Public Comment

Why We Appealed 1200 Ashby Ave. (Part II)

By Toni Mester
Thursday April 30, 2009 - 07:12:00 PM

When I encountered Planning Director Dan Marks at a workshop in December, he told me that “only two or three” neighbors opposed the Ashby Arts project. That’s when I realized that the process was rigged against them and that staff and the developers were in deep cahoots. 

It’s true that only three Carrison Street residents had stuck it out for the first two late night hearings, but they were representative. After Steve Wollmer got the Zoning Board to postpone action until January 22, a couple of us organized a dozen letters in opposition, and the neighbors came out in force for the decision. They got clobbered in a 7–1 vote to approve followed by a weak recommendation for a traffic diverter. 

Bob Allen pinpointed ZAB’s dilemma: “I’m not here to set planning policy. I’m here to interpret the zoning rules as reasonably and accurately as I can. We don’t have much latitude here.” 

Deborah Matthews, now the Chair of the ZAB, summed up her position “When you are sitting on a major artery like this, it lends itself to supporting this kind of development. That’s the compromise you make … and the burden of responsibility you as the homeowner take in choosing to purchase your property where you do.”  

Terry Doran said this building would help to reverse global warming, absorb the increase in Bay Area population and “not force people to move to the exurbs.”  

But it was retiring Chair Rick Judd who struck the key note in his wry valedictory, “The whole city is hiding behind the density bonus law. It would really be healthy to write a zoning ordinance that reflected what they think is the right thing for the City of Berkeley, because that’s what the Zoning Ordinance is supposed to do. It’s supposed to be the community’s collective decision about what’s appropriate.” 

Hoping to advance our collective thinking and help the neighbors, I decided to appeal. 

Unless better minds prevail, this hulk will be plunked down at Ashby and San Pablo with the residential parking garage and entrance on Carrison Street. Even the name Ashby Arts is deceptive. The building is not artful but an insensitive contrast to nearby historic homes, and its real address is Carrison Street. 

The “deliberate contemporary” style project will shadow seven existing apartments directly to the east, slow circulation at a critical intersection, and create a parking and traffic nightmare on a quiet working class street. The neighbors won’t even be able to get preferential parking, which is not available west of California Street. 

Big apartment buildings like this are supported by advocates of “smart growth” who argue that increased density creates demand for public transit and a vibrant, pedestrian centered urban environment. Look out for the word “vibrant”—that’s a dead giveaway. 

But increased density along San Pablo Avenue will most likely produce traffic gridlock due to the geographic centrality of West Berkeley in the Bay Area, the dominance of the freeway and auto uses, and a high crime rate. Residents and visitors drive for safety, especially at night, and street robbery is on the rise. 

The flawed traffic study, commissioned by the applicant, claimed that only half the new residents would drive and that neighbors would not notice the increase in traffic. The study failed to consider second cars or visitors or the necessity of driving at night. The building sits directly on Carrison Street without the required 15-foot setback, so the parking garage entrance is right in the face of the opposite homes. 

At first the developers promised the community condos and ample retail but changed the plans before the December ZAB meeting. The underground parking was eliminated, retail space reduced, the commercial parking entrance located on Ashby, and the condos were changed to rentals. 

The building interior is just as alienating as the outside, overcrowded with small apartments, 36 surrounding a long shady courtyard; at bottom the units will be dim, noisy, and lack privacy. There are no common rooms nor child care play space. With little natural cross ventilation, the 98 kitchens and 125 bathrooms will rely on mechanical HVAC.  

To make it more neighborhood friendly, the building should be reduced, setback on Carrison Street, and stepped down more along the east side, lessening shadow on adjacent properties, enlarging the roof deck and blending with the scale of Ashby Avenue. These reductions plus the creation of common rooms on the courtyard and combining a few smaller units into family sized apartments would reduce the parking requirement and allow residents to enter the garage on Ashby Avenue. The developer told ZAB that a reduction of nine spaces would make that option workable. Another possibility is partial restoration of the underground parking to free up space on the ground floor.  

These changes could be effected through a Council mandated mediation. It’s the WIN/WIN solution. Our appeals will be considered on Cinco de Mayo. See you there, amigos. 


Toni Mester is a West Berkeley neighborhood consultant.