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Berkeley Landmarks Commission Considers Acheson Development Plans

By Steven Finacom
Wednesday May 11, 2011 - 11:41:00 AM
The landmark Sill Grocery, currently housing Ace Hardware, would have a five story residential addition placed on top as part of the proposed Acheson Commons project.  The Acheson Building, at left, would be converted to apartments.
Steven Finacom
The landmark Sill Grocery, currently housing Ace Hardware, would have a five story residential addition placed on top as part of the proposed Acheson Commons project. The Acheson Building, at left, would be converted to apartments.
Both of these brown shingle apartment buildings at Walnut and Berkeley Way would be removed as part of the Acheson Commons project.
Steven Finacom
Both of these brown shingle apartment buildings at Walnut and Berkeley Way would be removed as part of the Acheson Commons project.
A view of the proposed development with the Acheson Building at left and Ace Hardware at center, topped by a five-story addition.
A view of the proposed development with the Acheson Building at left and Ace Hardware at center, topped by a five-story addition.
The entire development in an aerial view, from the southeast, with Shattuck Avenue at far left and Walnut Street at far right.
The entire development in an aerial view, from the southeast, with Shattuck Avenue at far left and Walnut Street at far right.
Architect Kirk Peterson, right, points out a design detail to Commissioner Christopher Linvill.  The head in the background was left over from a North Berkeley Senior Center Cinco de Mayo celebration.
Steven Finacom
Architect Kirk Peterson, right, points out a design detail to Commissioner Christopher Linvill. The head in the background was left over from a North Berkeley Senior Center Cinco de Mayo celebration.

Discussion of the large Acheson Commons housing development proposed for Downtown Berkeley occupied the attention of Berkeley’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) at their May 5, 2011 regular meeting.

The proposed project, which occupies most of the rectangular block bordered by University Avenue, Shattuck, Berkeley Way, and Walnut Street, includes the removal of two older brown shingle apartment buildings, additions on top of two existing landmark buildings and a third, undesignated, older structure, conversion of the landmark Acheson Physician’s Building to housing, and one entirely new construction structure.

The development would also wrap around three sides of the five story Bachenheimer Building, which Peterson designed several years ago and which Equity Residential owns. 

Dustin Smith from Equity Residential, the project owners and developers, said that the firm was a “SP 500 Company”, owning approximately 500 properties nationwide, including eight in Berkeley. Their properties are rented “to more than 200,000 residents”. 

The Berkeley project would construct just over 200 new residential units as a “high density, urban infill project.” “We have incorporated sustainable green practices into our design”, Smith said and “we believe this project will be a catalyst for new money and development in downtown Berkeley.” 

“We will be providing a wide variety of housing sizes and styles to appeal to new residents”, he added and “we will open up our project to both union and non-union contractors and subs” to bid on the construction work. 

The project would displace all of the existing businesses along the north frontage of University Avenue between Shattuck and Walnut since each building would require major construction. However, Smith said, Equity Residential would “try to keep Ace (Hardware) in operation during construction,” possibly by moving them to the ground floor of the Acheson Building next door to the west. Representatives of at least three of the businesses, including Ace, were at the hearing, listening to the presentation. 

Kirk Peterson, the project architect, presented a series of drawings and plans showing the current design concepts. The Commission saw an earlier iteration of the design in 2010. 

“It grew a story” since then, said Peterson, noting that most of the structures are now proposed to be six, not five, stories tall. “We’ll be building with new building codes allowing five stories of wood frame development” over a commercial ground floor. 

“The character and fabric of the buildings will look very much like Berkeley”, Peterson said. There will be no underground parking, but some ground level parking will be provided in the all new construction building at Berkeley Way and Walnut Street. 

The project will not provide any new public off-street open space, but in the middle of the complex “there’s room to have some big trees”, Peterson said. Roof decks will also be provided, and the project will work with the City of Berkeley’s SOSIP (Downtown streetscape) guidelines which call for narrowing University Avenue to one traffic lane in each direction between Shattuck and Oxford, and providing wider landscape strips on either side and in the center of the street. 

