Berkeley Neighborhoods Council

 

Dedicated to improving the quality of life for all
by creating a unified neighborhood voice
for promoting livability and resolving problems

 

Neighborhood News, Round and About

We want to hear about your neighborhood news.  Please contact us at newsletter@berkeleyneighborhoodscouncil.com so that we can look into what you have to say and distribute the information to other neighborhoods.  BNC exists to support neighborhoods, help solve problems and facilitate communication from one neighborhood to another.  United, we can have an impact on the future of all of our neighborhoods. After all, one way or the other, we are in this together.

Please refer to the BNC eNEWS Archive for background information on the following issues:

Coffee Shop at 3001 Telegraph Ave (corner of Ashby and Telegraph

We are advised that the Bateman Neighborhood Association appeal regarding the Administrative Use Permit for a quick serve restaurant without customer parking on the corner of Ashby and Telegraph Avenues will be heard by the Council on Tuesday, November 19th, 7:00 pm, 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way (at Allston).  The Bateman Neighborhood Association would like support from other neighborhoods.  This is all about traffic congestion and parking, adequate notice regarding the issuance of over-the-counter Administrative Use Permits, and protecting local business (Café Mokka).

2701 Shattuck Avenue, Shattuck and Derby (The Rise of the Micro-Units in Berkeley)

The mixed use micro-unit project proposed for 2701 Shattuck Avenue will likely come before the Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) again on November 14th, per ZAB Secretary Terry Blount.

A large group of South Shattuck neighbors, including many from the Walker Street Plus and LeConte Neighborhood Associations have united to oppose this project as proposed.  At the ZAB September 26th public hearing (see the September eNEWS in the Archive), the Board voted to ask the Axis Development Group to either remove up to 12 units from the 4th and 5th floor or remove the 5th floor entirely.  This response was due to the large neighborhood opposition and their well-researched letters and calls that prompted staff to change their recommendation from approval of the project to a reduction in the scope of the project.

Since then, Axis submitted revised plans.  However, at the time of this writing, the revised plans available online don't include an updated unit data summary.  It appears that Axis has removed only three units from the northeast corner of the 5th floor, leaving those fronting Shattuck Avenue in place.  A 912 sq ft open space replaces the removed units.  The bird's eye view renderings show UC Storage towering over 2701 Shattuck, although the proposed project's trellises and mechanicals make it taller than UC Storage by 12 ft.  Neighbors are concerned that these changes do nothing to address the shadow impact on nearby homes, zero setback at ground level, or loss of privacy. They are also concerned that unit sizes keep changing.  Most seem to be around 345 sq ft while others are as low as 269 sq ft.  These sizes are likely to be exterior measurements which can make a significant difference since the walls in these units are thick because the units are pre-fabricated.

Axis Development Group, based in San Francisco, proposes to build a 60-foot (72 feet with rooftop trellises), 5-story mixed use building on the southeast corner of Shattuck and Derby with 67 micro-units on top of a 1,956 sq ft upscale restaurant.  The residential portion of this building would be prefabricated in Sacramento, trucked to Berkeley in modules of two units each (with hallway between) and stacked over the restaurant via crane.  The project would also include 35 stacked lift parking spaces; 31 for residents, 4 for the restaurant. A podium deck along the eastern side of the second floor would run eight feet from the neighboring property line, and a roof top open space would run along the Shattuck side of the roof.  The applicant also proposed to take up “extra” sidewalk space on Shattuck with planters that form a mostly-enclosed patio for dining, along with a “mini-park” and 20 bicycle racks.

Just one of the six Use Permits required for this project is a Use Permit under BMC §23E.52.070.D.5 to allow greater height (60-feet proposed, 50-ft allowed), to allow more stories (5 proposed, 4 maximum), to reduce the front yard setback on Derby (0 proposed, 15-minimum), to reduce the street side set back on Shattuck (0 proposed, 6 to 15-ft minimum), to reduce the rear yard setback along the southern property line (0 proposed, 15 ft minimum), and to allow greater lot coverage (79% proposed, 40% maximum).

The developer hasn't committed to including affordable units, so this project is not entitled to additional units as a density bonus.

