in Trader Joe’s,” said Nancy Holland, an aide to City Councilmember Dona Spring. “However we have had these other projects where interesting retail was proposed but never appeared.” 

What guarantee was there that the market would actually occupy the space? 

“We have a lease,” said Hudson. “It requires a signature, and that will probably happen next month. But if it doesn’t happen by a certain time, it would go away.” 

“Will Trader Joe’s be at ZAB to answer questions?” asked Holland. 

“I doubt it,” said Hudson. “We’ll be Trader Joe’s representative.” 

And Trader Joe’s will come to University Avenue and MLK if and only if the city O.K.s the project according to the store’s timeline, the developers told the attendees at Monday’s gathering. 

The subject of the market also came up at Wednesday night’s meeting of the city’s Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee. 

Dave Fogarty, community development project coordinator for Berkeley’s Economic Development Department, said that no major grocery store was likely to locate in downtown Berkeley because rents are too high. Shopping centers frequently give major markets space at discounts simply to draw the traffic they bring, he said. 

Trader Joe’s, he said, “is the best grocery store that is likely to locate in downtown Berkeley.” 


Size and shadows 

Neighbors said they were also worried about the size of the building itself and the shadows it will cast, both literally and esthetically, on the adjacent neighborhood of single-family homes. 

The plans that will be presented to the Zoning Adjustments Board next month include 48 parking spaces for the store—twice the city’s requirement—all on the ground floor in an enclosed lot accessible only from Berkeley Way, the residential street that runs parallel to and north of University. 

And neighbors are worried about the traffic the store will generate from shoppers driving into and exiting the store’s parking lot from a residential street, as well as the impact from other shoppers who troll for the already scarce parking spots on the street. 

To accommodate the cars of residents, the building will also provide a level of underground parking with 110 spaces, some of them provide by the electric lifts that were the signature devices of the buildings the pair constructed for Patrick Kennedy. 

The underground lot will be accessible only from University Avenue via an entrance to the west of the truck access to Trader Joe’s. 

Asked about providing spaces for fewer cars than the number of apartments, Hudson said, “We are confident they will more than meet the demand. Apartment dwellers have fewer cars” than homeowners. 

Concerned that the mass of the building would overpower their one- and two-story homes on Berkeley Way, neighbors like Tom Hunt had asked that Hudson-McDonald build in the rear of the structure in tiers or steps, but the entire project ranges from 50 feet high to 55 feet at the midline of the structure along Berkeley Way. 

“Are you locked in at five stories?” asked an audience member. 

“It doesn’t meet the zoning,” said Wollmer. It’s going in under a super-duper exemption devised by the Planning Department because it is 30 units less than their original proposal. Even though it is higher, it is less intense.” 

The residential part of the structure—basically, everything above the ground floor—will offer 156 apartments, including 70 percent with one bedroom and the rest, except for four studios, with two. 

Unit sizes will range from 600 square feet to 850. 

The original version, said Hudson, was 186 units with only 4,000 square feet of retail and less parking. “It was deemed complete, and we believe that under state law is has to be approved as it stands. This is an alternate plan, and if this project is not accepted, we would go back to the 186 unit building that is grandfathered in.” 

“ZAB has recommended that the staff disapprove the project,” added Wollmer. 

ZAB member Jesse Anthony had no kind words for the original project when the board looked at it late last year. 

“Some buildings make you happy to see them,” Anthony said. But as for the original design, “Put bars on it, and it looks like a prison,” he said. “To me, it looks like San Quentin. It’s an indecent building. It just looks terrible.” 

Several neighbors did say the new design looks better. 

But the shadows cast by the big housing box are causing neighbors a lot of anxiety. 

“You have a big, substantive problem with this building,” said Rob Browning. “It throws year-long shadows on properties across the street, and that is simply not acceptable. Something has to give along the north wall, because an enormous quantity of shade is thrown on small scale properties for much of the year.” 

But Hudson said the design fit within the allowable construction envelope. 

Neighbors brought up the shadows several times during the course of the evening, but the developers repeatedly said the effects wouldn’t be so bad, and then only at their maximum extent during the solstice and equinoxes. 

The neighbors weren’t convinced. 


Other questions 

Merilee Mitchell and John McBride, Berkeley residents who frequently attend land use meetings, targeted their questions at the tenants’ cars. 

Mitchell suggested that the developers could reduce parking demand even more by offering tenants passes for BART and buses. 

“Put all that together and you could probably cut your spending on parking and still make your costs,” Mitchell said. 

Hudson said they had originally planned to offer fewer parking spaces, but upped the number in response to neighbors who feared residents would wind up parking on the streets. As it is, residents will have to pay extra if they plan to use one of the building’s spaces. He added that they do plan to participate in the city’s car share program. 

McBride asked the developers to commit to the city that their tenants wouldn’t be able to apply for residential preferred parking stickers, city-issued permits that allow for extended street parking beyond the normal two-hour limits imposed in most residential districts. 

“We’ve agreed to do that” in other projects, McDonald said, but not in this one. 

“We’ve already looked into that,” said Wollmer. “They’re going to play hardball.” 

At the end of the meeting, the developers thanked the neighbors for their comments. “We’ll look at what we can do,” said McDonald. 

Wollmer shrugged. “ZAB wanted us to have this meeting, but they (the developers) are going to do what they want to do.” 

The developers and critics did agree on one point. The project on 1885 University Ave. is probably the last of its kind along the heavily traveled thoroughfare. 

Limits on size in the University Avenue Strategic Plan, which was passed after the project was first proposed to the city, would preclude anything as massive in the future—and the developers say the plan may have effectively killed infill development along the corridor..