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Zoning Board Discusses, Critiques, Acheson Commons

By Steven Finacom
Tuesday May 17, 2011 - 10:09:00 PM
Dustin Smith from Equity Residential listens to Zoning Board comments while architect Kirk
            Peterson, at right, takes notes.
Steven Finacom
Dustin Smith from Equity Residential listens to Zoning Board comments while architect Kirk Peterson, at right, takes notes.

The Acheson Commons housing development proposed for Downtown Berkeley forged ahead into the second of three “preview” meetings before City review bodies, but ran into at least temporarily unsettled weather at Berkeley’s Zoning Adjustment Board at its meeting on May 12, 2011.

While the ZAB was cautiously favorable towards the general development, members raised firm objections to a number of aspects of the project and predicted it would not win their approval without modifications. 

Concerns included the lack of affordable housing integrated into the development, the overall density and character of the apartment units, and the prospect that union labor might not be used in construction. 

Equity Residential—a company with some 500 properties nationwide, which owns and operates several apartment and mixed use buildings in Downtown Berkeley—is proposing the 203 unit project along the entire length of the north side of the 2100 block of University Avenue, between Shattuck and Walnut, and wrapping around the corner to Berkeley Way. 

Equity was also a major contributor to the Measure R campaign that supported, in 2009, the City Council majority’s proposal to intensify Downtown development. 

The proposed Acheson Commons development would convert the landmark Acheson Physicians Building to apartments, add five stories of housing atop the landmark Sill Grocery / Ace Hardware store, construct another five story residential building atop and behind the commercial structures at the northeast corner of University and Shattuck, and remove two brown shingle apartment buildings at Walnut and Berkeley Way, replacing them with a new residential tower. 

The development would wrap around three sides of the decade old Bachenheimer Building that stands west of the Acheson Physicians Building. 

(Adjacent one-story commercial properties on the northwest corner of the block and the University of California Press building on the north side of the block, facing Berkeley Way, are not part of the project site.) 

All of the ground floor commercial spaces that currently line that frontage of University Avenue would be renovated or altered and, according to Equity representatives, all of the existing businesses would have to relocate, at least during construction. 

The preview before the ZAB started off with brief presentations by Dustin Smith, representing Equity, and project architect Kirk Peterson. 

The development, said Smith, would be “implementing a modern vision” and creating “a whole new pedestrian oriented streetscape.” “There is a need for new housing opportunities” in Downtown, and the project would have “many community benefits.” 

“Our construction plan was to do the construction all simultaneously”, he added. 

He projected about $70 million would be invested in construction and development, plus “fees for affordable housing” paid to the City. The proposal would fit within current zoning, he said, but would require variances for lot coverage and building height (the ZAB is the City body which approves variances). 

Smith added that the environmental review process was just beginning and Equity has “elected to prepare a focused EIR relevant to the historic circumstances.” He touched on the business relocation issue, saying that they were looking for a way to relocate Ace Hardware during construction. 

“We are here tonight to listen to community comments” and “look forward to being part of Berkeley’s Downtown vision”, he concluded. 

The design approach, said architect Peterson, is “basically new buildings with existing facades.” The new construction would rise behind the historic facades, with small setbacks above the commercial ground floors. 

“Each building has a different expression, architecturally”, Peterson said. Although the project would have two large, unified, new residential structures at either end of the block, from University Avenue they would look like three separate residential buildings, with different façade detailing and articulation. 

The project was “well received” at last week’s Landmarks Preservation Commission meeting, said Peterson. The LPC was “feeling comfortable with where it is headed.” 

After the initial short presentation, ZAB members began commenting. 

“I just want to complement the architect for somehow just getting things right”, said Commissioner Sophie Hahn, praising the general design character of the project. 

The future of existing businesses on the block was of concern to some Commissioners. Hahn said she was worried about whether Berkeley Ace Hardware would survive the development project. 

“I have met with them several times”, Smith said. The project could “potentially allow them to move over to the Acheson Building during construction”, and “potentially move back” to their current space. 

Commissioner Bob Allen said, however, he thought that as Downtown develops further, “low overhead stores like Ace are simply not going to be able to afford to be here.” 

Hahn also said she was concerned about the loss of the now-vacant rent controlled units in the brown shingle apartment buildings. (The new development units would be exempt, as new construction, from rent control). Equity proposes to either demolish or move the brown shingle buildings to some other site and ownership. 

