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San Pablo Condo Project Blasted By Design Review Committee

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday January 22, 2008
Ali Kashani’s design for the proposed five-story condo complex for the corner of San Pablo and Ashby avenues, seen here in an artist’s rendering, was criticized by members of the Design Review Commission as better suited for the neighboring city of Emeryville.
Ali Kashani’s design for the proposed five-story condo complex for the corner of San Pablo and Ashby avenues, seen here in an artist’s rendering, was criticized by members of the Design Review Commission as better suited for the neighboring city of Emeryville.

Berkeley’s official design review panel gave a scathing review to developer Ali Kashani’s five-story condo complex planned for a corner of one of the city’s busiest intersections. 

The building’s 96 condos above a ground floor of retail and parking will be built on a stretch of San Pablo Avenue from Ashby Avenue south to Carrison Street on the site of a recently demolished Shell gasoline station. 

“This is not the model for Berkeley in any sense of the word,” said Design Review Committee Chair David Snippen. “You’ll have to make it look more like Berkeley than Emeryville.” 

The E-word—Emeryville—immediately became the dominant meme in describing the plans designed by architect Jill Williams of Oakland’s KTYG Group as she and Kashani sat in the front row, taking notes. 

The 183,000-square-foot building includes 96 condo apartments, with eight studio units, 50 one-bedroom units and 38 with two bedrooms and 12,600 square feet of ground floor commercial space. 

Each condo will have a single parking space, with an additional 25 spaces allotted for the retail users. Entrance to the parking spaces will be on Carrison Street to the south, one of the major concerns raised by neighbors. 

Residential parking will be in a single underground level. 

Thursday night’s presentation was an informal preview for the committee, an option which allows a developer to look for input without the threat of formal action. 

Kashani came to the meeting armed with a sense of humor. “In the last four years, I left the non-profit sector and went over to the dark side,” he said as he began his presentation. 

After closing escrow on the property early last year, he said, he began mapping studies in April and held the first meetings with project neighbors in July. 

Kashani’s partner in the project is Rawson, Blum & Leon, a San Francisco development firm, represented by Vice President for Acquisitions David S. Greensfelder, the former real estate manager for Longs Drugs. 

The San Francisco firm owns commercial properties on the West Coast and in Louisiana. 

Kashani said they had consciously decided not to maximize the development: to build up to the full scale allowed by law. “There is 280 percent more open space than is required,” he said, and 33 percent more parking for retail customers than city standards mandate. He had also included 15 foot ceilings for the retail spaces, he said. 

The project also includes 15 units reserved for low-income buyers, Kashani said, which entitled him to add a fifth floor to the building. 

Architect Williams said her plans will meet the requirement for the most basic of the four levels of certification under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System. 

Helen Jones, a project neighbor, told the committee she had two basic concerns. “I just worried about it being so huge,” and because of the additional traffic it would generate in conjunction with the nearby new Berkeley Bowl outlet now under construction. 

“When I first started hearing about this project, they asked us what we’d like to see,” said Alan Bretz. While some suggested “a small organic produce stand, it has exploded into this.” 

Eric Stark, a Carrison Street neighbor, said the frontage on his street “looks like a cinder wall.” He said he was also worried about traffic, since his children play on the residential street. He also dropped the E-word. 

“I’m just appalled by the lack of imagination in every new building going up in Berkeley,” said Michael Larrick, adding that architectural detail had been replaced by the application of different colors of paint to stucco. 

Of the project itself, he said, “It’s cheap, it’s easy to construct ... it’s a box with no adornment.” Instead, designers should look to the nearby Heinz Building, a city landmark, to seek details to pick up in the new design. 

“I want some consideration for the safety of my kids and for our neighborhood,” said Phillip Mason, another Carrison Street resident. ”We have a good street. We don’t need this.” 

The it came time for committee members to weigh in again. 

“My first response is that it’s big,” said Burton Edwards. “My second, third and last responses are that it’s big.” 

While the project “is much bigger and more massive than I would approve, it may be out of our hands because of the density bonus.” 

That said, “There are some hideous units in the middle of this building,” with the condos looking onto the courtyard on the first and second residential floors topping his list. 

Edwards said he also wanted to see more variety in the street frontage along San Pablo, a point taken up by Snippen, who also described the project as “an awfully big building.” He too wanted to see more articulation along the street frontage. 

Snippen said he also wondered why many of the units “are really tiny, especially the interior courtyard units.” 

The project, he said “is not the model for Berkeley in any sense of the word.” 

Sarah Shumer said she wanted to see the building set back along Carrison, because otherwise the structure “would block sense of front yards along the street.” 

Carrie Olson said she wanted to see the street frontage massing broken up, and offered some advice for the neighbors, citing other neighborhoods which had battled projects along San Pablo. “Other neighborhoods have done through this,” she said, “so you have brothers out there.” 

“And sisters,” quipped Kashani. “Don’t forget Marie Bowman.” 

Bowman had battled with the developer over another project, the five-story Sacramento Senior Homes building at Sacramento and Blake streets. 

Olson also said she didn’t understand which Kashani’s project called for a 58-foot height. 

“There is a new code that allows it,” he said. 

“That is a building code,” not a zoning ordinance, Edwards cautioned. 

“This is a very big volume,” said Rob Ludlow. “It is overbearing on the neighborhood.” 

While he like the retail space, Ludlow said there was a lack of continuity between the proposal’s upper and low levels. He also cautioned Kashani that while traffic flow itself was up to the city’s transportation commission and staff, the impact of car lights and traffic noise did fall within the design review committee’s ambit. 

Kashani’s only response to the critique was to say that he was shocked by the critique of the courtyard units, which he thought had been nicely designed. 

It’s now up to the developer and his architect to decide how to respond to the critique before coming back more formally in search of permits and official design approval.