Neighbors Share Concerns Over West Berkeley Building Proposal

By Richard Brenneman
Friday February 27, 2009 - 05:16:00 PM

The struggle over the size of Wareham Properties’ latest Berkeley project entered a new phase Thursday night with the first public meeting to gather insight for an environmental impact report (EIR). 

The project, at 740 Heinz Ave., would be the tallest building erected in West Berkeley since the Fantasy Building, rising 62 feet, with another 12 feet of screening above that to shield rooftop hardware from public view. 

The existing height limit for the area is 45 feet. 

“That’s a big puppy,” said John Shea, an artist who lives just north of the site in the landmarked, Wareham-owned 800 Heinz Building, a former mayonnaise plant Wareham rents as live/work artists’ quarters. That use was hammered out in a 1985 agreement that allowed Wareham to demolish other landmarked buildings on their property. 

Environmental review consultants LSA Associates are conducting the environmental review and prepared an initial study outlining the proposed parameters of the more detailed study to come. 

The building Wareham proposes is 92,000 square feet and would replace the 10,000-square-foot landmarked Garr Building, but would preserve the Garr’s northern and southern facades. The new building would be constructed as a research and development facility, a Wareham specialty. 

Wednesday night’s meeting was a scoping session, mandated by the California Environmental Quality Act as a forum for gathering comments and concerns to be addressed in the EIR. 

Chris Barlow and Tom Fitzsimmons were on hand for Wareham, as was West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies (WEBAIC) advocate Rick Auerbach along with nearby neighbors and business owners. 

Aerin Moore of Magic Gardens, the nursery and landscaping services business at 729 Heinz, said the LSA study had erroneously claimed there would be no adverse impact on agriculture resources. 

The existing landmark shaded about 15 percent of his nursery during winter months, he said. “But this is going to be four or five times larger,” he said. “It’s going to kill plants. There’s no doubt about it. We won’t get any daylight until late afternoon.” 

The study found only two areas—cultural resources and transportation and traffic—where impacts would be potentially significant and not easily mitigated. 

But Auerbach said the project could have potentially major impacts on archaeological resources because it is located near a seasonal water source, Potter Creek, near the edge of the historic shoreline, the kind of site he said was often used by native peoples. He said core samples should be collected from the site before construction begins to search for signs of native habitation.  

Neighbors said they were concerned about increased traffic and making the area’s parking problems worse, and Barlow acknowledged traffic problems in the area. The project would eliminate existing parking spaces on the site and provide no replacements. 

Wareham was able to avoid some of the restrictions that would have resulted from locating a new building on a single property because the new building extends past the existing property lines of the Garr Building lot and onto other property owned by Wareham, which allows the structure to be developed under city codes governing integrated developments. 

Greg Powell, the city senior planner assigned to the project, said Wareham would be entitled to integrated development rules even if the building didn’t cross the property line, since the adjacent properties are held by the same owners. 

Shea and other artists at 800 Heinz said they are worried that the new building would limit the light so critical to their work. “It changes our light source,” said painter Corliss Lesser, who said she was also concerned about parking and traffic. 

Wareham is one of the Berkeley’s biggest landlords and owns a large collection of structures in the area, as well as major holdings in Emeryville, Richmond and Marin County. Among their West Berkeley holdings are buildings at 830 Heinz Ave., 2910 and 2929 Seventh St. and 2600 Tenth St. 

Barlow is an advocate of easing zoning regulations in West Berkeley and had appeared at the Planning Commission the night before to argue for new master use permit rules to allow for more flexibility in permissible uses in the city’s only sector zoned for industrial and manufacturing uses. 

Auerbach, who represents a large and diverse community of existing businesses in West Berkeley, said a major concern was the impact of new construction on the area’s existing businesses, including displacement of blue- and green-collar workers by the post-grads who work in Wareham’s lab buildings. 

He said he was also concerned that lab employees, as projected by the developer, would want to live nearby, potentially leading to an inflation in housing costs in the area of the city most affordable to those with modest incomes. 

Other concerns he cited included what he said were conflicts with the West Berkeley Plan, including sections dealing with the scale and appropriateness of developments and impacts on existing buildings. 

Powell said some of Auerbach’s concerns would be more appropriately directed to the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board after Wareham files for permits to build the structure. 

The planner said the project would be presented to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission in April or May for review of its impacts on historic resources.  

A draft of the EIR will be ready by “early spring,” said LSA consultant Shannon Allen, when another hearing will gather comments on the document before a final draft is completed.