The Design Review Committee rejected this project twice (among other design problems, the units started out unfurnished) before the project applicant hired a new architect, Lowney Architecture, and submitted entirely new plans in July 2013.  Planning staff asked the applicant to hold a community meeting.  When neighbors asked if he would consider removing the 5th floor or reducing the number of units, his response was that he was always willing to go back and look at the design, but he couldn't change either the height or the unit count because he had to be responsible to the investors.

The project, as proposed, would produce sixty-seven units on .26 acre which is equal to 257 dwelling units per acre, based on the lot size of 11,737 sq. ft. (This has been the parcel size supplied for every proposed building on this site.)  Only four mixed use buildings in Berkeley are over 200 dwelling units/ac and they are all in the Downtown.  The neighbors can find no other micro-unit building that compresses so many tiny units into such a (relatively) small building envelope.  This building intensity results in detriments such as noise and loss of privacy, and raises questions about quality of life for the tenants of the building.  At single occupancy, the project would double the population on the first block of Derby Street, but if students are housed there, it is likely there would be double occupancy.

Planning staff calculated that the base project - the version of a project that could be built without any modifications of development standards - would contain only 34 units.  That would still be 130 dwelling units/acre, a high density by any standard.  A math-inclined neighbor calculated the mass of the proposed project at 212% of what would currently be allowed without concessions.

South Shattuck nearly had the first prefab micro-unit housing in the United States at 2711 Shattuck Avenue.  “As you can see, it's not a prime location - in fact, it's a pretty lousy location.  I'd like to show that even lousy locations can produce good housing,” local developer Patrick Kennedy told Berkeley's ZAB in February 2010 when the Board approved his Use Permit to build a 22-unit residential hotel at 2711 Shattuck.  Kennedy, who recently received a Visionary Award from the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce, did not include ground-floor retail in this project.  “Commercial retail space will be diminishing in demand, not increasing,” he told ZAB members.  “We have had commercial space on the ground floor in the Fine Arts Building for five years that has been empty.  And there are numerous examples of empty commercial space in downtown Berkeley that show that demand is lackluster at best in certain areas.”

Dubbed SmartSpace, Kennedy's project would house tenants for two weeks to a year or more in studios with limited kitchen facilities and square footage in the 175 to 300 square foot range.  What used to be called efficiency units, now had a new name, and were headed for a green marketing makeover, and a surge in developer interest.  However, the tiny lot between UC Storage and 2701 Shattuck remains empty today as Kennedy turned to develop a different remnant lot, 38 Harriet Street in San Francisco's SoMa District, and built a 23-unit, 4 story micro apartment building using modular construction.  The California College of the Arts is leasing the building, which Kennedy recently sold, to provide double-occupancy student housing.  Read about what one occupant of Harriet Street said when she first moved into a unit of this size at www.mightbedesign.com/2013/09/16/i-wish-they-had-thought-of/.  This person later wrote:

I want to be clear: the problem is not the space itself or how it is organized, it is more about the choice of the pieces of furniture and electronic devices, probably the cheapest on the market, the fridge that does not hold more than a certain weight, the flush that doesn't flush, the ceramic cook top that is already broken.I know I can not pretend too much from a student residence, but the fact that it is brand new and expensive (900$ each for a shared room) makes my expectations higher.

Neighbors state they would like to do all they can to ensure that no tenants in their neighborhood, be they students, young professionals, families, or empty-nesters, find themselves in the position described by the student on Harriet Street.  In their words, they believe Berkeley should not add an experimental housing option in a location, and of an intensity, that threatens a long-standing housing option that Berkeley dearly needs to preserve:  the relatively urban relatively quiet, relatively affordable family neighborhoods radiating from this section of South Shattuck.  BNC agrees.

