A parade of speakers marched to the podium at Thursday’s Zoning Adjustments Board, 22 praising a proposed development, and a dozen speaking in opposition.
The board took testimony during a session in which they were to advise developers about the height and mass of the planned five-story project at the northwest corner of the University Avenue/Martin Luther King Jr. Way intersection.
But rather that the building itself, many of the speakers reserved most of their adulation for the proposed ground floor tenant.
“A Trader Joe’s in a handsome building on University Avenue would greatly enhance our community,” said Calvin Ng, a Bonita Avenue resident.
“I totally support having a Trader Joe’s nearby,” said West Berkeley resident Verna Lim. “My roommate is sick of shopping at liquor stores.”
The German-owned supermarket chain, known for its cult-like following, currently has stores in Emeryville and El Cerrito where many of the speakers said they currently shop.
“We should start calling this the Trader Joe’s building,” ZAB member Bob Allen declared later in the meeting.
Trader Joe’s has signed a lease for ground floor space in the 1885 University Ave. project, contingent on an opening date by 2009, said developer Chris Hudson, who was accompanied by his partner, Evan McDonald.
The pair is best known in Berkeley for the projects they built for developer Patrick Kennedy, including the Gaia Building, a structure much on ZAB’s agenda of late.
The pair have split from Kennedy, and as part of the separation apparently retained the 1885 University Ave. project, which had been initially proposed under the umbrella of Kennedy’s Panoramic Interests.
Hudson opened the discussion with the declaration that the project had many supporters in the city, and launched into a presentation that focused initially on infill development—building on vacant or “underutilized” sites in urban communities—and the need for more such development in Berkeley.
Contending that the project, which had been redesigned with fewer (156 versus 186) and larger units than a version submitted earlier, Hudson said they addressed concerns of residents along Berkeley Way by removing four units along edge of the property on that street.
Opponents focused on both the building itself, which would still tower over their homes, and on the traffic impacts that would come from the Trader Joe’s parking lot, which features a single entrance and exit, accessible only from their residential street.
Attorney Rena Rickles, whose usual clients are developers, spoke for Steve Wollmer and Residents for a Liveable Berkeley Way.
“This is not about Trader Joe’s,” Rickles said. “It’s about the design that goes around Trader Joe’s.”
Noting that none of the pro-project speakers lived on Berkeley Way, Rickles said, “If you designed a building to have the worst impacts on the people living nearby, you couldn’t have done a better job.”
And design issues also prompted many of the questions raised by ZAB members.
Architect Bob Allen, considered one of the board members most favorably disposed to new projects, raised some of the harshest questions about “fatal flaws in this building that we need to address,” adding, “I don’t think there’s anything in state law
that says we have to approve inhumane or substandard units.”
Allen said “about 18 percent of the apartments look out at a blank wall 10 feet away” directly into the facing windows of other apartments across a 16-foot
courtyard. “That’s closer than I am to the two applicants.”
“This is absolutely unacceptable housing,” he said.
“Living conditions are terribly important,” said Jesse Anthony, who often votes with Allen and is himself head of the South Berkeley Neighborhood Development Council, a non-profit group planning an even larger development at the Ashby BART station.
Commenting on the current design, Anthony said, “They are tearing those buildings down back east, thank God. People know better now.”
“A lot of those units are going to be pretty miserable units,” agreed member Dave Blake.
Sara Shumer, the board’s newest member, shared their concern about the views, noting that more units could be in the same fix should hoped-for development occur on the western edge of the block along University.
Several members, including Chair Chris Tiedemann, said they favored shifting the mass of the building away from the residential street and more onto
University. “The more you can shift away from Berkeley Way the better,” she said.
Rick Judd, a board member who is also a land use attorney, said he wouldn’t mind seeing seven stories on University Avenue. But he did resent that the developers kept telling the board that if they didn’t like the new plans, they could always go back and build the 183-unit project previously proposed, one Allen had said reminded him of a prison.
“I feel this is set up to back me into a corner by holding the 183-unit project over my head like a club,” Judd said, adding later, “I need to know what levels of discretion we really have.”
