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Big Berkeley Projects Move Forward Slowly

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday November 28, 2006

While its musical form, an arpeggio, consists of the notes of a chord played in rapid succession, the progress of the Berkeley Arpeggio has been anything but speedy. 

And ditto for the still unspecified but equally controversial project proposed for western parking lot of the Ashby BART station. 

That less-than-apt Arpeggio moniker refers to the project once known as the Seagate Building, once hailed as the tallest building planned for downtown Berkeley since the Power Bar edifice hulked upwards at the corner of Shattuck Avenue and Center Street. 

A combination of bonuses granted for providing cultural space and setting aside some units for the less than affluent led city planning staff to declare that the building was entitled to 14 floors, nine more than the basic downtown maximum. 

That in turn triggered a review of the whole bonus process and a hastily enacted ordinance passed by the City Council which became void the day after the Nov. 7 election because Proposition 90 didn’t pass—a ballot initiative that would have hamstrung new regulations on development. 

Construction of the Arpeggio had once been slated to commence in September, but the only work to occur to date happened in June on the site on Center Street west of Shattuck that faces the new Berkeley City College building. 

Bulldozers and crews leveled the existing buildings on the site, with a company representative promising work would begin in August on the posh, 186,000-square-foot, nine-story condo complex. 

All that exists of the project today is an expanse of bare earth where excavating equipment will begin carving out a rectangle of earth to house the project’s 160-car, two-level underground parking lot. 

In addition to 149 luxury condos, the 2041-67 Center St. Arpeggio also would house a small amount of ground floor commercial space, a public art gallery plus the 9,000-square-foot full-time performance and rehearsal venue run by the non-profit Berkeley Repertory Theatre. 

The project was known originally as the Seagate Building after the name of the first developers—the company that also owns the Well Fargo tower immediately to the east—who bought the land and won the necessary permits from the city. 

That package was sold in May 2005 to SNK Captec Arpeggio, a limited liability corporation created by an Arizona development firm and a Michigan finance firm. Seagate retains an interest in the project. 

Construction of the college building stalled the project for fears that building two massive structures just across from each other on a narrow city street would overwhelm traffic in the area. 

Shortly after the purchase, project representative Darrell de Tienne said construction would start no later that July 2005.  

Then came the promise of September 2006. 

But City Planning Director Dan Marks said Monday the project is still working its way through the building permit process. “There are some issues still to be resolved,” he said. 

Meanwhile, the Seagate’s status as Berkeley’s tallest building project in decades has already been eclipsed, with the unveiling of plans by a Massachusetts developer to build a 19-story hotel and conference center at Center and Shattuck that would become the city’s tallest building—through still well short of the Campanile on the UC Berkeley campus.  


Ashby BART 

Another and possibly even denser project proposed for the main parking lot of the Ashby BART station appears to be stuck in legal limbo. 

Originally proposed as a project with more than 300 apartments built over ground floor commercial spaces, the project stalled after angry neighbors protested and the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) rejected in May a city-sponsored application for a $120,000 project planning grant. 

Meanwhile, the South Berkeley Neighborhood Development Council (SBNDC)—the city’s chosen oversight agency—had appointed a task force, partly in response to criticisms from worried neighbors. Mayor Tom Bates and Councilmember Max Anderson said they wanted to keep the task force in existence regardless of the outcome of the grant application. 

After CalTrans killed the original grant application, the City Council responded in July by coughing up $40,000 of its own funds to keep the task force going and to expand the suggested scope to include not only the lot but Adeline Street as well. 

Bates had suggested moving the weekend flea market that meets at the parking lot onto Adeline on the weekends and closing the street on those days—a notion later rejected in a city-funded traffic study. 

The task force was last scheduled to meet Oct. 3, but the meeting was called off by the city attorney’s office in response to questions from Task Force Co-chair John Selawsky and others about the legal status of the meetings in light of the Brown Act, which governs open meetings of government agencies. 

The main reasons for the legal questions revolve around the use of city’s funds and the task force’s role in formulating a proposal. 

“Lots of people had questions,” Selawsky said, “and you would think that the city attorney’s office could come up with the answers in two months.” 

Ed Church, the planning consultant hired by the SBNDC to shepherd the process, said he hadn’t heard anything new from the city since the request to call off the October meeting.  

“I’m still waiting to hear from them,” he said. 

So was the Daily Planet when deadline rolled around late Monday afternoon without a call back from the city attorney’s office.