News Analysis: Parker Place: Floating Cubes Planned for South Shattuck

By Steven Finacom Special to the Planet
Thursday September 03, 2009 - 11:23:00 AM
The street level photomontage, presented by the developer at the Design Review Committee meeting, shows the proposed development along Shattuck at Parker.
The street level photomontage, presented by the developer at the Design Review Committee meeting, shows the proposed development along Shattuck at Parker.
The model photograph shows the buildings stepping down to the west, with a row of “micro-cottages” at the rear.
The model photograph shows the buildings stepping down to the west, with a row of “micro-cottages” at the rear.

While public policy storm clouds have hovered over downtown Berkeley development in recent months, a large mixed-use commercial and residential project has quietly been in the planning stages further south along more tranquil south Shattuck. 

Although it’s not the first infill development proposed in recent years for that area, it is one of the largest and on a prominent site. If carried through to completion, it will set a tone for the district. Thus, it merits considerable scrutiny. 

Citycentric Investments, owned by Ali Kashani and former City of Berkeley planner Mark Rhoades, is proposing the infill apartment (and partially future condo) development on the west side of Shattuck where the Honda dealership now stands between Carleton and Parker. “Parker Place” would incorporate that full block frontage on the west side of the street, as well as a corner lot across the street on the northwest corner of Parker and Shattuck. 

The southern two thirds of the development—about 133 units—would perch on a site of about one acre, atop James Plachek’s 1923 auto showroom, originally built for Ford and Studebaker dealerships. Four new-construction residential floors would sit (the developer says they would “float”) above the existing retail facade along Shattuck.  

Across the street on the smaller, northern lot a five-story infill condominium building with some 28 units would be constructed, with some ground floor commercial and common space. The developers also propose narrowing Parker just west of Shattuck and incorporating a slightly elevated “speed table” into the street to slow east-west traffic and provide a pedestrian crossing between entrances and open spaces in the two developments. 

On Aug. 21, the city’s Design Review Committee (DRC) had an informal “preview.” The general feeling among committee members and public speakers seemed to be that that many of the project components are promising, but the currently proposed design package is not striking, but shocking. 

After hearing criticism of everything from the way the new building would connect to the old structure to the choice of exterior colors (there was no enthusiasm for “bean soup black”) project architect David Baker sarcastically remarked the meeting was a “fest of negativity.”  

It’s perfectly understandable for designers to be dismayed when people don’t applaud their aesthetic vision. And Baker was graciousness itself compared to the developer of a different project who, earlier in the evening, launched a red-faced diatribe when the committee approved his project, but had the temerity to request a different color for the window frames. 

But Baker, and developer Mark Rhoades, would be wrong to think people are trying to throw out the Parker Place baby with the bathwater. It’s the bizarre bathtub that’s the primary problem here, not necessarily the development they’re trying to birth. 

In a caustic letter read at the meeting, committee member Bob Allen, who wasn’t present, wrote that the street facing character of the project resembled a “morose new neighborhood in Emeryville.” The “floating cubes emphasize the brutality of the concept,” although the site “demands a facade with rhythm, depth, and handsome details.” 

He hit the nail on the head. In essence, most people, at this meeting at least, seemed responsive to the contents, but hated the way the structure is wrapped in an Emeryville/San Francisco SOMA aesthetic. 

This project also illustrates many of the troubling conceits of Modern design as it’s now often practiced: an emphasis on horizontality, even when there’s considerable height involved, with the result that big buildings look heavy and squat, not soaring; office-park bands of windows; asymmetrical chaos on facades, as if a computer virus had seized control of the architectural AutoCAD program, randomly punching a hole here, attaching a wart-like pop out there; bland exterior finishes (concrete, metal, hardie board), with swatches of bright color masquerading as design detail. 

The staff report to the DRC referred to the project having “varying facades that respond to adjacent context; the facade facing commercial uses on Shattuck has an industrial and ‘thick skin’ look.” 

But South Shattuck is not “industrial”—unless you go way back to the era of coal sellers and rail road freight yards—and this design approach is entirely out of place, especially in relation to the gracious adjacent residential neighborhoods and the scattered surviving older commercial buildings.  

Many designers—and a tiny, but outspoken, portion of the general population—seem to think an “industrial” look belongs almost everywhere.  

What irony, with the United States now well into its post-industrial age. Most of us never will set foot in a real factory during our working lives, but those who advocate “honesty” in design also often tell us we should live in fake factories. 

Some also argue that edgy new architecture is a pre-requisite for “vibrant” urban spaces. Nonsense. Look at Berkeley’s most active commercial districts, and Oakland’s too, for that matter. Grand Avenue, North Shattuck, the Elmwood, Lakeshore…hardly a trendy new industrial-style building in the lot but the streets ooze with “vibrancy” nonetheless.  

Good walkable neighborhoods result from many factors; architecture best suited for a warehouse district is not high on the list. 

There are a lot of nearby places where developer Mark Rhoades and Baker can look for more refreshing design inspiration. A few blocks north on Shattuck there’s Daniel Solomon’s Deco style Fine Arts Building, one of the larger and among the best, infill housing developments in Berkeley.  

