In what was regarded as a first for West Berkeley’s zoning history, the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board last week gave Wareham Development the green light to exceed neighborhood height limits and construct a four-story, 92,000-square-foot bioscience lab on the Aquatic Park Campus.
The city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission and the zoning board held what city staff called an unprecedented special joint meeting Thursday, July 2, to vote on whether to approve various permits for the project, including a variance for the proposed height.
Berkeley’s Planning Manager Deborah Sanderson said that the city combined what would normally be three separate meetings to get the commissioners’ votes on permits related to a project of this scale.
Although the zoning board approved the use permit and variance for the project, landmarks commissioners denied a demolition permit for the historic 740 Heinz St. Copra Warehouse—the site of the proposed lab—which is one of the three remaining structures on the former Durkee Famous Foods campus.
The project’s environmental impact report states that demolition would result in long-term significant unavoidable impact on historic preservation.
Some landmarks commissioners and zoning board members, neighbors and preservationists also objected to the mass and scale of the proposed project, arguing that it would destroy the neighborhood fabric, cast shadows on the adjacent Magic Gardens nursery and create a parking nightmare.
Wareham has partnered with the building’s owner, Garr Land & Resource Management, to develop the property, and urged both voting bodies to support the project, explaining that the Copra Warehouse was a seismic hazard economically unfeasible to restore.
Soft, sandy silt beneath the structure “is potentially liquifiable in an earthquake,” said Wareham partner Chris Barlow. “The building could come down and kill someone.”
Bruce Judd of Architectural Resources Group said the existing walls were in extremely poor condition, with cracks, missing bricks and holes.
“This is not a preservation project,” Judd said. “We are trying to preserve the memory of part of the building.”
Wareham currently has 15 buildings on the Aquatic Park Complex related to the life and physical sciences.
The new building would incorporate the north and south facades of the existing Copra Warehouse, adding more windows to provide natural light, which the Landmarks Preservation Commission said would change the historic nature of the old building.
The new facades would be made out of brick precast panels and Barlow said the design would be “sympathetic” to the neighboring buildings, reflecting an old industrial look.
The current parking to the east of the building would be partly converted into landscape, and an underground structure would provide 49 parking spaces, a net loss of six parking spaces. Disability parking for artisans who live and work next door at 800 Heinz, another Wareham property, will remain.
Garr Land & Resource Management President Kathleen Garr wrote to the zoning board, saying she would be forced to sell if they denied the project. She said the city had declared the Copra Warehouse a public nuisance in November 2002, mandating a seismic retrofit she couldn’t afford.
“I have a strong personal attachment to the property and do not want to sell it,” said Garr, who bought the property with her husband in the mid-1980s. “Instead, I want to see it developed in a way that will benefit the community and the City of Berkeley while providing me with a regular income.”
Barlow told zoning board members that Wareham had signed a long-term ground lease with Garr Land & Resource Management, at the end of which Garr would own all the improvements on the site.
“We have some extraordinary and exceptional challenges with this site but it also creates an extraordinary and exceptional possibility,” Barlow said. “The City of Berkeley is crying out for research and development lab space.”
Barlow quoted from zoning board member and university patent marketing manager Michael Alvarez Cohen’s comments at a March Planning Commission meeting about the importance of making West Berkeley’s zoning laws more tech-friendly.
Cohen, who was absent from Thursday’s meeting, had stressed that of the more than 100 start-up companies he had worked on, most eventually left Berkeley.
Barlow said there was little space available for lab buildings in Berkeley outside of the Aquatic Park Campus, and said the city’s stringent zoning laws had forced the multi-million dollar Joint BioEnergy Institute to locate in Wareham’s EmeryStation East in Emeryville instead, along with 500 jobs.
Barlow said the Copra Warehouse project would create both short-term construction jobs, permanent employment in the planned labs, new municipal tax revenues and commerce for local businesses.
He said the building needed the planned mass, scale and 15-foot floor heights to accommodate mechanical equipment and air conditioning.
Although lab buildings are extremely complicated and expensive to build, Barlow said, the Aquatic Park Campus, with its extensive research facilities, cafés, child care centers and shuttle services, was the logical place for the project.
In exchange, he said, the new lab would attract new tenants to the campus and expand life science capabilities.
Michael Ziegler, owner of the Temescal Business Center with tenants such as Berkeley Mills, US Healthworks and Xoma, and Pietro Mussi, proprietor of Berkeley Industrial Artworks Complex on Heinz Avenue, said they and their West Berkeley neighbors were working with city staff, the planning commissioners and the Office of Economic Development to create a “new more flexible zoning for large-site development projects in West Berkeley.
“It would be premature for the zoning board to set precedents through variances for land use and height which were currently being considered by the Planning Commission,” said Ziegler, adding that equal treatment should be given to all property owners. “This development goes to the heart of future development in West Berkeley. What you are doing here is hijacking a public process.”
The West Berkeley plan mandates a 45-foot height limit in the area. The highest point on the Copra Warehouse is 74 feet, but it was built before the city’s zoning laws came into existence.
Sanderson told the board that the environmental impact report on the changes to the West Berkeley plan should be completed in December.
“My understanding is that the intended role of these boards is that you should ensure that development is appropriate in type and scale to the neighborhoods of Berkeley while preserving the heritage of the city,” said Barbara Bowman, another West Berkeley neighbor.
“Unfortunately, I am more getting the impression that sort of gets forgotten and that the mission becomes more to figure out how to get every project proposed by the developer past the zoning law. Why are we pretending that we need biotech labs so badly at this location that it’s worth allowing Wareham to destroy yet another landmark to build them?”
Landmarks commissioner Carrie Olson criticized what she said was Wareham’s decision to exploit the historic structure’s peak height to justify a building height otherwise not allowed under zoning.
Both Olson and landmarks commissioner Anne Wagley, arts and calendar editor for the Daily Planet, said they were disappointed that Wareham did not opt for one of the alternatives in the environmental impact report, which asserts that they could do a profitable project that saves the building.
“It seems the ulitmate hypocrisy to engage in such a large-scale destruction of a building, and perhaps of a neighborhood, for the sake of a speculative green development,” said Wagley. “But perhaps it is really only the green of the dollar that the developers are after with this project.”
The landmarks commission used the preservation alternative as one of the criteria to deny the demolition permit.
Calling the Copra Warehouse “a large fixed-cost liability,” Barlow said the Alameda County assessor’s office had valued the property at only $2,000. A variance, he said, would be the only thing that would allow Wareham to transform it into something economically viable and prevent foreclosure by the city.
“You are asking us to give you a variance to create value, not protect value,” said board member Sara Shumer, who said it was impossible to make a finding for a variance. “It’s not a black and white issue, but it’s a decision about how much we want to have a building of that size in that neighborhood and what we are doing to the neighborhood to put it in.”
Shumer said the current property value of the Copra Warehouse was so low that any improvements would make it attractive, arguing that a variance was not necessarily required to enhance its value.
Other zoning board members contended that they could not see any way the Copra Warehouse could be preserved and financially viable to its owners.
“Renovating would not make financial sense to anyone except a multimillionaire who wants a toy,” said Bob Allen. “We are putting the property owner in jeopardy of selling the property.”
One of the findings used by the zoning board to approve the permit was protection of the owner’s property rights.