Zoning Board, Westside Artists Want Scaled-Down Wareham Project

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday September 04, 2008 - 09:23:00 AM

The Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board recently asked San Raphael-based Wareham Developers to scale back the size of its 100,000-square-foot project at 740 Heinz St. The applicant proposes demolishing the landmarked Copra Warehouse and building a state-of-the-art biotechnology research center in its place. 

Wareham, which leases the Heinz Street building from Garr Land Resources and Management Company, is scheduled to return to the zoning board with an official application at a later date. 

Board Chair Rick Judd told Chris Barlow, a partner at Wareham, that although the board was not against the project, the proposed height of approximately 89 feet defied the neighborhood’s zoning ordinance. 

Barlow contended that the city should allow Wareham to proceed with the project on the grounds that it would provide a major economic boost to the city and create 300 well-paying jobs. 

He said that economics dictated that a lab be at least 100,000 square feet with 15 feet of space between floors. 

Wareham’s plan to demolish the 1916 unreinforced red masonry building and preserve only its northern facade met with staunch criticism from the Berkeley Landmarks Preservation Commission—which dismissed the design by calling it a “spaceship”—at an earlier meeting, prompting the developers to replace the brick facade with glass. 

Speaking in favor of its demolition, Barlow said that 740 Heinz had been deemed dangerous by structural engineers and the city’s Fire and Public Works departments. 

“I am not saying [rehabilitation] is not physically possible, I am saying it’s not economically feasible,” he said. 

Barlow added that Berkeley lacked high-quality research and development buildings, resulting in the loss of 450 jobs in the last year. 

“Biotechnology companies are relocating to Emeryville,” he said, explaining that 157,000 square feet of tenant space had been lost by Berkeley to Emeryville in the last 12 months. 

“The landmarks commission did not appreciate the facade so we took off that element,” Barlow said. “We have done many things to this building to support a lab-type function. What you have here is an opportunity to create a life sciences building with parking already available, which will attract some of the leading scientists in the world.” 

In response to board members’ concerns about preserving the historical significance of the building, Barlow said Wareham would build a kiosk to inform visitors about the building’s past. 

A group of West Berkeley neighbors, many of them local artists and writers who lease the live-work lofts at 800 Heinz St. from Wareham, said they were disappointed with the developer’s lack of creativity. 

“Big box?” asked John Jay, who has lived there since 1976. “This is a dead blue whale. It’s horrible. Don’t approve the demolition until you know what’s going on. This is treacherous waters.” 

Rick Auerbach of the West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies complained that the size of the building would create a precedent in West Berkeley. “West Berkeley could use a lot more artist and work loft spaces,” he said. 

J Moses Ceasar, a local artist who has lived in the lofts for 16 years, also urged Wareham to turn the space into something that would attract crowds instead of alienating them. 

“Why not instead create more artist housing, a museum, a roller-skating rink, a youth center, or a homeless shelter?” he asked.  

“Really anything that fits into the current plan and brings people into the area in non-work hours ... Over the years, I have asked my landlord, Wareham Properties, for double-pane windows, window screens, and an external antenna, among other things, and have been told that, since it’s a landmark building, no cosmetic changes may be made to it. It seems inconsistent that such reasoning was used with me if the same people have such disregard for landmarks that they would tear one down entirely.” 

Another neighbor, Georgia Shea, said West Berkeley was being treated like a “child’s closet on cleaning day.” 

“Just shove as much stuff in regardless of whether it fits or will inevitably come crashing down,” she said. 

Judd pointed out that current zoning for the project site allowed only two-story development. 

“In terms of the building height, I think whatever we do your project is going to end up getting appealed in the City Council,” he said. “I don’t think we have a zoning district which allows this kind of building height.” 

Some community members complained that the city wasn’t doing enough to stop pushy developers from getting their way. 

“Many developers are asking for very large zoning changes in West Berkeley,” said John Curl, a Berkeley resident. “They think the zoning board will approve anything as long as you give benefits to the city in various other ways. There is a general attitude among developers that certain people in the city are bending over backwards to approve every project.” 

Board member Allen described the design as a “glass box with glued on brick.” 

“A really nicely scaled building could fit into that neighborhood,” he said. “This is a building on steroids.”