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Neighbors Still Oppose University Avenue Project

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Tuesday November 14, 2006

Supporters and opponents of the proposed 148-unit Trader Joe’s Building on 1885 University Ave. turned out in full force at the Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) meeting on Thursday. 

The modified project had been returned to the ZAB after being approved by the Design Review Commission. 

Berkeley-based developers Evan McDonald and Chris Hudson asked the board to give preliminary consideration to a modified design that will allow construction of a mixed-use development with 14,390 square feet of retail, and 157 parking spaces in a two-level parking garage. 

ZAB asked city staff to come back with a detailed report on Nov. 27 outlining density bonus options and a traffic analysis as well as provide conditions for approval of the project.  

Residents opposed to the project asked how the city would apply the state’s affordable housing density bonus statute to the project and address issues related to traffic and building size.  

Neighbors have maintained that the building would stick out like a sore thumb in the neighborhood and create a parking nightmare in an already congested residential block. 

Developer Chris Hudson told the board that the revised project would provide 123,924 square feet of residential floor area and 14,390 square feet of commercial floor area and include 148 residential units and 22 Below Market Rate (BMR) units. 

Hudson added that with 22 affordable housing units the modified project with Trader Joe’s would provide the same proportion of affordable housing as the earlier-proposed 186-unit project. 

“This proportion is the same proportion required of all density bonus projects in the City of Berkeley,” Hudson said. “The staff and city attorney support this level of affordable housing as equitable and lawful and have confirmed that the density bonus required for a project with 22 affordable housing units is appropriate.”  

Steve Wollmer, who spoke on behalf of Neighbors for a Livable Berkeley Way, said that the 148-unit project was 7,000 square feet larger than the 186-unit project for which it was supposed to substitute. 

The principal question, Wollmer said, “is whether a city had the discretion to not only allow a substitute project, but a substitute that is significantly larger.” 

Board member Dave Blake called the staff’s declaration of the number of base units of the new project “fictitious.” Staff said that they’d rather not have the word “fictitious” used in describing the base units. 

Supporters of the project said that the project would result in a handsome building on a highly visible intersection which was blighted and reduce the number of daily car trips by a large margin. 

Tim Southwick, who has owned Toyota of Berkeley for the last 33 years, called the project a great opportunity to turn University Avenue into a street more like Solano Avenue because the development with a Trader Joe’s on the ground floor would help attract pedestrian traffic.  

“Don’t let Trader Joe’s disappear,” he said. 

Hudson also told the board that Peter Hillier, Berkeley’s assistant traffic engineer, had concluded that the traffic analyses on the project had been properly conducted and that the project, because of traffic signal upgrades, would not increase congestion.  

In a letter to ZAB, Regan Richardson, a resident of Berkeley Way, said that the 148-unit apartment building would “tower menacingly” over the other buildings in the neighborhood. 

“Are you all so dazzled by the prospect of food and liquor that you can’t make a rational decision to save Berkeley’s neighborhoods for future generations?” he asked. “This project is an elephant dressed up in a Trader Joe’s T-shirt uniform. And as everyone knows, an elephant sits wherever and destroys whatever it wants.” 

Despite neighbors’ insistence that the proposed entrance to Trader Joe’s be moved to the University Avenue side of the building, Hudson told the board that the driveway could only be located on Berkeley Way. According to Hillier, any other location for the entrance would increase traffic congestion. 

Berkeley resident Tom Hunt urged the board to keep the project within zoning limits and to enforce all the setbacks that were required. 

“We should adjust the projects according to zoning laws and not the zoning laws according to the projects,” he said. 

According to the project proposal, the driveway was on a portion of Berkeley Way zoned for commercial use. 

Hudson told board members that the project would not have any significant environmental impacts.  

“I would like to know whether there are other alternatives, and if it takes another month or two to do so, so be it,” said ZAB member Rick Judd.  

ZAB member Dean Metzger requested fuller details of the project, including areas of commercial space and usable open space. 

Berkeley resident Eric Dynamic said that he was opposed to bringing in a chain into the neighborhood that would further hamper revenue for local grocery stores.  

“Trader Joe’s is not interested in the future of Berkeley,” he said. 

Connie Hicks, CFO of KPFA Radio, located across Martin Luther King Jr. Way from the project, said parking would be a problem for the 60-plus employees and people who visited the radio station. 

“People are going to be irritated and this problem is going to be talked about on air all over the country,” he said.