“There’s much new sidewalk and room for trees” on the street, Peterson said, adding that John Roberts is the landscape architect for the project. 

Peterson said the landmark Acheson building—a four story buff brick structure that housed commercial spaces on the ground floor, and professional offices upstairs—would be renovated on the exterior, but “the interior goes away” as it is altered to apartments. “The building, 103 years old, is “in a very good state of preservation” he noted. It has “apparently, the oldest operating elevator on the West Coast” which will be retained, but upgraded. 

New five story residential structures will rise above the two one-story commercial buildings west of the Acheson Building, down to the University Avenue / Shattuck Avenue corner. The existing commercial facades will be retained and restored, and the new structure will be set back five feet behind the parapets of the old buildings. 

Although the new structure will be one unified building on the interior, on the outside facing University Avenue it will have two different architectural characters and different upper floor massing, aligned with the historic structures at ground level. 

Along Walnut Street the Ace Hardware building (the landmark Sill Grocery) will have a five story residential addition on top, set five feet back from the parapet along University Avenue but rising straight up from the existing wall along Walnut Street. 

This will connect to a new six story building on the parking lot behind and the site of the two brown shingle houses. 

The houses Smith described as “two cottages of Walnut”. He said ‘they are not landmarked and have no context.” “In the plan the two houses would live happily ever after somewhere else, but that’s not part of our design”, said Peterson. 

(Note: the two buildings are multi-unit apartment structures, not ‘cottages’. They retain their context adjacent to the Sill Grocery and across the street from two other early 20th century wooden residential buildings forming a cluster at the intersection of Walnut and Berkeley Way. This group has been in place, largely unchanged on the exterior, for a century.) 

The design details of the project are “very much a work in progress” Peterson emphasized. “Our intent is not to fool people into thinking they’re old buildings”, but to use traditional details, design, and massing to harmonize with older structures. 

Some people call this “false historicism”, Peterson said, but in his view, “there’s not false historicism. There’s bad historicism, and there’s good historicism.” 

Peterson, who is known for his Berkeley and Oakland buildings that are sympathetic to their neighbors and incorporate traditional design elements, often with a Gothic, Mediterranean, or Renaissance feel, noted that famed architects like H. H. Richardson in Chicago and Berkeley’s Bernard Maybeck drew on the past for design details and character of their buildings. 

“The Bachenheimer Building is a good example of what you’re trying to say”, Chair Gary Parsons interjected. 

“I don’t see this as false historicism myself, and I appreciate your careful attention to detail”, said Commissioner Carrie Olson. “You’ll have an easier time of it than if we were trying to deal with someone trying to do something very different.” 

Olson did express concern about the limited setbacks of some of the new residential additions. “I asked that it take a bigger step back” above the Ace Hardware structure, she said. “That’s not what we’re seeing.” 

“The further back it goes, the more it’s like facadism”, argued Peterson, but other Commissioners who spoke generally agreed with Olson regarding the Ace / Sill building. “Those buildings must be set back more, especially on the Ace building”, said Commissioner Austene Hall. The building is “an important little landmark”, and “I think you can do something far more creative.” 

Commissioner Steve Winkel suggested that the right setback would align the new construction upper south façade with the end of the Ace display windows on Walnut Street, and “the top of that building needs some work.” 

“I like where this is going a lot”, Winkel said. He suggested that Peterson work with the City to figure out whether there is any way to include bay windows on the Walnut Street elevation of the new residential structures to help vary and articulate that façade. 

Winkel and Peterson briefly discussed what the skin of a building of this sort would have looked like if had been built in the early 20th century. Brick or stone, they agreed, and Winkel expressed concern about large areas of stucco façade. 

“A lot of my favorite buildings are Spanish Colonial”, Peterson said. They have “a lot of plainness, but then some really great richness” around doors, windows, and in other selected spots. “The materials are going to be critical”, Winkel agreed. 

