ZAB Passes Big West Berkeley Project on Brennan’s Site

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Tuesday March 27, 2007

The Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board approved a mixed-use project at 700 University Ave. Thursday. 

Applicant Urban Housing Group/Essex Property Trust of San Mateo had requested a use permit to 1) demolish Celia’s Restaurant and Brennan’s Restaurant buildings along Fourth Street; 2) construct a mixed-use development with 171 dwelling units (31 below-market), 9,995 square feet of new commercial floor area and 213 vehicle parking spaces; and 3) rehabilitate and reuse the former Southern Pacific train depot—a city landmark—as the new location for Brennan’s. 

The applicant first applied for a permit on June 17, 2004, and has appeared before numerous Design Review Commission (DRC), West Berkeley Project Area Committee (WBPAC) and ZAB meetings since then. 

The approximately two-acre site of the proposed project is located within a designated commercial node in the West Berkeley Plan, and is bounded by an elevated portion of University Avenue on the north, Addison Street on the south, Fourth Street on the east, and the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks on the west. It is surrounded by older industrial and commercial buildings and some single-family residences. Currently, the Read Building mixed-use project is under construction along Fourth Street.  

The Aquatic Park Connection Streetscape Improvement Project—which includes streetscape improvements along Fourth and Addison streets adjacent to the project—is being planned by the Berkeley Redevelopment Agency to connect the Fourth Street retail area to the city’s facilities at Aquatic Park, the Marina and Eastshore State Park.  

The West Berkeley Shellmound, which was designated as a city of Berkeley landmark in 2000, “includes several parcels and portions of the public right-of-way to the north of the project site,” according to a Planning Department staff report. 

“I support Brennan’s moving into a historic building,” testified Elizabeth Wade, daughter of Brennan’s founder John Brennan. “I am comfortable with the project and the parking. I look forward to 171 new residents who will be like a breath of fresh air.”  

“700 University will be an asset to the community,” said Dave Johnson, of Christiani Johnson Architects in San Francisco, the firm responsible for the project design. 

“It will eliminate an unattractive parking lot and focus on two historic institutions—Brennan’s and the train station. It will build two new public plazas and provide a gateway to Berkeley from the University Avenue exit and a gateway to Aquatic Park from West Berkeley. The project provides development as well as shopping opportunities and new jobs for everybody,” he said. 

Johnson stressed that the new design created a direct view of the former railroad station, which was constructed in 1913 and landmarked in 2001. 

Area residents had been concerned in the past about potential impacts on archeological and historic resources, and about building height, massing and design as well as noise, traffic and parking.  

The applicant told the board that traffic caused by the development would be mitigated by a fair-share payment of $10,600 toward the cost of a new signal at Fourth Street and Hearst Avenue. 

Nick Samuelson, landscape architect for the project, said that the materials used for landscaping would complement the eclectic nature of the project. “The restoration will help to bring together the old and the new,” he said. 

Board member Terry Doran, a former school board member and teacher, asked if the 31 below-market dwelling units would be offered to city and school district employees before they were offered to the general public. 

“It is important that civil employees live in the city,” he said. The applicant remarked that a strategy would be developed to inform school employees during the pre-leasing phase. 

Board member Dave Blake said that the project was a residential project in an important commercial zone which would only add 20 percent commercial space. 

“I lament that the project is not adding any significant retail space,” he said. “I think it’s a bad use of the zoning area.” 

“When the project first came into the news, I couldn’t picture a project I could support,” said board member Bob Allen. “But I was blown away at the Design Review Commission. This is the best Berkeley could have ever seen. This is one of the few residential projects we have seen that has usable open space. It will be a wildly successful development.” 

Board member Jesse Arreguin said that he did not support the project because it was not adding to the commercial vitality of Fourth Street or providing affordable housing for families. 

“There is a need in Berkeley for affordable housing and that means three bedrooms, not one or two,” added board member Sara Shumer. 

“Yes, we do need housing for people with children in Berkeley. I hope developers stop thinking about making money and wake up to that,” said board member Jesse Anthony. “I am going with this project this time, but I am not going to go anymore.” 

Board member Michael Alvarez-Cohen remarked that he was surprised by the lack of neighborhood opposition. 

“On the other hand, the neighbors and the city are for it,” he said. 

ZAB Chair Christiana Tiedemann said that more neighborhood opposition was usually seen in the case of larger retail use projects. 

The zoning board also approved the following: 

• Request for a use permit modification by Rachel Hamilton, which allows the construction of a new single-family residence, to include the expansion of an exterior third deck, and the reconfiguration of the adjoining stairs, which encroach into the required side yard along the south property line, as well as the construction of several keystone retaining walls within the front yard at 1231 Grizzly Peak Blvd. 

• Request for an administrative use permit by Kathryn Rogers and Debbie Kim, Sogno Design Group of Albany, to convert an existing duplex to a single-family dwelling and construct a new 608-square-foot accessory building with one garage parking space and habitable home office space at 2224 Roosevelt. 

• Request for a use permit modification by Berkeley Bowl Produce to modify approved plans for a “full-service grocery marketplace,” including increasing building footprint, changing configuration of retail and storage areas, and changing parking layout, without creating any new traffic or other environmental impacts at 920 Heinz. 

• Request for a use permit by Philip J. Anderson to legalize an existing 1,036-square-foot dwelling unit at the rear of a commercial building on a 8,000-square-foot lot with 6 parking spaces, thereby creating a mixed-use development at 2948 Sacramento St. 

• Request for a use permit by Lorin Hill to convert a portion (63 square feet) of an attic to habitable use by increasing the ceiling clearance with a dormer-style “pop-out,” and reconfiguring windows at the upper story; to horizontally expand an attached garage that encroaches into a required side yard setback; and to demolish a carport in the front yard setback at 6 Nogales St. 

• Request for a use permit by Carol L. Cooper to establish a pet grooming use with an outdoor use component at 1442 Sixth St. 

The board continued the appeal of a administrative use permit to construct a 1,434-square-foot addition, via raising the existing structure approximately six feet to create habitable space on the ground level, and by expanding the footprint of the building, thereby creating a two-story, west wing appendage to the building at 2008 Virginia. 

Applicant Meskerem Tsegaye withdrew her request for a use permit modification to increase alcohol service at the Ethiopia Restaurant, at 2953-2955 Telegraph, by adding service of distilled spirits to existing service of beer and wine, and by increasing operating hours.