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Trader Joe’s Project Moves to Design Review

By Suzanne La Barre
Tuesday June 27, 2006

A Trader Joe’s in downtown Berkeley is one step closer to reality, following a vote by the Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) Thursday.  

Charged with the task of deciding between two development proposals—one with a Trader Joe’s, the other without—board members voted 7-2 in favor of sending the grocery store plans along to the next phase of public review. The architectural components of the project, which is proposed for development at 1885 University Ave., move on to the Design Review Committee (DRC) for a vetting process. 

The proposed project involves two five-story buildings, 14,390 square feet of retail space, a two-level parking garage and 148 units of housing, of which 19 would accommodate low- and very low-income residents. 

The site, on a one-acre lot bounded by University, Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Berkeley Way, abuts commercial space and residences. 

Initially, Berkeley-based developers Evan McDonald and Chris Hudson floated a 186-unit mixed-use project with about 4,000 square-feet of retail and no Trader Joe’s. In prior meetings, board members branded that design scheme gravely flawed, predominantly due to the dearth of commercial space it contained. So McDonald and Hudson forged an alternative with 156 units and almost 14,000 square feet for a Trader Joe’s. 

ZAB has slowly been chipping away at that proposal, whittling the 156 units down to 148. On Thursday, the developers threatened to revive the 186-unit option if ZAB failed to get the ball rolling on the grocery store alternative. The project, in its various forms, has been in the works for multiple years, and Hudson said time is running out.  

“If we don’t move on to the DRC tonight, we’re not going to retain Trader Joe’s,” Hudson said Thursday. 

ZAB members Jesse Anthony, Rick Judd, Bob Allen, Raudel Wilson, Christiana Tiedemann, Andy Katz and Sara Shumer voted to send the 148-unit alternative to DRC along with the board members’ remarks. Members David Blake and Dean Metzger voted against it.  

Blake suggested a substitute motion that would have required the committee to consider chopping off 1,200 square feet, or about two units, from the project to appease Berkeley Way residents’ concerns about the project’s height. The motion failed 5-4.  

ZAB members generally agreed that the proposal as it stands for DRC review is far from perfect. 

“There are a lot of things that need to be tweaked,” said Tiedemann.  

The project’s density bonus, or the number of dwelling units developers can build over a base figure, is among the sticking points. McDonald and Hudson are asking for 25 units over what’s spelled out by state density bonus law. The extra units are necessary, they say, for the project to remain financially viable. 

That’s acceptable only if more affordable housing is the upshot, said board member Katz. Several other ZAB members similarly complained that the project does not offer enough low-income housing. 

Traffic, building mass and height were other bones of contention Thursday, but the board shunted them aside to focus on moving the project along.  

Board member Blake conceded plans for 1885 University Ave. still pose more questions than answers, but felt confident Thursday’s decision, complete with board comments, was a good point of departure for the DRC. 

He said, “That should be enough for Design Review to get to work.”