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ZAB Grants Permit Over Objections

By Suzanne La Barre
Tuesday April 11, 2006

Proposed development on San Pablo Avenue described by one resident as resembling “someone who squeezed into a pair of pants two sizes too small and is bursting at the seams” was narrowly granted a use permit by the Zoning Adjustments Board Thursday. 

The board approved a permit, 5-3 with one abstention, for developer Jim Hart, who plans to erect a five-story, 29,665-square-foot building with 30 condos—including six affordable units—and up to five commercial spaces at 1201 San Pablo Ave., at Harrison Street. 

The site, currently a vacant lot, was formerly used to sell Christmas trees. 

Additional features include an interior, open-air courtyard measuring approximately 20 feet by 103 feet that would provide pedestrian access to residential units, a rear 5-by-130-foot landscaped yard and a 38-space parking garage.  

On the heels of a rigorous 13-month design review process, many residents say they’re glad to see the lot developed. The proposed structure, they say, however, is simply too big.  

“This is a terrible site for a project of this scale,” said Terry Dillon, who lives in the neighborhood, predominantly comprised of one- and two-story homes, in addition to commercial properties, including an auto shop and a Church’s Chicken fast food restaurant on the opposite side of San Pablo. The area is zoned for commercial structures. 

Residents also complained about projected parking problems brought on by 30-plus new neighbors and shop visitors. 

To offset parking shortages, architect Don Mill will install 34 of the 38 spots as electronic lifts, which will stack cars on top of each other. Resident John Arnold fears tenants will park on the street anyway,  

“The lifts are a great solution but they’re inconvenient and residents won’t use them until parking on the street is inconvenient,” he said. 

Traffic congestion was an additional concern. A report prepared by the Oakland-based traffic consultant Dowling Associates found that the proposed development would generate an extra 426 vehicle trips a day, invariably increasing traffic and parking demands. 

However, congestion at studied intersections—San Pablo at Gilman Street and San Pablo at Harrison—would not be “unacceptable,” the report says. 

Many residents begged to differ, insisting that traffic will affect nearby side streets like Stannage Avenue and Kains Street, both north of San Pablo. 

Others worry that the building will set a standard for large-scale development in the San Pablo corridor. The proposed structure on San Pablo is only the second mixed-use housing development proposed in the area. A similar building, under construction at 1406 San Pablo, is three stories tall. 

“This giant building, I feel, is going to set a precedent on San Pablo,” said Susan Cohen. “I think it’s really going to change the nature of the neighborhood and I’m concerned it’s going to turn into something much less pleasant.” 

Resistance to the project is not unanimous, though. 

“Now this vacant lot is going to be a well-designed building, a place that I think will encourage more small businesses,” said Steven Donaldson. Five or six individuals living in the neighborhood share his sentiment, he said in a correspondence to the board last year. 

Some board members who voted in favor of the use permit agreed with residents’ opposition to the project, but could not find grounds on which to reject the proposal.  

“The density is too much for the neighborhood, but we’re not the planning commission, it’s simply not our role to say that,” said board member Bob Allen. “I’m going to have to support the project knowing I’m going to lose some friends in the audience.” 

Allen joined with Jesse Anthony, Rick Judd, Christiana Tiedemann and Peter Levitt in favor of granting a use permit. David Blake, Carrie Sprague and Dean Metzger opposed the project. Andy Katz abstained. 

Opponents have 14 days after the board mails its official decision to appeal to the Berkeley City Council. 

Resident Erika Lamm said neighbors plan to file an appeal.