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Zoning Board Approves Wright’s Garage Project

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Tuesday March 13, 2007

The Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board voted 6-3 to approve the controversial Wright’s Garage project at 2629-2635 Ashby Ave. on Thursday. 

Board members Jesse Arreguin, Dave Blake and Sara Shumer voted against the project, which had first appeared before the ZAB on Dec. 14. 

John Gordon had requested a use permit to convert the existing three-tenant commercial building (the Wright’s Garage building) into a four-to-seven-tenant commercial building and to change the uses to one restaurant, one exercise/dance studio and up to five retail spaces. 

In the past, some area residents had expressed concern that a large-scale full-service restaurant at the proposed building—currently zoned for a car repair shop—would add to the neighborhood parking and traffic problems. 

The building, which was bought and is being renovated by Gordon, is bordered on two sides by private homes.  

Gordon met with the Claremont-Elmwood Neighborhood Association, Willard Neighborhood Association, Bateman Neighborhood Association and the Elmwood Merchants Group to address concerns related to parking, noise and traffic. 

ZAB had asked city staff to work with the applicant to address parking concerns raised at previous meetings by area residents.  

Boardmember Blake told the Planet that this was probably the first time that a project had been approved without the city knowing the exact nature of the businesses it would be used for. 

Board co-chair Rick Judd said at the meeting that he appreciated the effort by Gordon to explain the uses, but that he would “like at least one use in the building that was not subject to quotas.” 

He added that he was unconvinced by the staff report which stated that the peak consumer parking for the Elmwood commercial district was during the day. 

Staff reported that neighborhood traffic would not be impacted by the new project. 

Judd said that the permit approval was subject to a condition where the applicant would have to show—through a survey—that he had established access to increased parking or accommodated the demand for parking. 

Blake called the project “unusual.”  

“What we are being asked to approve is a development agreement,” he said. “It foresees things in the future.” 

Blake said he took exception to the fact that city staff allowed postings on the Kitchen Democracy website, on which people can post opinions on city issues, to be used as evidence for neighborhood support for the project. 

“To resort to Kitchen Democracy is to give a poll on a website more credibility than public testimony,” Blake said. 

Kitchen Democracy—the brainchild of Elmwood residents Robert Vogel and Simona Carini—allows registered members to comment and vote on pertinent topics which often come up at the ZAB. The website currently has 1,741 members. It recorded 173 votes in favor of and 20 votes in opposition to the project as of Thursday. 

ZAB Chair Christiana Tiedemann spoke in favor of Kitchen Democracy at the meeting Thursday. 

“Generally people who oppose a project come to the meetings. At times members of the public have to stay late in order to comment and that is not always possible. As a board, if we listen only to those who speak at the meetings, we are not being democratic,” she said.  

Board member Shumer said that the website was not the alternative to public testimony. 

“Those who log on to Kitchen Democracy are a subset of the community,” she said. 

Judd added that the board needed help from the city attorney to figure out if Kitchen Democracy fits in as information to justify a finding. “We need to figure out how to handle this,” he said. 

City planning staff told the board that the city attorney had said that comments from the website were like any other forms of information that could be accessed, like media or similar forms. 

Board member Jesse Arreguin argued that city staff gave more weight to support for the project registered through the Kitchen Democracy website than to those who took the time to speak on the issue at the ZAB meeting. 

“This does not give credit to those who come here to give testimony,” he said. “An overwhelming amount of written testimony has shown opposition for the proposed project. Without having any specific knowledge of the tenants coming in there, we can get no idea of the specific impacts the project will bring. The proposed project is not in confirmation with the zoning in the district.” 

Board member Jesse Anthony voted in favor of the project and said criticism that parking is too scarce for the Gordon project is misguided. 

“When the merchants wanted customers in the Elmwood district, the city helped the theater to open there,” he said. “There will be stores opening in the neighborhood even after this project is built. It doesn’t make a lot of sense that only one person has to create parking. Everybody should create parking.” 

Board member Bob Allen said it he looked forward to having the property full of businesses. 

“We have a huge and wonderful opportunity in front of us,” he said. “This is the trigger that gets merchants organized to get the city lot behind the Wright’s Garage to handle special parking.” 


161 Panoramic Way 

The board voted 5-4 to approve a project at 161 Panoramic Way. Applicant Bruce Kelly had first applied on Jan. 11 for a use permit to construct a single-family residential structure with two off-street parking spaces on a 3,295 square foot lot. 

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. 

The Berkeley Fire Department had required there also be a fire access stairway from lower Panoramic Way, on the southern side of the property. 

City staff had 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 group of neighbors had opposed the construction, fearing that the building would be a threat to their health and safety because of the area’s poor access, potential fire hazard, and location on an earthquake fault. 

Board member Terry Doran supported the Kelly project. 

“The kinds of hazards put forward by the neighbors are real. But one more house on the block is not going to make the community more unsafe than they already are,” he said.  

ZAB members had asked the applicant to provide an arborist’s report at the hearing.  

A Feb. 16 report from Steve Batchelder, consulting arborist, said that the two Live Oak trees on the property “can be adequately protected and that the long term tree health can be assured through the proper implementation of the tree protection and health mitigation treatments recommended.” 

Arreguin opposed the project. 

“The applicant has not made a good faith effort to mitigate negative effects of the driveway by putting it on the north side of the property instead of the south side,” he said. 

Blake said that adding more homes on Panoramic Way was an irresponsibility. 

“The ridiculously narrow street combined with the dead-end frightens me,” he said. “Whatever the risk is, it’s the responsibility of the board not to increase it.” 

Tiedemann said that the board should not overlook the stairway the developer was going to put in. 

“If there is a fire, it will provide a great emergency access point,” she said.