City Council Approves Ashby Senior Housing Project

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday July 30, 2009 - 11:02:00 AM

The Berkeley City Council broke for the summer on Thursday after unanimously approving a $1.4 million loan in Housing Trust Fund money for the 98-unit Ashby Arts Senior Housing project, after City Manager Phil Kamlarz came up with a proposal to replenish the trust fund monies with the sale and loan foreclosure of other properties. 

The proposed sale and loan foreclosure on thoise other fund properties means that, instead of the city wiping out its Housing Trust Fund money with the Ashby Arts grant, additional money will be available in the fall when several other projects come up for review.  

Only Councilmember Susan Wengraf did not vote on the Ashby Arts issue. Wengraf was present at the beginning of the meeting but left mid-session before the Ashby Arts vote came up. Councilmember Gordon Wozniak participated in Thursday’s meeting by telephone. 

In other action on Thursday, City Manager Kamlarz told councilmembers that Berkeley is “likely to lose about $10 million over the next two years” in state funds as a result of the compromise budget-balancing legislation agreed to this week by legislative leaders and the governor, and said he would come back to the council in the fall with proposals for the city to manage the cutbacks. 

The council also approved, on a 7–2 vote (Arreguín and Worthington voting no), a use permit and variance and demolition permit allowing Wareham Development of San Rafael to demolish all but two walls of the former Copra Warehouse at 740 Heinz Ave. and build in its place a 92,000-square-foot, four-story research and development laboratory, warehouse, and sub-surface garage. The Copra Warehouse is a landmarked building, and the Zoning Adjustments Board and the Landmarks Preservation Commission had split on the project, the zoning board approving the environmental impact report and the use permit and the landmarks commission declining to approve the demolition permit. 

Meanwhile, the council moved two controversial items from Thursday night’s agenda to its next meeting in September, including proposals to make changes to the ordinance governing the city’s massage therapy establishments and to revise the permitting process for property owners to build out on public rights-of-way. Councilmember Jesse Arreguín tabled his own resolution to support a constitutional amendment to put the University of California system under legislative authority after council debate indicated the resolution might fail, and also held over until the fall his far more popular proposal to name the I-80 pedestrian-bicycle bridge in honor of former Councilmember Dona Spring. 

The Ashby Arts approval and funding was a complicated matter that was difficult for observers to follow, even with a program, a scorecard, and a thick packet of backup documents. 

Citycentric Investments, the development company founded by Ali Kashani and Mark Rhoades, originally won split council approval for a five-story, mixed-use building on the Ashby and San Pablo avenues site last May (Arreguín voted no, Worthington abstained), but later modified the proposal into an affordable senior citizens housing project “in order,” according to the city staff report, “to address changes in the housing market and to position the project for funding available through the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program and the city’s Housing Trust Fund.” 

Part of the deal between the city and Citycentric Investments for the Ashby Arts Project included a personal guarantee of the $1.4 million housing trust fund loan by both Kashani and Rhoades. 

Aside from bringing over Worthington—who co-sponsored with Councilmember Moore the resolution to approve the housing trust fund money for the project—and Arreguín, who had opposed the original project, the result of the city–developer negotiations brought along Councilmember Anderson, who admitted he had also had some reservations. 

Anderson said that the revised project “reflects a commitment by the city to its senior citizens” as well as “a commitment by this builder and developer, whose entrepreneurial agility resulted in changes that others might have resisted. But [they] stepped up and made the kind of changes that brought this into the rubric of all of us so that we eliminated, in large part, any of the reservations that we had about it, from the commitment to back the loan to the commitment to step up to the requirements of providing the health services for the seniors there. This has been a model for the kind of cooperation that is necessary to produce outcomes like this in difficult times.”  

Public speakers were divided on the Ashby Arts project, with some saying that it would improve a blighted, underdeveloped area, while others saying that the Ashby and San Pablo avenues corner, with its dangerous intersection and lack of nearby open space, was not the proper place to locate a senior home.