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‘Trader Joe’s Building’ Plan Wins Council Approval

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday July 20, 2007

After repeated public hearings before the Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB), the 1885 University Ave. project—which promises to bring Trader Joe’s to Berkeley—won a 5-3 victory at Council Monday night. 

More than 100 people crowded into the Berkeley City Council Chambers, many of them taking sides in the debate over the controversial five-story project planned for the corner of University and Martin Luther King Jr. Way. The plan includes 148 apartments, 14,390 square feet of retail space, 109 tenant and 48 commercial parking spaces and two truck-loading spaces. 

Steve Wollmer, who appealed the project to the City Council after ZAB approved it in December, said that he was considering options to sue the city on the basis of City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque’s interpretation of state density bonus law, which grants developers the ability to exceed zoning limits. 

Albuquerque told the council that the state does not prohibit a city from granting unlimited additional density bonus units or waiving any development standards for siting of affordable housing projects that meet social needs. 

Opponents argued that this sets a “dangerous precedent,” allowing developers to come into Berkeley and propose a project of any size in any location in the city. 

The staff report claimed that the project qualifies under the state law for a “mandatory 35 percent density bonus over the otherwise maximum allowable residential density bonus allowed by the zoning because it provides at least 19 units at rents affordable to households earning up to 80 percent of the area median income.” 

The city also approved an additional 28 percent density bonus since the project includes significant amenities, “which increase the cost of the project, and therefore require additional density bonus units to make the project economically feasible,” according to the staff report. 

These amenities include reduction of the original mass and number of units to address neighborhood and city concerns, installation of a traffic diverter and signals at a cost of approximately $345,000 and underground parking. 

“These are things that almost every project in Berkeley does,” Wollmer contended. “Why should this project be given an additional 28 percent for it?” 

Councilmembers Kriss Worthington, Dona Spring and Max Anderson voted against the project, citing concerns about the density bonus, parking and a non-unionized Trader Joe’s. 

A volley of concerns ranging from the size of the proposed project to noise hazards were addressed by Berkeley residents.  

“We have been working for the last five years to obtain a project that would improve the site and preserve the livability of our neighborhood,” Wollmer told the council. “We have never believed that any of our demands are unreasonable or make the project unfeasible, but we regret to tell you that the developers have refused to meet and negotiate with us for more than two years, rather they struck a private agreement with one neighbor, attempted retaliation through our employers and circulated thinly disguised bribes in an effort to break our solidarity.” 

Project developer Chris Hudson of Hudson McDonald said that the project could not be redesigned without significant financial loss. 

“We have been through two years of the design review and the zoning process,” he contended. “We’ve made every reasonable and feasible concession. This project is not protected under the NIMBY laws. So why did ZAB and design review choose to approve it? They could have rejected it if they wanted to.” 

Hudson added that the project would encourage the growth of other grocery stores in the area, provide low -cost transit-oriented housing and help Berkeley meet its growing need for housing. 

“High density housing is energy efficient housing,” he said, as project supporters cheered him. “This project will generate more than half a million dollars in tax revenue to the City of Berkeley or the Berkeley Unified School District. More than 500 people have expressed support and 73 percent of participants on have spoken in favor of this project. This project has gone on for a long time and it is time for it to come to an end.” 

Mayor Tom Bates, who voted in favor of the project, emphazised the importance of an active downtown. 

“I am not in favor of Trader Joe’s,” he said. “I don’t shop at Trader Joe’s. I don’t like Two Buck Chuck. I think it’s a lousy wine. But we have to have a vibrant downtown. I wish we could have some compromise here.” 

While Berkeley resident Doug Buchwald warned people not to get excited by the “Trader Joe’s Love Fest,” a large number of people testified that the grocery chain would be a welcome addition in the neighborhood. 

“It’s a mistake to call a project by a particular part of it,” said councilmember Kriss Worthington. “What we get to vote on is a complete project.” 

“We heard a lot about how wonderful Trader Joe’s was,” Wollmer said, “but there’s no guarantee that Trader Joe’s will ever be there. The lease agreement between Trader Joe’s and the developers require that the developers turn over a project to them by 2009. It’s getting very close to that time. Once the applicants cannot deliver the project in time, Trader Joe’s has no obligation to come to Berkeley.” 

Councilmember Spring, who has constituents near the project site, recommended that the drop-off zone for the site be located on Martin Luther King Jr. Way instead of the predominantly residential Berkeley Way. 

Her amendment, along with Councilmember Kriss Worthington’s suggestion to include more affordable housing units, was turned down. The only change to the staff recommendation was the addition of a 40-foot-long drop-off zone on Berkeley Way. 

“This project has fatal flaws when it comes to the issues of traffic and parking,” said Worthington. 

Debbie Sanderson, ZAB secretary, contended that extensive analysis on the part of the planning department illustrated that the plan was flawless when it came to traffic issues. 


Verizon appeal 

Verizon Wireless and Nextel Communiication are up for another public hearing at the City Council on Oct. 23. 

After ZAB turned down their application for a use permit to install 11 cell phone antennas atop the UC Storage building at 2721 Shattuck Ave. on June 28, the two companies appealed the decision to the council. 

ZAB concluded they were unable to make the necessary finding based on substantial evidence that the towers were needed to provide personal wireless service in the coverage area. 

The proposal, which was first remanded to ZAB by the City Council on Sept. 26, 2006, had raised health concerns among the neighbors. After ZAB denied the request on Jan. 30, Verizon and Nextel appealed to the City Council. Council remanded it to ZAB for the second time in May. 

Although area residents had been concerned about the hazardous effects of the antennas on health, council had asked ZAB to make a decision based on third-party engineering review, parking concerns and illegal construction instead of health. 

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 prohibits local governments from rejecting wireless facilities based on health concerns as long as the stations conform to Federal communication standards.