A $61 million project that will combine housing for the most disadvantaged, an environmental center, retail and underground parking got a set of approvals Tuesday, bringing the Oxford Plaza and David Brower Center proposed for Oxford Street and Allston Way closer to reality. The project was before both the Berkeley Redevelopment Agency and the Berkeley City Council, two bodies composed of the same elected councilmembers.
Strong objections came not from opponents of the project, but from members of the public, who lambasted city officials for shutting them out of the process, though Councilmember Betty Olds opposed its funding and development in parallel 8-1 Redevelopment Agency and City Council votes.
At issue at the 5:30 p.m. Redevelopment Agency meeting was adding $1.5 million of funds which the agency administers to the $32 million housing component of the Brower project. When they met later in the evening as the City Council, the body was asked to approve the next step in negotiations with the project developers.
“Last week was Sunshine Week, but we didn’t have a ray,” said Berkeley resident Merilee Mitchell, speaking during the Redevelopment Agency public comment period. Mitchell was referencing the week of March 13, where open government was honored nationwide.
Mitchell was decrying the public’s lack of access to the staff report explaining the project’s use of the redevelopment funds, which was posted on the city website only late Monday morning. Councilmembers got copies of the report at about 5 p.m. Friday evening. Other reports to be discussed at the Tuesday evening meeting were distributed to the council and public last Thursday.
“I believe it should not be slipped through the cracks. It’s a very important issue and needs discussion,” Mitchell said.
“It’s outrageous not to be able to look at the report more carefully,” added resident Doug Buckwald, also speaking during the comment period.
The housing funds would come from the West Berkeley Redevelopment Project, which is why the issue had to come first to the Redevelopment Agency. The question before the body was whether funds for the Oxford Plaza housing should come from the WBRP’s housing funds, which by law can be used to pay for low-income housing anywhere in the city.
The West Berkeley Redevelopment Area is monitored by a committee, whose members said they had been left out of the process. “It should come before the PAC [Project Area Committee] first,” said Susan Libby, a member of the committee, speaking at the public comment portion of the Redevelopment Agency meeting. “It’s a matter of sunshine. People should be informed.”
Olds agreed: “They say it’s beneficial to the project area. Don’t they have a right to say yea or nay?”
Housing Director Stephen Barton explained, however, that the project area committee oversees only projects in West Berkeley.
In a phone interview Thursday, Libby said, speaking for herself, she understood that the city legally is not required to ask the opinion of the West Berkeley Project Area Committee when it spends redevelopment funds for housing. Nevertheless, she said, it would have been good for the city to ask the committee. “We are the arm that gets public input,” she said, noting that she would have preferred that the housing funds be spent closer to the project area.
Discussing the substance of the project, Mayor Tom Bates complimented Barton on putting together “one of the most incredibly complicated projects” he’d seen. The Oxford Plaza will combine 96 units of extremely low to very low income housing with retail, including a restaurant, meeting space and the David Brower Center, a facility, according to the David Brower Center web site, “designated to inspire and nurture current generations of activists and to build a foundation for future generations.”
While Councilmember Gordon Wozniak voted in favor of the project, he said he feared that it was so complex, with a
variety of funders and owners, that it could fall apart or that the price could increase before construction is complete. “Is this too big?” he asked. “It’s like the dinosaur dying on your front lawn. We may have to haul it away.”
Voting against the project, Olds said she did not want to run the financial risk of such a complex project. “We’re putting too many eggs in one basket,” she said, adding that the housing project, which provides units with one, two and three bedrooms, would not be good for people with children: “They don’t have a good place for kids to play. There’s no shopping,” she said, noting that using the housing funds for this project means that they cannot be used elsewhere.