Acheson Commons, the 203-unit new housing development proposed to be built above and around several historic buildings in Downtown Berkeley, had its third and final “preview” presentation to a City of Berkeley review body on Thursday, May 19, 2011.
The City’s Design Review Committee —absent one member, Carrie Olson—considered the project and provided the applicants, Equity Residential, with some complements, some criticism, and some questions during the evening session.
DRC is made up of appointed representatives from the Landmarks Preservation Commission, Zoning Adjustments Board, and Civic Arts Commission, along with community member design professionals in architecture and landscape architecture.
Dustin Smith representing Equity Residential began the presentation with a recap of the project and a run down of responses to issues raised in previous presentations to the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Zoning Adjustments Board.
“We’re a large apartment company”, Smith said. Equity purchased the Acheson property “back in the fall.” The proposal is “very fitting with what the vision of the new Downtown is”, and “involves historic renovation or preservation of three landmark structures, and a new structure.”
“What we’re proposing right now does not include any affordable housing”, Smith said, speaking to a concern emphasized by the Zoning Adjustments Board. He then added that Equity Residential has made “a formal offer to the City” to pay into the Housing Trust Fund instead.
Equity has offered a contribution to the Housing Trust Fund equal to “$8,000 a unit”, he said. That would total $1,624,000 for the 203-unit project. 128 one bedroom and 75 two bedroom units are proposed.
“We are not against having union labor on our project”, Smith said, but “all we ask is that they submit a bid and be competitive with other contractors.” He said Equity would “anticipate a mix” of union and non-union labor on the construction project.
The project would fall short of zoning regulations in “providing about 50% of the required open space”, he acknowledged. On this site “it is very difficult to come up with the type of open space you typically see in apartment developments.”
The project would, he said, implement the draft Downtown Streetscape and Open Space Improvement Plan (SOSIP) along the property frontage it would develop.
It would include “about 50 parking spaces” which, he said, is consistent with the parking demand at the eight Downtown apartment buildings Equity currently owns. “What we’re proposing is what we think will actually be used in the project.” In response to a question he noted the parking would be in lift-type stalls, where cars are mechanically stacked.
There has been public concern about the future of Ace Hardware, he noted. “Our architect has done a space plan for them in the Acheson Building”, he said, which could provide Ace with a place to operate during construction on the current Ace building. “We are working with them.”
Smith then detoured into a lengthy comment on the two small brown shingle apartment buildings on Walnut Street that the project would remove, either relocating them to some other site or demolishing them.
“We have studied these dwellings” he said, and read from a letter from an unnamed historic consultant who asserted that the buildings have no historic significance or context, and are on no historic lists.
(Note: the letter was in error. The two brown shingle buildings are on the State Historic Resources Inventory (SHRI) for Berkeley, prepared in the 1970s. They have been defined historic resources Downtown for nearly four decades, and the SHRI designation has been included on numerous public lists.)
Project architect Kirk Peterson then stepped forward to quickly run through a series of drawings of the proposed project design. He noted that the project would have an interior courtyard about 60 x 90 feet, and described the proposed plans for, and design character of, each of the buildings.
Peterson explained the plans for the landmark McFarlane commercial building at Shattuck and University, with a white-wedding cake cornice. Five stories of housing would rise five feet behind the parapet, and the street level storefronts, altered over time, would have a “complete restoration.”
“I know Bob (Allen, DRC member) isn’t excited about this building, but it’s a landmark and we’re working with it”, Peterson said. He described the addition as “a friendly new building.”
“Even though I don’t like the old McFarlane Building” Allen said, “is there more to that building that’s been covered up?” by previous remodels, he asked.
“The whole ground floor and glazing has been screwed up,” Peterson said. When renovated “it will look more coordinated.” “Maybe it was a better building when it was first done.”
The Ace Hardware building (the landmark Sill Grocery) at the eastern end of the block would receive another five-story addition on top, along with a storefront façade renovation.
“We’ve also, just for fun, designed the Gateway Building for the University”, said Peterson, showing a design for a multi-story, traditionally styled, infill building on the block immediately to the east, bordered by Walnut, University Avenue, and Oxford Street. The “Gateway” site is owned by the University and proposed eventually for an infill structure.
An all-new residential building on Walnut which would replace the two brown shingle apartment buildings has a “more residential character” than the buildings lining University, Peterson said.
