Preliminary designs for a block long, six building, 200 rental unit development planned for downtown Berkeley were unveiled September 30, 2010, by the developer and the project architect.
The site of the “Acheson Commons” development includes seven existing buildings, three of them designated historic landmarks. They stand on the 2100 block of University Avenue bordered by Shattuck on the west and Walnut on the east.
Proposed by Equity Residential, a nationwide developer and operator of rental housing, the development would involve additions to three existing buildings, removal of two others, and renovation of two more.
Residential structures with commercial ground floors would rise four to six stories along University Avenue from Shattuck to Walnut, and wrap around the Walnut corner into a six-story, entirely new construction, apartment building extending to Berkeley Way.
Dustin Smith, one of three Equity Residential representatives at the community meeting held in the Shattuck Hotel to present the project, said the company currently “owns about 8,500 units in the Bay Area (including) about 500 units in eight buildings in Berkeley.” Nationwide, another Equity representative said, the company has more than 144,000 units.
The proposed project would increase Equity’s Berkeley housing stock by “around 200 units in four buildings,” according to Kirk Peterson of Oakland, the project architect who made most of the presentation at the meeting.
The preliminary designs Peterson presented build on the historic character of the landmark Acheson Physician Building and its neighbors on the block. The existing properties were largely built in the early 20th century by the Acheson family. Equity recently purchased the buildings from the estate of an Acheson employee who had inherited the commercial property.
All the new buildings are traditionally styled. As Peterson presented his designs he said, “if you imagine the Acheson family in the 1920s had commissioned all of these (new) buildings and hired me, this is what I would have done back then.”
“One of the reasons we hired Kirk is because he’s very conversant with historic preservation,” said Dan Golovato, Equity First Vice President, who appeared to be leading the Equity team at the meeting. “We’re making a pretty significant investment, trying to be a catalyst for all of downtown.”
The existing properties, working from west to east along the north side of University Avenue, include the one-story U.S. Realty Corp. Building, often known as the MacFarlane Building after the candy store once located there.
Sporting an ornate metal cornice painted white above arched clerestory windows, and occupying the northeast corner of the University Avenue / Shattuck Avenue intersection, it was built in 1925 and designated a city of Berkeley landmark in 1986.
Next is another one-story, early 20th century commercial building with a painted brick façade, currently housing a copy shop. Peterson noted that the design of the façade is identical to the commercial ground floor of the Acheson Physicians’ Building further up the block.
The brick building is bordered on the east by the Bachenheimer Building, designed by Kirk Peterson in 2004 in a historicist style for another client. This was the first property Equity purchased on the block as part of its earlier acquisitions in downtown.
Beyond the Bachenheimer Building is a tiny, wedge shaped one-story structure, home to a Crepes a Go Go branch, then the Acheson Physicians’ Building (2131 University Avenue) designed by George L. Mohr in 1908, and designated a city landmark in 1982.
Finally, at the end of the block and on the northwest corner of Walnut Street and University Avenue, stands the S.J. Sill & Co. Grocery Building, designed by James Plachek in 1915 and designated a city landmark in 2004.
It’s familiar to generations of Berkeley residents as the downtown home of Berkeley Ace Hardware. Behind and around the corner from the Sill Grocery are two freestanding, two-story, brown shingle apartment buildings.
Peterson said the project proposes one new building on the Shattuck / University corner which would be set back behind the existing facades of the two buildings there and rise six stories. Although this would be a single, unified, residential structure the façade would have two treatments, making it look like two separate buildings along University Avenue matching the existing building frontages.
The top two floors of the easternmost wing would be set back behind a terrace so the tower of the adjacent Bachenheimer Building would remain prominent on the skyline.
The University Avenue façade of the Acheson Physicians’ Building would be restored and the interior altered to residential units. Adjacent, on the University / Walnut corner, Sills Grocery / Ace Hardware would be topped by a five story residential addition.