Member Raudell Wilson seemed the most favorably disposed to the project, saying, “We all look forward to going to design review. They are bringing us affordable housing, and we get retail downtown.”
Still, Wilson said, he’d like to see the height along Berkeley Way reduced.
Blake said four floors was the most he’d accept along Berkeley Way.
Member Dean Metzger also called for a height reduction along Berkeley Way, and said he’d be willing to consider six stories along University.
Hudson said adding stories above five floors raised problems, because more expensive building techniques were required.
Allen said he didn’t like Trader Joe’s there either. “I would love a Trader Joe’s downtown, but this is the wrong location.”
He raised another question, based on Hudson McDonald’s most famous Berkeley collaboration.
“What if Trader Joe’s pulls a Gaia on us?,” Allen said, referring to the controversial building where the proposed major tenant—the Gaia Bookstore—never occupied the ground floor and mezzanine “cultural” space.
“We’re still talking about the Gaia Building when Gaia is long gone,” said Blake. The store went out of business before the building was finished.
Just where ZAB stands remains an issue. While Principal Planner and ZAB Secretary Debra Sanderson said the developers are entitled to the 183-unit project if the board fails to agree on their new plan, Allen said he wasn’t so sure.
The Gaia Building, which has been the subject of much discussion at ZAB meetings, was also on Tuesday’s agenda in the form of a report from Sanderson on last Tuesday City Council meeting.
Just what the council did or did not do remains a question, as does ZAB’s own role in overseeing the use of the building’s first two floors, the so-called cultural space that enabled Patrick Kennedy and Hudson McDonald to build a project with two more floors of apartments than city zoning would otherwise allow.
“The council adopted a motion that the Carol Barrett letter was valid,” Sanderson said, referring to a letter written by Anna de Leon and countersigned by Barrett, the city’s then-Planning Director, on June 6, 2003.
That letter included a section spelling out the proposed uses of the cultural space, declaring: “In the performance (theater) area, we will program performance use on 30 percent of the days of each month on average. In the remainder of the ground floor and mezzanine, we will program arts related activities fifteen days per month on average.”
Blake said he was mystified by the council’s action. “The problem wasn’t the Barrett letter,” he said. “The problem was (Deputy Planning Director) Wendy Cosin’s interpretation.”
“And the council said that was acceptable,” Sanderson said.
Under Cosin’s interpretation, the performance space can apparently be used for for-profit catering and other events for 70 percent of the time.
Another remaining question is whether or not the board still had a say in issuing a modified use permit for alterations that had taken place or were called for in the space.
“I am not clear about that,” said Sanderson.
Rejecting the request of neighbors and Landmarks Preservation Commissioner Carrie Olson, ZAB members vote to given their retroactive sanction to the demolition of the Victorian cottage at 2194 Sixth St.
Attorney John Gutierrez represented owner Gary Feiner, whose plans to convert two adjacent Victorians into duplexes stirred neighbors to create the Ocean View Sisterna Historic District, which the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) had designated in 2004.
“I come with a heavy heart,” said Olson, presenting the LPC’s request that the board withhold action until the landmarks commission could consider the issue at their upcoming meeting this Thursday.
“This is a new and unknown territory for us, a demolition,” she said, noting that demolitions were carried on the books as a misdemeanor criminal offense.
But Rempel and Gutierrez said the demolition was inadvertent, the action of an overzealous contractor who had acted to protect the safety of his work from the perils of an old roof.
Neighbor Jano Bogg also begged the board to delay acting, but members seemed to accept the developer’s explanations and concurred with Jesse Anthony, who said, “I’m not interested in punishment at this point.”
Members admonished Rempel to make sure that all of the stripped architectural detail was replaced in kind, and to repair windows which had been installed contrary to the approved plans.
The demolition was approved by a unanimous vote.
The board approved installation of a new carbon absorption system at Pacific Steel Casting at 1333 Second St., mandated as part of the settlement agreement designed to resolve the complaints of neighbors over bad odors emitted by the plant.
The board also approved a second story addition to a home at 1309 Carleton St. over the objections of two neighbors..