Zoning Board Studies Panoramic Hill Development Proposal

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Tuesday February 27, 2007

A group of neighbors vociferously opposed the construction of a proposed new two-story single-family dwelling at 161 Panoramic Way during the Zoning Adjustments Board meeting Thursday. 

Applicant Bruce Kelly has applied for a use permit to construct the proposed building (The Kelly House) with 1,460 square feet of floor area, two parking spaces, at an average height of 24 feet, on a 3,295 square foot vacant lot. 

At the meeting he described the Kelly house as a small, sustainable and affordable design—“the kind of development that Berkeley should encourage.” 

Neighbors fear that the construction is a threat to their health and safety because of the area’s poor access, potential fire hazard, and location on an earthquake fault. 

The proposed project is located on one of the few remaining vacant lots in the Berkeley Panoramic Hill neighborhood—a residential area with a mixture of single-family and nonconforming multifamily development—southeast of the UC Berkeley campus which is characterized by steep slopes and substandard infrastructure.  

The neighborhood is bounded to the north and west by lands owned by UC Berkeley, to the south by the East Bay Regional Park District’s Claremont Canyon Preserve, and to the east by the Berkeley-Oakland Border. 

Jerry Watchell, president of the Panoramic Hill Association, opposed the Kelly project on behalf of the association. 

“It is located where the infrastructure is deteriorating and the road itself is collapsing. The area of the site is the worst of the worst possible on Panoramic Hill,” he said 

Panoramic Way—a narrow, winding street that begins at Canyon Road and ends at the top of Panoramic Hill in Oakland—provides the only access to the neighborhood and to the homes in the adjacent residential area in the city of Oakland. 

Access to the two parking spaces at the Kelly house will be from the upper portion of Panoramic Way via a driveway structure built in the right-of-way subject to city approval of a encroachment permit. Primary access to the living quarters will be via an uncovered at-grade stairway extending from the front (northern) property line along the eastern side of the building. 

The Fire Department is requiring that there also be a fire access stairway from lower Panoramic Way, on the southern side of the property. 

Staff has suggested that granting the applicant an encroachment permit to use the public right-of-way would be useful to the many residents who drive up and down the section of the street at the north end of the property. 

A resident of 260 Panoramic Way strenuously opposed the development and said that it would impede regular access and emergency access to properties on the hill.  

“Any delay can be fatal,” said Richard Wright of 350 Panoramic Way. “We are mainly concerned about the emergency preparedness and disaster issues.” 

In a letter to the ZAB, Ann Reid Slaby, a resident of 345 Panoramic Way, reminded board members about the 1991 fire. 

“The several hundred feet of Panoramic Way from the intersection with Dwight to 208 Panoramic is Berkeley’s Charring Cross Road. As you may recall, a number of individuals attempted to escape the fire of 1991 through a narrow road named Charring Cross Road in Oakland. My understanding is that one car stalled and all occupants of following cars burned to death,” her letter said. “Can’t we learn from the mistake of allowing such a narrow road? With all the warnings and education in the world, if there is a fire, some residents will try to escape in their cars.” 

Kelly told ZAB members that he proposed to widen the road in front of his house from 15 to 20 feet at his own expense. 

“This widened road falls in the public right-of-way and is essential to traffic safety on Panoramic Way. That is the giant step we can take to make things better. We are doing what we can to make the area safer for the neighborhood,” he said. 

“I don’t think anybody will disagree that the house adds to the dangerous conditions already existing in the area,” said ZAB commissioner Bob Allen. “However it will also do two things to make the area a safe haven. First, it will widen the street by seven or 8.6 feet which will improve the safety conditions. Secondly, the addition of the emergency stairs will also be a positive feature. I applaud the applicant on coming up with such a responsible design.” 

The ZAB has received letters calling for a moratorium on building on the hill, a decision ZAB members said could only be made by the City Council.  

Kelly further said that the coast live oak trees on his property would be preserved, thinned, and the “fire ladder”—a tree that can carry fire from the forest floor into the crowns of the larger trees that would otherwise survive a ground fire—eliminated by an arborist.  

Commissioner Dave Blake said that he would like to see an arborist’s report before commenting. 

The board ruled to continue the matter until March 8 in order to obtain an arborist’s report. 


Other matters 

ZAB approved a request for a use permit modification by the City of Berkeley Mental Health and Human Services to change the hours of operation of the Health and Human Services mobile crisis team at 2433 Channing Way from 11 a.m. to 10 a.m. and until 11 p.m. daily. 

The commission approved a request by Michael Nilmeyer of Nilmeyer/Nilmeyer Associates for a use permit to construct a 7,245 square foot concrete block warehouse building with associated office space at 1230 Fifth St. 

It approved a request by Christopher Witherspoon to convert a daycare center back to a single-family residence on a 6,105 square foot lot at 1226 Rose St. that already contains a single-family residence. 

The board approved a request by Ken Renworth and Catherine Crowley for a use permit to construct a new three-story single family home with 2,880 square feet of floor area and a detached hot tub at 43 Senior Ave.