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New Arpeggio Design Disappoints DRC

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday March 20, 2007

The Arpeggio—known in an earlier incarnation as the Seagate Building—will soon soar 120 feet into the Center Street skyline, its developers told a city panel last week. 

But members of the Design Review Committee (DRC) said they want to see a little more elegance first. 

The structure—which will house nine stories of housing (including a loft level on the penthouse floor)—was granted the unprecedented height in exchange for adding low-cost condos among its 143 units and for creating rehearsal and office space for the Berkeley Repertory Theater on the ground floor. 

The front half of the ground floor will feature retail shops and separate lobbies for the theater area and condos, as well as a mid-block passageway and public art gallery connecting Center and Addison streets. 

The building will start to rise on the now-vacant lots at 2041-67 Center St. shortly after the final approvals are given. 

“This is a reintroduction of a wonderful project after two years,” said Don Peterson, executive vice president of Phoenix-based SNK Development. “We have devoted considerable thought and resources, and the building is now fully designed and engineered. We hope it matches your expectations.” 

But the DRC, the Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) panel that sets standards for the appearance of Berkeley buildings, had expectations of their own, and by the time the dust settled Thursday night, SNK was headed back to the drawing board—though the changes required were more matters of form than substance. 

“This project was given an unusually enthusiastic report from this committee based on the quality of what we saw ... and I am not willing to allow anything to be degraded,” said DRC member and architect Burton Edwards. 

Objections didn’t focus on the size of the building, which has already been approved by ZAB, but on design specifics, ranging from the finish of the ground floor storefronts to the detailing of the finish of the penthouse level. 

Carrie Olson, the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s representative to DRC, said she was amazed that the building’s potentially unobstructed views of the bay from the upper five floors had been restricted to glimpses from small windows. 

“These are the narrowest windows I’ve ever seen facing west,” she said. “You apparently aren’t aware that in Berkeley, people pay for views.” 

“We can’t put in more glass,” said Sam Nunes, one of the architects who worked on the project, who said construction details restricted the size of windows on restricted the size of windows on the building’s east and west sides. 

Edwards and fellow architect Bob Allen, a ZAB member and DRC chair, were concerned about changes in the design of the ground floor storefronts from the original plans developed by Seagate Properties, Inc. 

“The storefronts are the most unsuccessful part of you design,” Allen told architect Sam Wright. “The original storefronts were elegant.” 

“We threatened Darrell on the storefronts,” said Edwards, referring to Darrell de Tienne, who represented Seagate when the building was approved by DRC in its earlier incarnation. “We told him he couldn’t change anything.” 

“From the second floor down, this is a very undistinguished building,” said Allen. “From the second floor up, it’s nicely proportioned and detailed, but the ground floor is ho-hum.” 

Wright promised revisions. “It’s easy for us,” he said. 

Members also raised questions about the new roof line, which is slightly recessed at the eastern and western ends compared to the old design, and Olson faulted the penthouse loft designs because the spaces were open and partly visible from the floor below. 

ZAB member Dave Blake said he was concerned because the architects hadn’t provided any renderings of what the eastern and western faces of the building would look like. 

He said he was also concerned that the building had received twice the allotted cultural density bonus normally allowed because Seagate had merged two lots, using the bonuses from each. 

“I’m not convinced yet. We were told this was going to be the finest building in downtown Berkeley,” he said. “This is a modification of a permit, and it’s got to be every bit as good as the original permit.’ 

Rob Ludlow, another DRC member with an architect’s license, said the latest design “has lost the Art Deco elegance it had before,” especially given the width of the base separating the top of the concrete ground floor shell from steel framework of the upper floors. 

“With the exception of the ground floor, I like it,” said Allen. “There are some aspects that are a little more refined than the previous building ... what you’ve got is very nice, but please work on the ground floor.” 

Nunes said the changes were necessary to accommodate the thick concrete slab needed to support the steel-framed upper floors, as well as ducts for the heating, ventilation and air conditioning ducts. 

“We’re asking for a little bit of latitude,” he said. 

“We’re asking for something as elegant,” Allen replied. 

The developer and his architects could return as early as next month with revisions. 

SNK is a major developer of so-called infill housing and has projects in Emeryville and Oakland, as well as the Arpeggio. 

They bought the property from Seagate, which also owns the 12-story Wells Fargo building at the eastern end of the block, in May 2005.  

Under terms of the cultural bonus approved by the Civic Arts Commission, Berkeley Rep must allow other community groups to use its rehearsal stage to for their performances. 

Once finished, the Arpeggio will become the tallest new building erected in Berkeley in decades, though it will soon be eclipsed by the even taller Berkeley Charles Hotel planned for a site a block to the east at the northeast corner of the intersection of Center Street and Shattuck Avenue. 

That building, expected to rise to 21 floors, is being built by a Massachusetts hotelier picked by UC Berkeley to create a new venue for parents and dignitaries visiting the nearby campus.