Building Boom Continues in Downtown Berkeley

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday August 05, 2008 - 05:16:00 PM

The business of building is still booming, at least for the moment, in the heart of downtown Berkeley. 

Four major projects are currently underway downtown, and several others are on the drawing boards. 

One of them, the nine-story, 145-unit condo mid-rise named the Berkeley Arpeggio, is precisely the kind of building a city-funded economic feasability study said can’t happen under current market conditions and building codes. 

It also includes one considerable public amenity in the form of 10,000 square feet of rehearsal and performance space to be operated under the aegis of the Berkeley Repertory Theater. 

The long-delayed structure once known as the Seagate building will provide both market rate and lower-priced condo units, the latter considered another improbability in today’s economy. 

Questioned during Wednesday night’s Planning Commission meeting, Matt Taecker—the staffer hired by the city to ramrod the new downtown plan—said that the Arpeggio only works because the property had been assembled long before. 

But Jim Novosel, an architect and planning commissioner who also questioned the study, said other buildings now rising in the Bay Area also challenge the study’s assumptions. 


Oxford Plaza, Brower 

Taecker has said that one project now underway in Berkeley, the six-story, 97-unit Oxford Plaza affordable housing complex along Fulton Street, near the corner of Kittredge Street, works because it’s a subsidized project built by a non-profit. 

The building’s apartments are for low-income tenants, including units of up to three bedrooms for larger families—very difficult to find for those who earn as little as 20 percent of the area’s median income. 

Dan Sawislak, executive director of project developer Resources for Community Development (RCD), said the structure is about half complete, with marketing of the units to begin on Aug. 18, with an Oct. 1 deadline for submitting applications. Tenants who have meet the necessary qualifications will be selected by lottery, and will be able to move when the building opens in February, Sawislak said. 

The RCD executive said his non-profit company is also seeking commercial tenants to occupy ground floor spaces in the building. 

The underground parking garage, which covers the site once occupied by the city’s Oxford parking lot, has already been completed and hasn’t experienced any water leaks, he said. 

The garage is also under the David Brower Center, a “green” building going up adjacent to Oxford Plaza. 

That 50,000-square-foot building will house a gallery and restaurant on the ground floor, as well as an auditorium and theater, with office space for non-profits on the floors above. For more, see www.browercenter.org/node/19 

While the grand opening is slated for next May, tenants will begin moving in during March, said Amy Tobin, the center’s executive director. The building’s only commercial tenant will be Back to Earth, a seven-year-old business that will provide dine-in and take-out locally produced organic food as well as catering. 

Earth Island Institute, the last organization founded by the building’s namesake, will be one of the tenants, along with International Rivers (formerly, International Rivers Network) and the Center for Ecoliteracy. 

The Brower Center is also negotiating a lease with the Union of Concerned Scientists. 

The building is on track to qualify for a Platinum rating—the highest available—from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System, Tobin said. 

Another major new downtown construction is the new home for Freight & Salvage, which is giving a multi-million dollar renovation and rebuild to its new quarters at 2020 Addison St. Housed in the shell of a 70-year-old historic building, the new 18,000-square-foot venue will have a 440-seat performance space, and an additional venue with seating for up to 70 as well as a restaurant and six classrooms. 

For more information, see www.thefreight.org/newhome.html. 


Height issue 

The city’s economic consultants, Dena Belzer of Berkeley’s Strategic Economics group and Hixson & Associates, an Oakland development consulting firm, contend that current cost factors block any non-subsidized construction between 85 feet and 180 feet high. 

Key is the cost of the building core, which includes elevators, as well as additional costs imposed by fire and building codes imposed for safety reasons on buildings in that range. 

The consultants contend that projects cited by commissioners that are being built at intermediate heights are viable only because of subsidies. 

Planning commissioner Gene Poschman called the report an “infeasibility study,” and two of his fellow planning commissioners said projects already underway in Berkeley refute its basic assumptions. 

But city staff and proponents of downtown high-rises cite the study’s conclusions to justify a call for 180-foot “point towers” downtown. 

Meanwhile, the Arpeggio building is rising in the city center, proof, Commissioner Jim Novosel said, that refutes the central contention of the controversial study. 

One building that would rise well above the consultants’ designated viability height would be the Berkeley Charles Hotel, Conference Center & Residences—a 205-foot-high complex that would rise at the northeast corner of Shattuck Avenue and Center Street. 

While the building wouldn’t be owned by UC Berkeley, it was the university which has pushed for the project, contending it needs a first class hotel in the city to accommodate visitors to conference and campus events. 

After a lengthy negotiation process, the university selected as their developer Carpenter & Co. of Cambridge, Mass. The 110-year old firm develops and operates hotels, retail and mixed use projects and owns a golf club on Martha’s Vineyard. 

While the university had stressed the need for hotel rooms and meeting space, all of the uppermost floors would be devoted to condos. 

The project’s status remains in question, with the latest entry on its web site a November 2006 presentation to the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC). 

Calls to the Massachusetts developer weren’t returned, and Jennifer McDougall, the university’s planner handling downtown issues, referred a reporter to Berkeley publicist Caleb Dardick, who is representing the developer. He hadn’t called back by deadline. 

But Dan Marks, Berkeley’s Planning and Development Director, said the project is still alive, though complicated by the economic downturn, as well as other factors.  

“Clearly, there is a horrendous set of economic issues,” he said. “They’re still pursuing it on a lot of different levels.” 

Among the complications are the difficulties inherent in negotiating a complex land deal that involves two property owners—the university and Bank of America—as well as the city. 

“Changes in the condo market have also clearly affected the project,” Marks said. “But I am still fairly confident the project is going to move forward.” 


Other projects 

The would-be project’s next door neighbor to the east would be another university project, the proposed new Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive structure designed by Toyo Ito, a Japanese architect renowned for his highly individualistic creations, each a unique creation. The university has already issued a call for contractors for the project. 

Another high-rise is also in the preliminary planning stages at the Shattuck Hotel, where a major internal remake could be paving the way for another high-rise suite and condo tower—a project given a thumbs up by DAPAC in their proposed limits on new downtown construction heights. 


Trader Joe’s strikes oil  

Yet another building is underway at the downtown periphery—the controversial “Trader Joe’s building” at the northwest corner of the University Avenue/Martin Luther King Jr. Way intersection. 

Construction was halted for about 10 days but resumed at the end of last week after the discovery of three underground oil tanks and areas of contaminated soil delayed construction at site where the five-story apartment complex is slated to rise with the grocery outlet as its commercial anchor. 

Meridith Lear, the city’s hazardous waste manager while Nabil Al Hadithy is on vacation, said the city and the developer were aware of the possibility of both the tanks and the soil. 

“We knew there was a likelihood they would find something,” she said, given the site’s past history as the home of a gas station. 

Surface contamination had been cleaned up years earlier under state oversight. With the most recent discoveries, Lear said, “We made sure the tanks were properly removed and that the soil was properly disposed of.”