SQUEAKY WHEEL: The Affordable Forms

Toni Mester
Friday July 14, 2017 - 02:47:00 PM
914 Channing Way: 27 feet average height
Toni Mester
914 Channing Way: 27 feet average height




What kinds of housing should take precedent in West Berkeley where two units are allowed: single family homes with a backyard ADU, a duplex, or two big condo-houses? That’s the core issue for the public hearing at the Planning Commission on Wednesday July 19 at 7 pm, and you should come. The Commission meets at the North Berkeley Senior Center at Hearst and MLK. 

The issues resonate beyond the R-1A, the zone in question, to backyard development in all the residential zones, especially R-2 and R-2A that together regulate most parcels west of MLK, because the height allowances are the same. 

The zoning now in effect in West Berkeley and an area in Westbrae allows for two three-story houses to a height of 28 feet or 35 feet with an administrative use permit. That excessive allowance has fostered a trend of building large condo-houses, leading to numerous appeals and cries for reform. 

The staff proposal follows the recommendation of a developer who has built a lucrative business out of this allowance, keeping a three-story front house to the old heights and only shaving off one story from the back house. 

Our group, the Friends of R-1A, has been working for almost a year on a proposal that would maximize an owner’s options while adjusting the building envelopes to the existing scale of West Berkeley neighborhoods and promoting affordability. If you share these concerns, it’s time to speak out. 

The ADU v. the backyard house 

The attached accessory dwelling unit is the cheapest way to provide living quarters because the unit is added to an existing house and shares its roof and foundation. On a relatively modest budget, an owner can build the necessary walls and extend the plumbing, gas, and the electrical wiring, which does not require a separate meter.  

The detached ADU is more expensive to build because it requires a new foundation, roof, utilities, and extended sewer. The height of a detached ADU is restricted to one story of 14 feet, and the floor area is limited to 750 square feet but can be enlarged with an administrative use permit (AUP). The ADU ordinance (BMC 24D.10) was finalized earlier this year and won’t be the subject of this hearing, but it remains an option in this and other residential zones. 

If the ADU is so affordable to build, why should the R-1A allow a bigger more expensive backyard house? Some West Berkeley neighbors complain about this extra allowance because it doesn’t feel equitable. “The R-1 gets a little ADU while we get big backyard condo houses.” The reason for this difference is historical, based on past racism and piecemeal zoning, which I’ve explained in a paper on the subject. 

The ADU and the backyard house can be the same size. The essential difference between an ADU and a backyard house is that the owner of an ADU has to live on the property and cannot convert it to a condo and sell it separately. An ADU doesn’t require an off-street parking space, but the condo house does. 

The low down on heights 

The most problematic zoning standard is the height of the backyard house because of potential shading, noise, and loss of privacy from windows and balconies that overlook other properties. There’s also the question of where cars will be parked: on the street or off-street, at the front, middle or in the rear of a parcel. 

Since the number of vacant lots is dwindling fast, infill in Berkeley has two places to go: along the avenues, aka transit corridors, and into backyards. Most attention has been directed to the apartment buildings going up along the avenues, but as the market levels off for apartments, developers have been moving into the neighborhoods. On the corner of Tenth Street and Channing Way is a sweet little side-by-side duplex newly painted blue and surrounded by a wooden fence with a condo conversion sign. The applicant is Hudson McDonald, the developers of the New California, aka the “Trader Joe’s building” in downtown Berkeley. Other builders and designers working in West Berkeley include Baran Studio (Matt Baran, architect) 1310 Haskell Street project; Oakmont (Tom Anthony, John Newton et al.) 2218 -2222 and 2415 Ninth Street, 908 Cedar, 1737 Tenth, and 2212 Tenth Street; Matthew Wadlund, David Trachtenberg, and many others. 

We are blessed by having so much notable architectural talent; they are not the problem. It’s the irrational zoning and torturous process that makes building in Berkeley such a nightmare for everybody involved. Rational zoning outlines a realistic choice for building a project that will not be burdened by protests and appeals. Most cities have much more precise guidelines, including design standards. What to fix first in Berkeley’s anachronistic zoning code is a chicken and egg puzzle, but the heights of neighborhood houses in the low to medium density zones should be adjusted, especially the height of the backyard house. Most people think that the existing scale of houses on their block is what’s allowed, but that ain’t necessarily so. 

In 1991 the City Council imposed uniform building height limits of 28 feet average, going to an average height of 35 feet with an administrative use permit (AUP) in the R-1, R-1A, R-2, and R-2A, regardless of where the buildings are located on a parcel. This allowance is irrational. What was the Council thinking? I spent two months and two public record searches trying to find out. What I discovered was that the idea of uniform building heights was not discussed at the Planning Commission at the time, so the Council decision wasn’t properly vetted in the community. I was active then, but I can’t remember this vote that allowed our neighbors to build a 40-foot house in their backyard. Who knew? 

That’s right, a backyard house can be 40 feet because an average height of 35 feet is the average between the height at the eaves and the height at the ridge of the roof. If you want to see actual building heights, go to the City website, enter an address of a recent project and check out the ZAB staff report. The height is usually in the first paragraph. 

