ZAB Approves Offices for Ed Roberts Campus

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Monday July 14, 2008 - 04:40:00 PM

The Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board approved a use permit modification for the Ed Roberts Campus Thursday to allow offices of several nonprofits to be located in a residential zone near the Ashby BART, but they limited the ruling to include only those organizations. 

The result of years of work by many disability organizations, the Ed Roberts Campus is a two-story, 86,057-square-foot building planned for 3075 Adeline St., straddling two different zoning districts in South Berkeley—residential and south area/commercial—which will have a community center and offices for the disability community.  

The original use permit for the campus, approved by the zoning board four years ago, allows community centers in the residential area along Adeline Street, while offices can only be located in the south area/commercial zone which encourages high density. 

ZAB declined to change the definition of a “community center” to allow future offices to go into the residential zone, as suggested by zoning staff, in order to avoid setting a precedent. 

A couple of community members said they supported the project but were concerned about the permit modification setting a precedent in the neighborhood, something that was shared by several zoning commissioners during the course of the meeting. 

“Everyone loves the project,” said Tony Hill, a neighbor. “But it seems to a few of us the project has changed in nature. It’s now going more and more towards a commercial project. Less and less Ed Roberts’ people want to rent the place, and more and more commercial people want to lease it. Is there a way to guarantee that it will be more of a disability center than commercial?” 

According to a report by the zoning staff, Through the Looking Glass, a family clinic and one of the nonprofits planning to move into the campus, would include a 2,425-square-foot child-care center located mainly in the commercial district and partially in the residential district, and a 5,020-square-foot office space, located entirely in the residential district. 

Representatives of Through the Looking Glass told the board the majority of its services were based around the East Bay community, especially in Alameda County.  

Both the City Council and the zoning board in their original condition of approval mandated that office space should be located in the commercial district, the staff report said, since an office was inconsistent with the use of a community center and thus not allowed in a residential district.  

The report states that other tenants approved for the residential district also have office and educational activities very similar to the family clinic. 

The report also adds that rising construction costs made the Ed Roberts Campus consider a broad range of tenants in order to finance the project, instead of limiting its focus to the disabled community. 

Dmitri Belser, president of the Ed Roberts Campus board, said the mission of the campus had not changed despite efforts to look at a diverse group of leaseholders. 

“We have been working on this project for 14 years,” Belser said. “We have done a lot of work to make it appropriate for the neighborhood. Initially there were nine agencies who were partnering with us, now there are seven. But all of the agencies serve people with disabilities in different ways. The mission has not changed.” 

Commissioner Jesse Arreguin asked whether there was a way to guarantee that the commercial offices allowed on the campus would benefit the disability community. 

“The goal of the Ed Roberts Campus is to provide a space for organizations serving the disabled community,” Belzar said.  

“The financial challenge is that the organization is taking on a significant amount of debt to build the building and wants the flexibility to have financial viability over time. The goal is to have organizations who serve the disabled community come in as long as they fit within the mode of a community center.” 

Guy Thomas, a board member for the Center for Accessible Technology—one of the partners of the Ed Roberts Campus—pressed the board to approve the modification so the “campus could have services without worrying about the zipcode.” 

“We are very focused on being able to serve our community,” he said. “Of course you do need to expand the idea of what is disability related. I hope we can move forward on this project after so many years.”