Zoning Board, Landmarks Will Meet to Vote on New Lab

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday May 21, 2009 - 10:00:00 AM

A group of West Berkeley residents expressed concern Thursday regarding traffic, scale and the lack of historic preservation in Wareham Development’s proposed project on the Aquatic Park Campus. 

The comments were made during a public hearing conducted by the Zoning Adjustments Board on the draft environmental impact report of the project, which plans to tear down the landmarked Copra Warehouse at 740 Heinz St. and replace it with a 92,000-square-foot, four-story biosciences lab. 

Wareham hopes to attract organizations from the life science, physical science and nanotechnology sectors and create at least 276 new jobs. 

The city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission questioned the lack of relevant historic data in the EIR during a similar hearing two weeks ago. Some commissioners went as far as to say that Wareham’s attempt to save the historic building by keeping only two of the original facades could not be considered preservation. 

The Copra Warehouse has been vacant for the last 10 years, according to the EIR, and its seismically unsafe condition makes it impossible to lease. 

The building was constructed in 1916 for the Stauffer Oil Company and later housed the Durkee Famous Foods plant. The property originally had eight buildings, but that number is now down to three. 

David Clore, principal at Berkeley-based LSA Associates, the firm which prepared the EIR, told the board that the proposed project would result in “significant unavoidable impact” to the city’s cultural resources. He said that that Wareham would document the history of the Copra Warehouse through drawings, photographs and a historical narrative which would be displayed in a kiosk on the site. 

The demolition, he said, would have “less than significant cultural impact” on the two other remaining buildings, the Spice Warehouse and the Durkee Building, something at least one member of the landmarks commission said was not true. 

Clore added that the project would also lead to significant traffic delays and an increase in cars at a number of intersections which would be mitigated by traffic signals.  

He said that sound from the construction site, especially pile driving, would exceed the city’s noise standards and would be addressed with the help of noise barriers and by notifying neighbors on the days they were likely to be impacted. 

The zoning board needs to come up with a variance to approve the project, which at 72 feet would exceed the current area zoning of 45 feet. 

Clore spoke about the project alternatives, which include rehabilitating the existing structure for industrial use, preserving the existing structure and building a new research and development building similar in mass and height to the buildings once dotting the Durkee Famous Foods plant or constructing a life science building which would keep to the current zoning standards. 

Chris Noll, of Noll and Tam Architects, which is located right across from the Copra Warehouse, criticized Wareham’s failure to suggest a viable alternative. 

“The building can be lower and fulfill the needs,” he said. “The project can be redesigned to preserve three walls instead of two, which essentially don’t do much about preservation.” 

Speaking on behalf of the Temescal Business Center and the Berkeley Industrial Artworks Complex, Michael Ziegler and Pietro Mussi urged the zoning board to deny Wareham the use permits, explaining that the project would be out of scale and impact traffic and quality of life negatively in the neighborhood. 

“A super-sized project comes with super-sized environmental impact,” Ziegler said, adding that the project, if approved, would set a precedent for West Berkeley. 

“It is essentially a rewriting of the zoning code which will ensure that other developers will do the same,” Ziegler and Mussi wrote in a letter to the board. “How would the ZAB be able to grant this variance to one developer and deny it to others?” 

They warned that on the “heels of this approval would come the request” from Wareham to develop more properties into a similar scale. 

Barbara Bowman, who has lived in the neighborhood for the last 30 years, called the development a “Let’s-see-how-many-rules-you-can-break sort of a project.” 

“I feel astonished that you are even considering it,” she said. “Please, please, please hold the line.” 

Rick Auerbach, of West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies, called the Copra Building an integral part of Berkeley’s working-class history where thousands came to work. 

He complained that the building would cast shadows over Magic Gardens, a nursery and landscaping company located at 729 Heinz, which would threaten the business. 

The city’s planning manager, Steve Ross, told the board that the final EIR would have responses to all the public comments. The comment period ends on June 8, 2009.  

The zoning board and the landmarks commission are scheduled to vote on whether to certify the EIR at a joint meeting July 2. The landmarks commission will also vote on whether to grant an alteration permit, and the zoning board will vote on whether to grant a variance and a use permit to Wareham on the same day.