Behind that structure, at Berkeley Way / Walnut Street the two brown-shingle buildings would be removed and replaced with a new construction, six-story, residential building.
Three Equity representatives—including Smith and Golovato—stood in the back of the room while Peterson presented the design, but also answered questions from the audience of about 25, which included about half a dozen developer and architect staff.
Several attendees identified themselves as connected with businesses on the block. city of Berkeley Economic Development staffer Dave Fogerty and downtown Berkeley Association Executive Director Jon Caner were present, along with architect and city Council candidate Jim Novosel.
The meeting was relatively low key and brief. Among the questions asked and answered were these:
Will the project be constructed all at once? “That’s the intent,” said Smith.
When will it be built? Two years of design and city reviews and approvals are anticipated, followed by about two years of construction, Golovato said. The company is preparing an application to submit to the city of Berkeley in October or November.
Golovato said that the current state of the economy and the local rental market would not deter the development or schedule.
Would ground floor storefronts be kept? “Everything that’s retail now remains retail,” said Golovato. Peterson added that some existing smaller commercial spaces might be combined into larger rental spaces by the renovation, but could also be subdivided again.
Can the existing retail tenants remain? “The existing tenants have to go somewhere else while the construction is happening but hopefully they can come back,” said Peterson.
“Assuming we can reach an agreement on the lease we’d like to have the tenants come back,” said Golovato. When pressed by one meeting attendee who said “Ace Hardware for me is very critical,” Golovato said “we would like to see them come back,” and “there’s the possibility they could move into the Acheson Building.”
The Equity representatives, however, appeared to word their statements carefully to avoid any implicit promise of relocation assistance.
What happens to the two brown shingle houses? “Those buildings get recycled off site,” said Peterson. “They would be moved elsewhere,” said Golovato. He later said, “we don’t know” when asked if they would be preserved. “We won’t be involved in restoration. Our preference is to move them.” Peterson said he knew of interest from one party who might take one of the houses on another site.
Who will live in the apartments? While the owners can’t restrict the occupancy, “we are not building specifically for the student population,” said Golovato.
He added, “almost all of the units (in the design) are larger than the average size of the rest of our portfolio in Berkeley.” They would range, he said, from about 500 to about 1,000 square feet, with the largest units having two bedrooms.
Will parking be provided? Peterson said any new parking in the development would be sited beneath the Berkeley Way / Walnut development. Golovato said a parking study to assess need and demand was underway.
Would the developers build any taller than six stories? “There’s no flexibility in going higher because we get out of stick construction,” Golovato said. Five stories of stick or wood frame construction can be done over a concrete ground floor, Peterson added. Taller buildings must be constructed of concrete or steel, making them more expensive to build.
The project comes at an interesting time, when proponents of Measure R on the November ballot argue that downtown Berkeley is stagnant and needs new zoning rules and higher building heights to attract significant development.
But in this case, a large national developer is proposing to develop a full block face of new housing under the existing downtown zoning.
The Acheson development would add about 200 units of new housing to the downtown. By my count this would be the 14th or 15th large residential development built in the downtown since the existing Downtown Plan zoning was adopted in 1990.
Taken together, the developments have ranged from two to nine stories tall and have created hundreds of new housing units in the downtown in the past 20 years.
The project also raises some interesting, and perhaps troubling, historic preservation issues.
Peterson’s historicist approach to the design is a welcome relief to this writer, along with the adaptive reuse of four historic buildings, three of them city landmarks.
However, the project would also remove (and perhaps demolish) two other buildings, the brown shingle houses on Walnut that form a small but important cluster with two other wooden residential buildings across the street.
The interior of the Acheson Building and the Ace Hardware commercial space could also be radically altered, further reducing the already limited inventory of interior historic spaces in the downtown.
And questions can be raised about whether placing a five-story addition atop the Ace Hardware building will work from a design standpoint or, instead, look as if the addition is crushing the older building.