He noted that members of the Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) and Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) had encouraged consideration of bay windows along the new residential facades on Walnut Street, projecting over the sidewalk, but “new bay windows are disallowed [by the City] Downtown.”
Not allowed “anywhere”, clarified Committee secretary Anne Burns. She said they would require an encroachment permit from the Public Works Department. “We’d be happy to start entertaining that discussion,” said Dustin Smith.
Most of the decorative details on the proposed buildings are “from Italy and Spain originally”, Peterson said, referring to the passion for Period Revival design that animated Downtown Berkeley architecture in the first part of the 20th century.
“We’re not going to talk about color for a long time, probably”, he added; exterior color is one of the later elements to be reviewed and approved by the DRC.
Landscape architect John Northmore Roberts also spoke, outlining the general landscape concept. Roberts, who has an eponymous firm in South Berkeley, has been brought on as the landscape designer for the project. This was his first public appearance as part of the design team.
There are “three basic parts of the landscape” in the Acheson project, Roberts said. The interior courtyard Peterson had mentioned would lie north of the existing Acheson Building and will be “a garden courtyard at a new level raised up” and connect through an open-air passageway to Walnut Street on the east. This passage will also be a primary resident entrance to the site.
The space would have “room for some tall trees”, Roberts noted, suggesting the possibility of redwoods and Armstrong maples. There’s also a small, separate, entry courtyard to the new building that would stand at Walnut and Berkeley Way.
The second element of the on-site landscaping would be roof terraces. On the five-story residential tower put atop the Ace Hardware structure “the entire thing (roof) is either paved or planted” as a terrace. A two level terrace will top the new residential floors at University and Shattuck, behind the historic buildings there.
Sidewalk level improvements along University Avenue and Walnut will be the third part of the landscape plan. Along Walnut Street the basement of Ace Hardware, which currently extends under the sidewalk, will be narrowed, allowing an opportunity for street trees and other low plantings in that area.
Roberts said the on-site outdoor areas would total about 20,000 square feet. The roof terraces and courtyards would be private outdoor areas for renters, not public open spaces.
[I was the sole speaker during the public comment period on the project. I said that the project created on opportunity to provide useable, active, public open space on Walnut Street and particularly on wide, little used, Berkeley Way behind the site.
I noted that Berkeley Way could easily be reduced to one traffic lane headed east for fire and delivery access, with the remainder of the space used for open space, including small, active recreation uses such as a half-court basketball court. I urged the Committee to support some active recreation, in addition to widened sidewalks and more landscaping.
I was supportive of the infill building on the University / Shattuck corner, but concerned about the residential tower atop the Ace Building not having any substantial setback from University Avenue. I encouraged both applicants and the Committee to think about non-residential uses above the street, such as a dining terrace on the Ace roof overlooking University Avenue, or a café or restaurant atop the building on the University / Shattuck corner.]
The Committee format entailed questions from the members, followed by public comment, followed by a further set of comments from Committee members.
What would be the mix of likely residents, asked Committee member Adam Woltag?
“A mixture of students, professionals, people who work Downtown”, Smith answered, along with some “empty nesters”. People who live outside Downtown want to live there, he said. “It will be all of the above.”
Committee member Dave Blake noted that the open space plan presented for the project provided only 40% of the required open space on site, not 50% as stated in the presentation.
“You’re not the first people to claim the University is your open space”, he added, referring to comments Equity made in the their submittals and in previous presentations that the UC campus was nearby and had lots of open space for residents to use.
“I personally think we’ve got to get over this open space stuff”, said Committee member Allen. “It’s an urban downtown setting.” “You don’t have rooftop gardens” on most apartment buildings in San Francisco, he said. He was “personally comfortable with what you’re showing” on rooftop gardens.
“I don’t think you have enough parking”, said Committee member George Williams. “There are real problems with getting this project approved,” he added. Those include not providing “any affordability in the project”. “This is going to be a student dormitory”, he predicted. “You have to be a little more respectful of the community’s concern for having an income mix” of residents in the Downtown.
“I really don’t understand how you reconcile your proposal with the staff report, and I don’t know how you’ll deal with that”, Williams concluded.
Committee member Bob Allen said, however, “the City did make a conscious decision to allow development to pay in lieu fees”, rather than incorporating affordable housing in new developments. The issue is not the purview of the ZAB or the Design Review Committee, Allen said.