“The cottages, we have a difference of opinion as to whether they’re subject to rent control or not”, said Smith. 

Some Commissioners also said they felt there should be more parking. 50 on-site spaces are proposed at ground level of the new construction residential building at Walnut and Berkeley Way. 

When asked about public open space to balance the project density, Smith referred to “the biggest open space in Berkeley just a block away” (the UC campus). “There’s plenty of open space opportunities there.” 

The Acheson Commons project would include a courtyard, and rooftop decks and terraces for residents. 

The campus observation didn’t seem to sit well with several ZAB members. 

“To say the University campus is the open space is almost insulting”, said Commission Chair George Williams. “You’ve got to do something more with respect to open space.” 

Several Commission members were concerned about the size and likely market for the rental units, as well as their affordability. The project would have 128 one bedroom and 78 two bedroom units. 

“More variety in unit size” urged Commission Chair Williams. 

“It’s really important for the health of the Downtown that we don’t build dormitories in the Downtown”, said Commissioner Sara Shumer. The Downtown should “not just become a bedroom for the University.” 

“We’re talking about small apartments”, Shumer worried. “Urban apartments,” countered Peterson. 

“This is a huge project in terms of Downtown”, Peterson went on. “We want to bring families Downtown.” “The project as you’ve designed it is not going to bring adult families to the Downtown”, Shumer replied. 

Peterson demurred, saying that in the New Californian (the “Trader Joe’s Building”) he had designed, there is a mix of adult residents, not just students. “It’s hard to say who will rent this.” 

Smith said the goal of Acheson Commons is to “provide housing for a wide variety of people in the community.” 

“I’m all for density, but some of these units look like they’re being sacrificed for density” said another Commissioner. “Would this be a better project if it was less dense?” he wondered. 

“I’m thrilled to have this going on in Downtown” Commissioner Bob Allen said, adding, “I don’t have a problem with the density”, but did have an objection to the design. 

“You’re putting a large number of apartments facing into lean mean little spaces” between buildings. There are 10 – 12 foot gaps proposed between some of the residential structures in the current design. 

“Totally unacceptable,” Allen concluded. “Totally inhuman, unacceptable housing and I would never support this plan if they remain.” 

In terms of housing affordability, the development would be all market rate rental units, Smith said. “We’re not proposing any BMR (below market rate) units in the project”, Smith said, but Equity Residential will “contribute to the Housing Trust Fund.” 

Commissioner Deborah Matthews objected. Berkeley “made tremendous strides in the 1980s to have housing be more inclusionary”, she said. Separate affordable housing projects built with in-lieu fees given to the City’s Housing Trust Fund tend to “isolate communities.” 

“In a project this size it is not a difficult task to create affordable housing.” she argued. 

“It really complements diversity, it complements culture,” to mix affordability grounds in the same development, she said. “I have an issue with that.” “I’m not really comfortable” with no affordable units within the development itself. 

“I’ll definitely take your comments into consideration”, Smith said. 

“I like the project as a concept in general” said Commission Chair Williams. But “your text doesn’t really address the required findings for a variance,” he said to Smith. 

He said Equity Residential would probably “have the right to Ellis Act those two buildings” (take the two brown shingle apartment buildings permanently out of use as rent controlled housing), “but I’m not sure I want to vote to give you what you want” in terms of variances. 

Commissioner Allen—who also sits on the Design Review Committee, which will preview the project this week—tried to encourage Peterson into saying that the project should demolish the two landmark buildings at the University Avenue corners of the block and build anew, rather than building behind and above the existing façade. 

“I look at both of those as pretty trite pieces of architecture”, Allen said of the Ace building and the old McFarlane’s building, both designated landmarks. “I think it would be a better block without them.” 

“If you had a choice, would you have tried to retain those facades?” he asked. Peterson wouldn’t take the bait. “Our intent is to restore the lower level” storefronts he said. And “the Ace building is pretty interesting” architecturally. 

“It’s like cooking with what’s in season,” Peterson concluded. “And they’re landmark buildings. I think I probably would save them.” 

Allen did urge the development team to consider bay windows in the new residential structures. Berkeley currently discourages bay windows built projecting over the sidewalk. “This is stupid”, Allen said. “Bay windows are one of the few architectural features we as architects have to work with.” 

