Public Comment

Commentary: Better Places for TJ’s in Downtown Berkeley

By Stephen Wollmer
Friday December 08, 2006

On Thursday Dec. 14 Hudson McDonald’s Trader Joe’s project at 1885 University Ave. will come before the Zoning Adjustments Board for use permits. So far, the public controversy swirling about this project has missed the real issue: Hudson McDonald’s use of Trader Joe’s popularity as a wedge issue to extort “extra-legal” zoning concessions from our city.  

A mixed-use project with a Trader Joe’s, parking, and a cafe on the ground floor with three stories of housing (123-units) above is within city zoning and state law and requires no variances for approval. Indeed, neighbors are willing to work with the developer to configure a project of this size to minimize the traffic and parking impacts from Trader Joe’s. 

However Hudson McDonald demands that ZAB and the City Council approve a much larger building than our Zoning Ordinance permits or state law requires. According to Hudson McDonald a project with Trader Joe’s on the ground floor ‘needs’ the income from 25 additional market-rate residential units to compensate them for the fact that Trader Joe’s refuses to pay the full cost of their parking. To make up for Trader Joe’s below-cost rent, Hudson McDonald demands that ZAB issue them permits to build a five-story, 148-unit project. To build the this project requires three almost impossible to obtain variances from our zoning ordinance for a fifth story, for height greater than 50 feet and for a floor area ration (FAR) over 3.0. 

City staff and the city attorney are have been trying for months to connect the current project’s need for these variances with Hudson McDonald’s earlier affordable housing project, a project that could legitimately demand the same variances under state law to accommodate density bonus units. If ZAB approves these variances for the current project based on the earlier project’s protected status this project will be appealed to the City Council and, if necessary litigated, as this would constitute an abuse of discretion on the part of the city and be directly counter to state law’s requirement that density bonus units or incentives “shall contribute significantly to the economic feasibility of lower income housing in proposed housing developments.” (Government Code 65917) There is nothing in state density bonus law about making parking lots affordable for retail tenants and any court will look askance at the city’s use of a section of law written to produce affordable housing being hijacked to provide below-cost parking for a retail tenant.  

Granting additional market-rate residential units to a developer in order to bring a popular retail tenant to our city has no “cost” to the city. However, there would be other sorts of very real costs. The neighbors would be forced to live with a much larger project, the University/MLK intersection would descend further into gridlock, but worst of all this precedent would turn our zoning ordinance into a free-for-all of wheeling and dealing by every sharp actor in the development community. 

Contrast this “under the table” bribe to Hudson McDonald for bringing Trader Joe’s to Berkeley with the recent decision by San Jose to simply pay a rent subsidy of $2.8 million over 10 years to lure Trader Joe’s to a flagging mall (San Jose Mercury News, Aug. 18). I am not suggesting that Berkeley follow San Jose’s example, but at least their bribe was transparent and borne by the entire city, unlike Berkeley’s “creative” reading of our Zoning Ordinance and state law, which dumps all of the costs and impacts on our flatland neighborhood in perpetuity.  

If Berkeley wants a Trader Joe’s that is pedestrian- and transit-friendly, we should encourage them to consider the vacant Eddie Bauer/Gateway Computer storefronts at the corner of Allston Way and Shattuck Avenue, a space that is the same size as the MLK/University Avenue store and available today at $5,000 a month less rent. Unlike the MLK/University site, the Allston Way/Shattuck Avenue property really is downtown and between work and home for thousands of workers and students.  

By now I am sure you are wondering if a grocery store without a sea of parking surrounding it is feasible. Because of the existing transit and parking resources in downtown Berkeley I believe that Trader Joe’s could not only survive, but also thrive. There is no more “transit-centric” location in the East Bay than the two blocks along Shattuck Avenue between Allston and Addison, BART is less than 100 feet away and there are more than a dozen bus lines to every point in Berkeley within two blocks. But what about people with shopping carts filled with groceries? The 48 dedicated parking spaces at the MLK/University site can be replaced through metered street parking and/or validated parking at one of the four nearby lots; together with a dedicated pickup lane for a “valet cart” service where a Trader Joe’s attendant will take charge of your cart while you get your car and load your groceries when you return would make a dispersed parking model quite well and allow multi-stop shopping in downtown. Alternatively, Trader Joe’s offers a $4.95 delivery service for some of their urban stores, and at least for near-downtown residents this could be an attractive option. 

The creative re-use of a vacant storefront in the heart of downtown Berkeley’s transit crossroads is the environmentally preferable solution. Don’t let Hudson McDonald hold Trader Joe’s hostage. Write ZAB ( and the City Council ( asking them to deny Hudson McDonald’s current project, and then contact Trader Joe’s asking them to consider locating in downtown Berkeley. Call the Trader Joe’s head office at (626) 599-3700 or e-mail them through their website (  


Stephen Wollmer is a University Avenue neighborhood resident.