Amendments to the Demolition and Dwelling Units Controls Ordinance

BNC has received a letter asking that we reconsider our position on this matter.  Usually we would publish such a letter in our Letters section along with our response, but rather than have readers go back and forth, we are printing it here.  The letter is as follows:

I am a 38 year resident of Berkeley and I am hoping you will print this response to your newsletter item and that the BNC will reconsider its position based on the points below:
    1. Buildings have a certain lifetime.  That lifetime can be extended by continuous reinvestment in the property.  Prior to vacancy decontrol of apartments, owners rarely made that investment because there was little or no return.  Some buildings fell into such disrepair that they can no longer be economically rehabilitated.  If these buildings are not allowed to be demolished and replaced Berkeley will have a large number of slum apartments, with all the problems they entail.  Improving the housing stock in Berkeley is an important part of improving the community.
    2. Protecting tenants who have been resident more than 12 months can be accomplished by the very safeguards being proposed:  right of first refusal to occupy a new apartment at the old rent, keeping these same number of apartments under rent control, and for very long term residents, the City can add the obligation of having the property owner responsible for providing alternate housing during the demolition and construction.
    3. The BNC is against replacing a demolished building with many more apartments, but that is a misguided concern for two reasons: (a) the number of replacement apartments that can be built is strictly regulated by the zoning ordinance.  Nobody would be allowed to replace a duplex in an R1 zone with more than two apartments. Apartment density is controlled by zoning regulations as it should be.  (b) Berkeley needs high density apartments in certain locations, and has passed the downtown plan to allow that.  In the downtown area and adjacent to campus high density housing would be a positive contribution to the Berkeley housing stock and reduce congestion in residential neighborhoods.
These are important issues, and the BNC should reconsider its position to enable building a vibrant downtown Berkeley, eliminate substandard (slum) housing, and creating a healthy long term Berkeley future.
I look forward to hearing your response to the above.
Cliff Orloff, 38 year Berkeley resident and Berkeley property owner.

BNC greatly appreciates receiving such letters from our readers, and agrees these are important issues.  Below is a preliminary response from BNC.  We will schedule this matter for discussion at our November meeting and urge all interested parties to attend.  This will give everyone the opportunity to weigh in on what we all agree are important issues and our response may or may not be modified based upon that discussion.

Our preliminary response to Mr. Orloff's three points is as follows:

  1. BNC agrees that all buildings, apartments or not, that cannot be economically rehabilitated should be demolished.  The City needs to carefully define what the words “economically rehabilitated” mean so there is clarity for all concerned and that take into consideration special circumstances related to historic places or features, and other matters, such as energy conservation that is also an important City goal.
  2. BNC agrees there should be protections for existing tenants of buildings that are being considered for demolition. We have consistently stressed the importance of this.
  3. However, BNC's main concern is about the negative impacts of larger buildings on abutting residential properties and neighborhoods.  Replacement apartments may be regulated by the zoning ordinance, but the many changes to that ordinance and how it is implemented is why we are concerned. Some of these changes are, for example, the construction of mini-dorms (see our articles), and the height of buildings where height limits stated in the zoning ordinance actually allow the construction of substantially higher buildings (see about the Archstone Building or the micro-units at 2701 Shattuck Ave in this issue).  Also consider that such streets as University and San Pablo Avenues are designated Priority Development Areas and both have low density residential neighborhoods that abut directly to commercial and high density residential parcels. These concerns equally apply to College, Telegraph, South Shattuck, North Shattuck and Solano Avenues.  BNC has seen no data that high density housing reduces congestion in residential neighborhoods, and we have no objection to higher density housing in appropriate areas where negative impacts are identified and mitigated.  However, there is at dispute about how density is defined.  In our view, these issues are at the heart of neighborhood preservation and the future livability of this City.

BNC wants to keep this conversation open, so let's hear more about it in the days to come.

Late Flash:  BNC has just received news that the Planning Commission will discuss the amendments to the Demolition and Dwelling Unit Control Ordinance at a meeting scheduled for November 6th.  This caught us by surprise, and we have not been able to confirm the date of the Planning Commission meeting, or review the staff report to that Commission. We had planned our next meeting for November 9th, and it is unlikely that we can change the date of our meeting at this late date.  We will still schedule this topic for our next BNC meeting and again encourage all interested parties to attend.

Update:  Mini-Dorms, the Silent (up to now) Issue that Affects Most Residential Areas in Berkeley

As of this writing, we have not heard from the Planning Commission regarding this issue.  BNC will keep you informed.