Commissioner Michael Cohen objected, however, to the fact that “there’s not a (ground floor) setback in the entire enormous block here.” “I think this looks rather blocky”, he told Peterson. Peterson argued that the project fit with the Downtown character and urban scale. 

And “it’s a shame you didn’t look at any office space opportunity in this huge block here,” Cohen added. (Cohen is involved in the Berkeley Start-up Cluster, a project to encourage incubator space for spin-off businesses from the University and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.) 

The buildings, Peterson said, are intended to be “the quality of the Bachenheimer Building”, which he designed in the center of the block a decade ago. “Richer and more interesting than pretty much anything else that has been built around here recently.” 

After carrying on much of its own discussion of the project, the Commission belatedly took testimony from four members of the public. 

John Dalrymple, the Political Director for Sheet Metal Workers Union Local 107, said he had been “digging into the detail of the project” and had “a lot of concerns.” “The idea that the open space is the University tells you what the target population is”, he said. 

He criticized Equity Residential, saying “they have a history of using the lowest paid construction workers” and the “lowest bidder” and would have “no intention” of doing union construction on this project. 

“This is the largest apartment builder in the United States.” Equity “plays hardball”, he said. “We have to educate them about the values of our community.” He also criticized the small number of parking spaces. 

A woman who identified herself as working at the UC Press at 2120 Berkeley Way, which sits immediately north and west of the development site, said “this proposed development would totally make our work space uninhabitable” during construction. UC Press might be forced “to relocate out of Berkeley” if it were built as proposed, she said. 

“The Acheson Commons project is really key to the revitalization of Downtown,” John Caner, the Executive Director of the Downtown Berkeley Association, said. “We see this as part of the overall revitalization of Downtown”, he concluded. 

The DBA has, in the past, advocated for placing a priority on streetscape improvements on upper University Avenue. This project could be a way to finance the City’s proposed SOSIP improvements there. 

I spoke during the public hearing about the importance of the two brown shingle apartment houses in context with other historic buildings on the block, and said that with a development this large there should be a binding commitment to preserve and restore them if they are moved to another site. 

I expressed concern about the lack of public open space Downtown. I noted that this project might add as many as 500 new residents to Downtown—and similar projects will follow on other Downtown blocks—but the City has no plans in place to increase useable park space to accommodate those new residents. I said widening sidewalks and providing outdoor café areas were not sufficient “open space” improvements for a Downtown with an enlarged population. 

Near the end of the discussion, Commissioner Hahn endeavored to sum up some of the key themes of the Commission reaction to the project. 

“The union labor question is really important.” “That starts being high on my list.” 

Open space “needs to be addressed more effectively”, and “maybe (the project is) more dense that the density everyone is clamoring for.” 

“I think we heard a lot about more varied housing options”.” 

There‘s “clearly some interest in the brown shingles, in saving them”, and “the affordable housing piece is really big.” 

She said “it would be really nice to see a plan for the survivability and viability of the existing businesses on the block”, worrying they would be “crushed out” but the development. “What are we going to do as a community to make sure the businesses survive?” she asked. 

Commissioner Mike Friedrich (sitting in as a temporary appointee) added, “there is a significant private benefit here that has to be talked about.” “This is one of the prime pieces of real estate in the city.” 

“75 years from now the most expensive rent in the city is going to be in this building”, if the developer builds the project. 

“I’m generally very excited by the overall thrust of it”, he said “but we have some significant concerns.” He suggested that the developer talk to the City about making part of Walnut Street into useable open space, and reiterated “the need for affordable housing and varied housing.” 

“Achieve it within the building itself”, he said. 

“Union labor is a major issue in this town”, he added. “It’s a community value that was expressed in our Measure R vote.” 

Next steps: 

Last week the Landmarks Preservation Commission previewed the project. This week the project goes to the City’s Design Review Committee. 

Some of the DRC members overlap on the Landmarks Commission and ZAB, meaning that the comments from those two bodies will flow into the ZAB discussion. 

Commission staffer Steve Buckley told the Commission that City was beginning work on the Environmental Impact Report for the project. 

My original article about the Acheson project, October 2, 2010, is here

I wrote May 11, 2011 about the project preview before the Landmarks Commission here: 


(Disclosure: Steven Finacom has made public comments on aspects of the Acheson project at the public hearings before both the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Zoning Adjustments Board.)