Nearby, a building by Baker himself, the university’s Manville Apartments, has a facade that trends towards the vertical and is creatively manipulated to resemble separate structures. 

A block south of the Parker Place site another James Plachek structure, the refurbished, five story, UC Storage building, offers subtle detailing and big, multi-light, windows; beyond that there’s the original Berkeley Bowl, a sinuous Moderne creation that’s now well into its third lifetime of commercial use. 

The key is not to “imitate” a particular design style, as architects like to say, but to design something that is solid, balanced, and serene; the modern-day equivalent of Berkeley’s older apartment and mixed-use blocks which packed relatively large volumes into elegant, balanced, finely scaled, well-detailed, envelopes. 

Committee members pushed back hard in this direction. David Snippen asked for a revised design that makes a “solid, dignified, presentation to the street.” Terry Doran said, “there’s no relief of the horizontal walls.” Carrie Olsen said it was “not a welcome structure” and a revised design “should look like it fits.”  

One neighbor told the Committee, “the materials are horrible” and “this might look great in L.A. by the L.A. airport.” Another, an architect, said her “neighborhood is not a candy box,” referring to the garish color splashes. Another, “I think the industrial look is wrong for the neighborhood.”  

South Shattuck may have been an auto row, but it’s useful to remember that when it took on that character, in the 1920s, automobiles were elegantly tooled machines, sold in gracious spaces in retail districts, rather than metal and stucco boxes by the freeway. 

Enough justifiable criticism, though. Beyond the atrocious “skin,” there are substantial elements of the project to praise. 

Infill housing is certainly appropriate for much of South Shattuck. There was a lot of talk about how the project is designed to accommodate the existing, unionized (and tax producing) Honda car dealership if it decides to stay. Retail and resident parking is hidden below ground and doesn’t dominate and deaden the ground level, as is the case with many newer Berkeley infill buildings. 

There’s an intriguing collaboration with the Ed Roberts Campus that would develop the northern, freestanding, building as a model residential community for the physically disabled. “Green” elements like rainwater cisterns and photovoltaics are proposed.  

The project team does appear to have worked hard on the neighborhood interface. The existing building has a high concrete wall on the rear property line. They propose to cut the upper six feet or so off the wall, and top the remaining structure with a row of gable-roofed one bedroom “micro cottages” with tiny west-facing patios.  

These could effectively mediate between the freestanding dwellings to the west and the five-story bulk of the main new building to the east. It’s a thoughtful plan and a design approach at which Baker excels, with his background in efficient and creative design of small units.  

Another interesting aspect of the project is the plan to include a number of tiny retail spaces, perhaps as small as 100 square feet, where very small businesses-maybe a juice bar, a take out café, an artisan selling handicrafts—could have a real “storefront” without the crushing capital outlays and ongoing rental and operational costs of a larger commercial space.  

This is creative thinking in an era of economic austerity, especially when Telegraph, University, Shattuck and San Pablo—not to mention extensive areas of Oakland and Emeryville—are now pocked with large, recently built, infill developments containing generic, conventional, ground floor retail spaces that are echoingly empty and have never had a tenant.  

There’s another issue with this project that has broad city policy implications. In the hoorah about adding infill housing, somehow public open space needs consistently get lost. This project will add some 155 units—250-300 actual residents, one would guess—to a fairly compact site.  

While many of the units will have small patios or balconies and there’s some outdoor circulation space, those residents will be arriving in a part of Berkeley where the City operates no public parks and has no apparent plans for the creation of any.  

From downtown almost to the Berkeley border, and from Telegraph to Martin Luther King, Jr. Way—a huge area of town with several thousand residents—there are no public parks, and no recreational facilities such as swimming pools or gymnasiums, except for the lamentably shuttered Iceland and a fenced, pay-by-the-hour, sports practice field. 

This is a big problem, and it will worsen. If this density of development were continued along South Shattuck at the scale of Parker Place, thousands of new residents will arrive.  

Where will they walk their dogs, shoot a few hoops, take their toddlers to play, or just spend some quality of time out of doors on a park lawn? Nowhere nearby, they’ll discover. 

The current city attitude towards public amenities in areas like these seems to be, let them recreate in sidewalk cafes, or trek two neighborhoods away to a scattering of existing parks which are already heavily used.  

There is a direct and sensible way to rectify this. The entire stretch of Shattuck and Adeline from Ashby on the south to Dwight on the north is wide enough to accommodate both four lanes of traffic and a linear park in place of the current suburban style diagonal parking bays, little strips of greenery, and street trees swimming in concrete. 

The resulting park would be like the Ohlone Greenway along Hearst, also above the BART tubes. Not wide enough to have big playing fields, but certainly spacious enough to accommodate pockets of lawn, children’s play yards, basketball courts aligned parallel to the street, public art, a dog park, and masses of tree plantings. 

If the city approves decent infill projects along South Shattuck and Adeline it should also partner those approvals with a good plan and funding for open space. To do otherwise would border on public policy malfeasance and undermine the neighborhoods city officials and developers both profess to enhance. 


Note: David Baker + Partners architects has a page of images of the proposed development at their website, www.dbarchitect.com. If you click on any of the graphics, a lengthy stream of images will appear on the left, and can be individually enlarged.