Williams also criticized the Walnut frontage of the all-new residential building, saying the garage entrance was too prominent and didn’t provide a friendly streetscape. “You can do better than that.”
Allen supported that point, saying the Walnut / Berkeley Way street level design is “not very pleasant.” He didn’t like the idea of live work units in that building having windows at street level, predicting they would be most often covered with curtains or shades. He suggested he would rather have retail or sidewalk level office space near that corner, “something that creates activity.”
“My biggest concern” Allen went on, had to do with narrow spaces—ten and eleven foot gaps—between facing residential side walls of some of the adjacent buildings. “Apartments looking into apartments”. “Absolutely, totally unacceptable” he concluded.
“I’m very concerned about the amount of units and how they’re jammed into this envelope, a very handsome envelope,” said Committee member Adam Woltag. The units are “incredibly small”, he said, and “it does seem like student housing.”
Like Allen he wanted wider elevator lobbies and was concerned about “no light at the end of a long corridor” in many places.
“Is there no market in this area for larger, more up market units?” Committee chair Jim Goring wondered. Smith said Equity had looked at its existing buildings and the tenants they had attracted. “The unit types we’ve picked out are what was most successful in these projects”, he said.
An owner “can’t forbid students from renting them”, added Peterson.
“If you don’t have these units (larger units) you’re never going to get them”, said Williams. “How many families are going to live at University and Shattuck?” countered Peterson.
He said that the New Californian building which he had designed (but which is not an Equity project), has some “empty nesters”, older adults who had moved from single family homes to Downtown rental units.
Woltag liked the rooftop terraces, but suggested that the ground level courtyard “looks like a left over space”, and said “if there were less units in this development and a larger interior courtyard”, the project would be improved. Recalling housing he’s visited in other cities, he said that “the interior blocks are a public amenity” when designed with enough outdoor space. “If would be a huge benefit to this project if that inner courtyard had more space.”
Asked about the exterior materials, Peterson said, “the basic material is stucco” for the new construction elements. There would be some new brick.
Commission chair Goring expressed some skepticism about stucco exteriors. “Most of Italy is stucco”, Peterson countered. “It’s stucco over walls this thick” Goring said, indicating a sizeable dimension with his hands. Goring said that buildings with visibly thin walls where the windows are not inset tend not to look that good.
“One of the reasons this building will look great” is the foot thick walls shown on the plans, he said, stressing that feature must remain.
Goring emphasized that the developer needs to invest in good materials. “It’s important that the materials keep the promises the elevations (drawings) make”, he told Smith.
Committee member and landscape architect Chuck McCulloch said the project presents “an opportunity to create some sort of a precise plan” for adjacent streets, and he passed out a drawing suggesting that Walnut Street adjacent to the site provides “this great chance to create an opportunity for useable, wonderful, open space.”
“We need a real precise vision”, he said, saying that open space could extend around the corner onto part of Berkeley Way.
“I like what’s happening on University Avenue” with the landscape design, he said. “The roof top gardens look very interesting.” However, he criticized the plans for large trees in the interior courtyard. “It’s going to get pretty shady in there.” “Probably you don’t need four redwood trees.” “I think you need as much sun as possible” in the courtyard.
“Second, third floor uses other than residential make a lot of sense”, McCulloch added. “You’re holding three of the most interesting corners in the whole city”, with views of the campus and bay from them, he said. The University Avenue / Shattuck corner “would make a great place for some sort of second or third floor use” like a restaurant that would provide access to the public other than tenants.
Committee member Dave Blake seconded the importance of that corner for “above ground floor commercial use.” “If you have to live with this style of architecture”, “do something inventive with the third floor,” he suggested.
He mused about whether the landmark building could be removed.
“A runaway twelve wheeler…?” said Committee member Allen, apparently trying to facetiously suggest a truck could run into the historic structure and knock it down.
“It’s a concrete building,” clarified architect Peterson.
If the McFarlane building were proposed for demolition, “half the citizens of Berkeley would go out and get their pitchforks”, said Commission chair Goring.
Peterson said mixing commercial and residential uses on the upper floors might get into complications with the building code, which requires more fire separations for commercial uses and more exiting, but said they could look at it. “The point is it can be done”, encouraged McCulloch.
“Your buildings generally are pretty amazing,” said Committee Chair Jim Goring to Peterson, who has designed several other buildings in the Downtown.