Two illustrative projects underway in our neighborhood are 2439 Tenth Street, a chunky blue rear building, which rises to an average height of 24.5 feet according to the use permit. Another is a stacked duplex under construction at 914 Channing Way between Seventh and Eighth Streets that is 27 feet average height. Anything taller than these buildings would appear out of scale, even at the front of a lot. The first purpose of the R-1A zone is to “recognize and protect the existing pattern of low medium density areas characterized by reasonable open and spacious type of development….” 

Our group, the Friends of R-1A, recommend the maximum height of a front house be set at two stories and 24 feet average with a maximum of 28 feet, which exceeds the existing scale of most blocks, and one story for a backhouse with an average of 14 feet. These dimensions are ample, as can be seen in the two-condo project at 1016-1018 Jones Street under construction between Ninth and Tenth Streets. The front house has an average height of 24 feet and a maximum (the roof ridge) of 27, and the back house has an average of 12 feet and a maximum of 14. These are reasonable, substantial heights; the front house appears bulky because of its boxy design. If the second story were reduced slightly, the aspect would appear sleeker, less looming over the neighboring house. 

A common method of preventing such crowding of the mass is the daylight plane, used by many Bay Area cities including Albany, El Cerrito, Menlo Park, San Francisco, Antioch, Palo Alto, San Mateo, and Santa Clara. Others like Richmond and Fremont require a reduction of the second story. In Berkeley, the daylight plane could be part of a solar access ordinance. 

The existing pattern 

On some blocks of the R-1A, it looks like anything goes, but there are underlying patterns of development, some blocks more regular than others. 

Like most of Berkeley, the majority of parcels in the R-1A are developed as single-family residences. In Berkeley as a whole, 56% of the total parcels are SFR’s: 16,276 parcels out of a total of 28,870, including commercial and manufacturing zones. In the R-1A, the percentage of SFRs is 65%, 858 parcels out of 1322. Many streets in Oceanview, north of University, are low-scale, rows of tidy one-story cottages that would be overwhelmed by building to the current or proposed allowances. The Westbrae section of R-1A, an area around the beer garden on Gilman, has a mix of one and two story SFRs. 

The second most numerous building form is the duplex: at least 193 parcels. The zone includes other type of development including some apartments that were built prior to the 1967 down zoning, regulated by the non-conforming use chapter (BMC 23C.04). 

Because of the variety of development, we analyzed the existing pattern by floor area ratio, which is easy to do because the City’s parcel database includes the livable floor area as well as the lot size. FAR is derived by dividing the floor area by the lot size. The existing FARs for the dominant forms are .34 for the existing single-family homes and .37 for the duplex single building. We used FAR to promote building the duplex by allowing it a greater floor area. 

The Missing Middle Duplex 

After the ADU, the duplex is the least costly way to build extra units, either by adding a story by raising a small house, like 914 Channing Way, or with a residential addition to the side or back of an existing home. Because of the narrow lots, most additions are to the back. The differences between an attached ADU and a duplex addition are the size of the units, the right to sell the units separately as condos, and the off-street parking requirement. But the cost -saving factors are the same: shared roof, foundation, and compact arrangement of plumbing, gas, and electric systems. 

The great benefit of the duplex is that the cars can be parked in the front, leaving ample usable open space in the backyard for child-safe play area and family outdoor recreation like barbecue and gardening. A duplex in West Berkeley combines the best of suburban-style living with the benefits of a walkable urban neighborhood near transit.  

Bye Bye Backyards! 

Big condo houses, by comparison, replicate the dominant SFR but without a verdant setting. The footprints usually take up the maximum 40% and the required driveway and parking spaces gobble up even more, leaving usable open space to the minimum of 400 square feet for each unit. On the average 40-foot wide lot, that’s only a depth of ten feet for outdoor recreational use. The minimum in the R-1 becomes the maximum in the R-1A. 

Berkeley does not have landscape requirements like many other cities, which means a loss of oxygen producing shrubs and trees or food producing gardens. When people speak of the environmental benefits of urban density, they tend to forget how plants contribute to a city’s healthy ecosystem as well as the well being of its human inhabitants who are grounded by natural surroundings.  

Who needs housing? 

In Berkeley, the students desperately need places to live as the University continues to expand its enrollment. The ADU is perfectly suited to the needs of a student, providing privacy for academic concentration. With the 51 and the new 36 buses connecting West Berkeley to the campus from early morning to late at night, our neighborhoods are accessible to students without cars. The East-West bike boulevards on Russell, Channing, and Virginia are safe routes. 

The large condo-houses, on the other hand, can run four bedrooms, a set-up for mini-dorms, which are incompatible with neighborhoods of working families, as many conflicts on the Southside have shown. The mini-dorm ordinance is also difficult to enforce, so building them is just asking for trouble. 

The duplex can serve students as well as small families. Almost 80% of East Bay households are three people or fewer: 30% one person, 33% two persons, and 17% three persons, which is also the average family size. 

The overwhelming need for units would be one to three bedrooms. The zoning of the R-1A should allow but not favor large one-unit luxury houses. It’s hard to strike the right balance, to be fair yet affordable, but Berkeley should try. 


Toni Mester is a resident of West Berkeley.