Public Comment

Commentary: Invasion of the Condo Boxes

By Toni Mester
Tuesday April 08, 2008

The architect Frank Lloyd Wright is supposed to have said that the right angle is a fascist symbol. That observation may be apocryphal, but it well applies to some of the newer buildings on Berkeley’s commercial corridors, big square apartment complexes that dwarf adjacent residential properties. Currently, the boxes are creeping north along San Pablo Avenue and threatening to change the character of West Berkeley. 

Tonight (Tuesday, April 8) the Planning Commission is holding a public hearing on proposals that will affect the quality of life in many flatland neighborhoods and the value of residential properties on or near the commercial corridors of San Pablo, University, Shattuck, and Telegraph Avenues. 

Planning staff wants to implement the state Density Bonus Law, which allows developers to exceed zoning limits in exchange for building a certain percentage of “affordable” units, but staff’s recommended allowances are greater than the proposals by a joint subcommittee of the Planning and Housing Advisory Commissions and the Zoning Adjustments Board.  

The proposals relate to height, setbacks up to four stories from adjacent residential properties and the percentage of roof top that can be calculated as “open space” as well as parking and ground floor use. The subcommittee wants to limit height on San Pablo to three floors, whereas staff recommends four. Height limits differ for other commercial zones. Neither proposal considers changes in ground elevation, which can be considerable because the flatlands are in fact not flat but sloping upwards. 

The setbacks by floor recommended by the subcommittee are greater than those proposed by staff, but both revise the current minimum of 10 feet or 10 percent of the depth of the lot, whichever is greater for commercial lots abutting residential zones (Section23E.04.050 C). Since many commercial lots exceed 100 feet in depth, the proposed setbacks of only ten feet are a reduction in the buffer zone. Adequate setbacks are critical because most blocks on the avenues are split-zoned with commercial next to residential.  

The proposals also differ in the roof top open space allowance. The subcommittee recommends 25 percent while staff wants 75 percent. Roof area reduces yard requirements on the ground, allowing greater density. 

A flat roof with some plants in pots may be open but it’s no substitute for earth space that can support trees, the best barrier between commercial and residential lots on the same block. A new roof should serve as a secure support for a solar array, and a slant roof with a southern exposure is best. Also slant roofs are much prettier against a backdrop of rolling hills, the star attraction of the flatlands. 

Staff’s proposals add up to flat roofed four story buildings set back 10 feet at the base from residential property, a huge mass that would rob existing houses of privacy, sun and views. 

Zoning should be balanced, granting allowances for new construction but also protecting the value of existing property. The staff proposals before the Planning Commission lean too heavily toward promoting new development at the expense of current owners. That’s not equitable zoning; that’s theft. 

Although the current zoning allows four stories along San Pablo Avenue, very few have built that high because most lots contain operating businesses producing a revenue flow and because there are many costs and risks in the area. Where former car repair shops and other industrial uses have left toxic residue, the ground needs to be decontaminated, a pricey process. 

And there’s crime. People who talk blithely about increasing pedestrian traffic along transit corridors have never been mugged. My last tenant had his jaw broken by two drug dealers just to take his cell phone, and last week my neighbor, a 65-year-old woman, was assaulted by a trio of young purse snatchers. Silence is not PC, and ignoring crime and other public safety issues like earthquake and fire is not good city planning. 

The San Pablo area needs TLC, not big badly designed developments that meet density requirements or ABAG quotas. We can fulfill the need for additional housing by building on available lots to an appropriate scale and by situating larger projects in locations that do not encroach on existing houses. 

If you are a neighbor concerned about the new zoning proposals for the commercial corridors, the Planning Commission hearing tonight starts at 7 p.m. at the North Berkeley Senior Center, Hearst at King. Be there or be content to live in the shadow of a big square. 


Toni Mester is a West Berkeley homeowner.