Planners Approve Condos

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday June 05, 2008 - 09:51:00 AM

Berkeley planning commissioners voted 8-1 Wednesday to approve a key legal document that paves the way for construction of a long-delayed 24-unit condominium building at 2701 Shattuck Ave. 

Then they headed into yet another discussion on a proposed new city density bonus law that rewards developers with increased building size in exchange for including affordable housing units in their apartment and condo projects. 

The condominium building project, originally proposed by one developer, then sold it to a construction company. The property was finally sold to a corporation headed by Gordon Choyce Jr., would rise to five stories, with one living unit, a garage and four commercial spaces on the ground floor. 

Residents of the neighborhood behind the project have criticized the building’s height, as well as the small size of the commercial spaces, which range from 346 to 1,275 square feet. 

But with the building plans already approved by the Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) and sustained by the City Council, the commission’s vote was largely a formality, said Planning Manager Debra Sanderson.  

None of the units will be reserved for sale at affordable rates to low-income people, with the developers opting to pay the city’s new in-lieu fee, which will go to city-sponsored affordable projects. By choosing that option, the developer is still eligible for the city’s density bonus. 

“This project first came up back when  

I was on the zoning board back in the early Pleistocene,” quipped commissioner Gene Poschman, who ultimately voted for approval, subject to some tweaking of the language of the staff report. 

But Patti Dacey, who lives nearby, said she felt that “the city has declared war on this neighborhood,” both by approving the installation of cell phone antennas at Kennedy’s University Storage building adjacent to the condo site and by allowing a “hulking five stories” next to a low-rise neighborhood of single-family homes. 

“I can’t in good conscience vote for anything in connection with this project,” she said, casting the lone dissenting vote. 

The map itself doesn’t affect construction, but sets up the legal framework that allows individual condo units to be sold. 


Density bonus 

The thorny subject of the density bonus raises issues that straddle the normal five-four split on the commission, since Susan Wengraf, who normally votes with the more developer-friendly majority, chaired the council-appointed subcommittee that came up with recommendations that have met with a less-than-welcome reception by her colleagues. 

Alex Amoroso, a principal planner on the city staff, said that the memo prepared for commissioners was intended “to reinvigorate discussion,” which drew a rare show of unanimity from the panel—a robust chorus of laughter. 

The report offered three possible courses of action: 

• First, to simply abandon the work of the task force and leave existing development regulations in place. 

• Second, to concentrate only on development rules as they relate to the interface between high-density avenue development and the surrounding residential neighborhoods,  

• Third, to take up the full range of recommendations developed by the subcommittee over the course of two years of work. 

Commissioner David Stoloff moved to adopt the second course of action, but ultimately withdrew his motion when it became apparent it was doomed to failure. 

The subcommittee, originally started by ZAB and expanded by the City Council to include members of the Planning and Housing Advisory commissions, began as a reaction to planning staff opinions about what size buildings developers were entitled to construct adjacent to residential neighborhoods. 

The final straw was the so-called Trader Joe’s building at the northwest corner of the intersection of University Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Way. City staff interpreted state law to require that the developers be allowed extra size for signing up the grocery store as a ground floor tenant of their five-story project. The zoning board and the City Council accepted staff opinion and granted the requested permits. 

Critics charged that the bonus should only be granted for providing much-needed affordable housing. 

Wengraf said she hoped the city would seek the advice of outside counsel, given the conflicting interpretations of the state density bonus law in other cities. 

Another potential complication is AB 2280, legislation now pending in the state legislature, which would set definitive standards statewide and grant the bonus only for creating affordable housing. The bill has already cleared the Assembly and is now before the state Senate. 

A third complication is Proposition 98, the statewide ballot measure which some critics say could severely restrict the abilities of local governments to limit building size. 


Upcoming events  

Commissioners will take up Bus Rapid Transit again when they meet June 11, with a discussion on what alternative the city wants included in the AC Transit project’s environmental impact report. 

The central issue on the proposed service linking San Leandro and Berkeley is whether or not a dedicated bus line should be created down the center of Telegraph Avenue, which would mean an end to street parking on the avenue and restriction of non-bus traffic to one lane in either direction. 

The same session will also take up the council-driven push for West Berkeley zoning changes to ease rules that property owners and developers say limit their ability to bring in desirable tenants. 

During the June 25 session, commissioners are set to hold public hearings on the Southside Plan and the city’s proposed wireless telecommunications ordinance, to continue discussion on West Berkeley zoning and to talk about plans to update the city General Plan housing element.