Commissioner Hall expressed concern about a five foot setback above and behind historic facades could set a precedent that a poor architect could misuse on other downtown projects. “Some crappy design on top of a historic building at five feet becomes the standard, and that’s a problem.” 

The Commission briefly discussed how the large and complex project is going to be reviewed by the City. The Zoning Adjustments Board is having a “preview” of the project at its meeting this week (May 12), while the City’s Design Review Committee gets a look next week. 

“Where is it going to begin and end?” Commissioner Steve Winkel wondered. “It’s going to have to be a joint design review”, since the historic buildings come under the purview of the Landmarks Commission, while all-new structures would generally be reviewed by the separate Design Review Commission. 

“That will be fun”, said Peterson. 

“Design Review is hoping that the LPC will provide some direction”, said Commission Secretary Jay Claiborne. “I think this Commission (LPC) had to take the lead on doing the alternation permits on the landmark properties”, said Commissioner Olson, who also sits on Design Review. “I would like to know where the parcels stop and start.” 

“I think this does take a delicate dance”, she added. “The feedback loop should be whole” between Commissions. 

In response to a question about the project timing, Smith said “we’re hoping to get through this phase of review by about this time next year.” 

Olson suggested that a subcommittee might be set up, inviting the Design Review Committee to add members to make it a joint body. Commissioners Winkel, Hall, and Olson agreed to serve on a subcommittee. 

Eight regular members of the Commission were present at the meeting. Commissioner Miriam Ng did not attend the meeting. 

1755 Le Roy / Tellefsen Hall 

In other business, the Commission held a public hearing and discussion on proposed landscape changes to 1755 Le Roy Avenue, the landmarked Volney Moody House, originally known as “Weltevreden.” The iconic clinker brick clad 19th century house followed Arts and Crafts and Hillside Club movement ideals by oriented the house to Strawberry Creek to the south. 

The property, with a large garden, is now used as Tellefsen Hall, a private residence housing about 40 members of the California Marching Band. The owner applicants sent their landscape designers, Masalo Kamelani and Yoonju Chang of MaYo Landscape Architects, to make a presentation to the Commission. No one from Tellefsen Hall testified. 

The project proposes to alter and refurbish much of the garden area south of the creek and bridge, reconfiguring some terraces into a half-circle patio with central fire pit, curved seating walls, and some new plantings. A concrete patio would be removed and replaced with unit pavers. 

Two neighbors, Gladys and Clifford Block, who live next to the garden area, spoke at the public hearing, expressing concern that the changes would increase late night outdoor partying activity and noise. 

“Our bedroom is literally five feet from the area they will start redesigning”, said Gladys Block. “That will encourage the students to be out there later at night”, using the fire pit and seating areas. Two days ago, she said, Tellefsen Hall held a party and “no one left their deck until 2:15 in the morning.” 

“There is nothing I can do to keep them inside the house after 11 o’clock”, she added. “We can hear their conversations.” While she did not object to periodic parties, she said, “I really object to having our nights even more often kept awake.” 

“These are nice kids, we’ve talked to them”, added Clifford Block, noting he and his wife have lived there for 20 years. But they worry about both the fire pit and the increased likelihood of more parties and noise next to their home, he said. 

“I hear the concerns from the neighbors”, said Kamelani from the design team. “That is always a problem, but we would like to focus on the design issues.” 

“We love this property”, she said. The landscape elements “are kind of neglected and falling apart.” “We were hired to improve the existing conditions.” 

They want to improve runoff to the creek, she said, and will try not to have any bright lights in the landscaping. She also responded to a written letter in the Commission packet from another neighbor, Jim Sharp, asking that native plant species be used in the landscaping. “Our intention is to select plants that do well in Berkeley”, she said. “Well definitely revisit the planting plan; we’ll work with a native plant specialist.” 

Commission discussion focused in part on the fire pit. Most Commissioners were critical or skeptical, worried about the danger of fire spreading, and echoing the neighbor concerns that an outdoor fire would encourage residents to party around it late into the night. 