But he criticized the complicated circulation within the Acheson project, where the main residential entrances would not necessarily clearly correspond to apparent entrance areas on the building facades. For example, the unobtrusive courtyard entrance on Walnut Street would be actually be a main entrance to the buildings on that side.
“Things like that set me a little sideways”, where the apparent main entry is not really the entry, Goring said. He wanted “buildings that function the way they appear to function.”
Allen said he also “really agreed with the comments about the entry places.” He was critical of several existing buildings built by Panoramic Interests and now owned by Equity Residential. They tend to have tiny entry corridors, “no alcoves at the elevators.” “They just don’t say, ‘here I am, come in the front door’.”
However, Allen said to Peterson, “I have a lot of faith in what you do, Kirk.”
Goring also expressed skepticism about the density of the project, saying the developers might be “trying to get the density we’re looking for (Downtown) by throwing away open space people really need.”
But “I really hope you stick to your guns for the things you feel are important”, he told Peterson.
Goring pointed to the 1980s “Burger King Building” at the southeast corner of University and Shattuck Square as an especially bad example of earlier Downtown design.
“Part of your responsibility is to sort of counter the curse that building put on University Avenue”, he told Peterson. The Shattuck / University corner with the McFarlane’s Building “absolutely needs something that just jumps off the page.”
Noting that the plans proposed by Peterson go “three feet over the height limit” for that corner, Goring said “I vote for 13 feet over the height limit” to make a better, more substantial, tower on the corner.
The Committee discussed sustainability issues for the project. Smith said that Equity had met with the city, and would “vastly exceed” the minimum green point checklist the city has. He noted the project would have water conservation features and elements like lights that turn off when areas are not in use.
Peterson said that the project is not submitting for a LEED rating, but that “these [Equity] are also people who don’t flip buildings,” and have a long-term stake in saving energy and lowering operating costs. “They’re going to meter everything”, and the buildings will be “extremely well insulated.”
“It’s been a pretty lively discussion”, Woltag said when his turn came to comment. “I’d just like to applaud overall the fact that there’s going to be housing at this location.”
The development will create, “a lively, 24 hour environment”, he predicted. And it’s “in the hands of a very skilled design team.”
“I actually think that the variety of different massing is going to work well, especially along University” Avenue. He praised the “variety” of the facades Peterson was proposing, saying “the massing issue works with the existing graining of Downtown”, characterized by “small developments built over the time.”
He encouraged the project team to “create this wonderful gateway moment to the Downtown area” at University and Shattuck.
Blake wanted to know the respects in which Equity representatives felt the project complied with Measure R, “since you guys paid for the campaign for Measure R.”
“My interpretation is the intent” of Measure R would be met by the project, said Smith, and the project would represent “a vision for the Downtown, what the voters wanted to see.”
Summing up the three weeks of presentations to City bodies, “none of these groups have actually seriously contradicted each other”, Peterson said.
The Committee took one non-binding action, a unanimous vote encouraging a slightly taller building at University and Shattuck.
Committee secretary Anne Burns also reported that the Landmarks Commission had proposed the idea of a joint subcommittee with the Design Review Committee to discuss details of the project. LPC often does subcommittees. DRC and ZAB don’t, and some Committee members didn’t seem impressed. “What’s the point?” asked Williams, who sits on the ZAB.
Blake said he would like to see a joint subcommittee. Ultimately, the DRC seemed to agree and he and Woltag volunteered to serve on one, if one were set up. Burns emphasized a subcommittee would not make decisions, but would discuss items in more detail and bring recommendations back to both LPC and DRC.
Burns said that City staffers were considering the issue of whether a subcommittee should or could be set up, and did not yet have a final recommendation. “We’ll be looking at the whole thing”, she said. “We like the idea of having a (joint) subcommittee”, said Peterson.
Blake had earlier asked which Commission or Committee would have purview over granting design approval for the project? ZAB would usually take precedence, but where a landmark building is involved, the LPC is formally involved.
(Disclosure. Steven Finacom has commented on the Acheson Commons project at each of the three meetings where it has been previewed. His opinions are summarized in the text of each article he has written.)
All the materials included on Acheson Commons in the Design Review Committee agenda packet can be found at the DRC webpage. The on-line materials also include the materials presented to the Zoning Adjustments Board.
Previous Planet articles on recent Acheson Commons presentations are here (Landmarks Preservation Commission).
and here (Zoning Adjustments Board):