“It’s not a very Berkeley thing now”, to have fire pits, said Commissioner Olson. “We wanted to have some central feature” of the patio said Chang, but perhaps they could substitute “something more temporary, moveable.” 

Chair Parsons suggested that instead of a fire pit, a water feature could be the focus of the patio. “The fire pit is something that no one up here (at the Commission table) seems to love”, said Parsons, predicting the fire pit “is not going to happen.” 

Other concerns from Commissioners included the possible loss of rustic rock walls and historic brick work, and skepticism about using concrete unit pavers for new hardscape. Stone walls are “the essential element of beauty in that garden”, said Commissioner Schwartz. He suggested that any new stairs be of stone, not materials “more appropriate to Walnut Creek.” 

“We’re very much in agreement with you” said Kamelani, while adding “right now the outdoor space doesn’t adequately support the function” and that the students “want lounging space (outdoors) during the day time.” 

“There’s a lot to talk about here”, said Chair Persons. He told the neighbors it was probably not in the purview of the Commission to deal with the issue of late night partying, “but we are held responsible to how the new design relates to the historic resource.” 

Commissioners also expressed concern about a parking lot west of the house, and encouraged the designers and owners to extend their planning to improve its condition. “It would be really nice if they could do a hard landscape that would make it beautiful”, Olson said. 

The designers said that the project has to be funded incrementally, but they would talk to the owners about including phased improvements to the parking lot. Commissioners also said they were concerned about a student residence which has natural turnover and where in four or five years all the current students are gone, and no one may feel responsible for carrying out the plans or maintaining the new landscape as it was approved. 

The Commission did not take action on any of the proposed design plans but instead appointed a subcommittee of Schwartz, Winkel, Olson and Hall to visit the property. Subcommittees are a typical LPC practice to allow a group of Commissioners to discuss projects in great detail and bring a consolidated set of recommendations back to the Commission. 

Berkeley Rose Garden 

The Commission also briefly heard from staff on an issue of views at the landmark Berkeley Rose Garden. Initially, the City was going to consider removal of an oak tree at the garden to open up historic views of the Bay, but, said Claiborne, “the person at Parks and Rec who raised that issue has left the city. They have resolved the issue by doing pruning” of the oak. “It’s now a non-issue. But it’s still worth going (to the Rose Garden) because the roses are in bloom.” 

Some Commissioners disagreed on the tree issue, saying that the views of the Bay had been steadily constricted over the years by trees growing taller around the edges and beyond the Garden. Commissioner Schwartz said there used to be good views, but “now you see trees.” “The views are an essential element” of the landscape. “The views are incredible. It’s a rose garden, not a tree farm.” 

“I think the City kowtows too much to people who are tree lovers”, said Schwartz. “there are plenty of trees in Codornices Park, due east of the Rose Garden.” 

“They’re going to do pruning, we’ll see if it is sufficient” said Claiborne. 

McDuffie Estate 

22 Roble Road, the landmarked Duncan and Jean McDuffie estate, was also on the agenda as a continued public hearing. No representatives of the owners—who are planning a series of remodels—were present, and Commission Secretary Jay Claiborne said that the owners had asked to continue the item again until June. In March the Commission landmarked the property, and in April it began reviewing the proposed alterations. 

One individual, Leila Monscharsh, testified during the public hearing. She grew up in the house, and had organized a petition drive to landmark the structure. The Commission ended up merging her landmark application with that of the current owners when making the designation. 

Monscharsh thanked the Commissioners for their volunteer time, particularly for making trips to the McDuffie property to see the site conditions and proposed changes in person. They came up to her neighborhood, she said, and “the least I can do is come down and thank you.” 

“I think the project is going to be fine”, she added. “What you do here is you don’t kill projects, you make projects better.” 

“Just looking at projects and saying, they’re all great, is not what this Commission is about”, she added, thanking them again for their volunteer time and careful attention to the property. 

“That’s really, really a nice thing to say”, said Chair Gary Parsons.