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

First of all, one of our BNC members suggests that the name of this Section needs to be changed.  She likes the Section and looks forward to reading it, but thinks we need a name with more oomph, p-jazz or whatever you might want to call it.  The problem is, we just can't think of one, so we thought we would ask you for some suggestions.  Should we change the name, and if so, what should it be?  Please send your suggestions to the following:  newsletter@berkeleyneighborhoodscouncil.com.  In the meantime…

The News:  Planning Department 0, Neighborhoods 2

Note:  BNC representatives testified on behalf of the neighborhood in both the 2701 Shattuck and 3001 Telegraph issues.

2701 Shattuck Avenue (Shattuck and Derby):  The Neighborhood vs Axis Development:

It all started when a neighbor posted on a list-serve that he saw a notice on a telephone pole stating that in two days a new development at 2701 Shattuck would be presented to the Design Review Committee (DRC).  Another neighbor two doors away from the site checked the plans on the City's web site and realized that this proposed building would be enormous and would put his family's house under a shadow by 2 pm, every afternoon of the year.  He studied the plans, wrote up his complaint and went to the DRC meeting.  He was the only one to oppose the project.  In fact, he was the only one other than the developers to say anything about the project at all.

After that meeting, one of the members of the DRC told him, “You need to organize your neighbors.”  Then another person in attendance suggested distributing 100 flyers to all those who lived closest to the proposed project.

With new found determination, he took their advice, and wrote and distributed the flyers.  That started people talking, and as his neighbors became aware of the sheer size of this building and the long shadow it would cast over the neighborhood, more and more people got involved.  No one living nearby could really ignore it because it created such obvious damage to so many homes.

At the next meeting of the DRC where the developers presented plans, instead of one neighbor showing up to speak, there were about two dozen, 17 of whom spoke in opposition to the project.  The project's design was voted down twice by the DRC so the developers hired a new architect, returned to the DRC, and finally got their design plans approved on the third vote, even though the neighborhood's concerns over the height and bulk of the building had not been addressed.

By now, the neighborhood realized that the playing field was not level.  Two members of the DRC who voted for approval of the design plans were also members of the Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) who would be voting on whether to give the developers permission to construct the building, and Planning staff was in favor of the project.

In total, the neighborhood had to show up en masse for 6 different DRC and ZAB meetings.  Each time, dozens of letters were written and entered into the official record.  Each time, many people had to stand up and speak.  This required a serious commitment of time and energy, but in the process, neighbors came together to know and greatly admire the effort, intelligence, and good humor of all who participated.

At a September 26, 2013, ZAB meeting, the Board told the developers to reduce the number of units and that they wanted to see what a 4-story alternative project would look like.  The developers, however, didn't come back with that alternative.

Instead, on November 14th, Axis Development came back with their development team, and not 1 but 2 attorneys, including the ubiquitous, developers-choice, Rena Rickles.  They presented new plans for a building that reduced the former 70 units to 67 (3 units off the northeast corner of the building), added a roof top garden, changed a setback, and enlarged an interior community room to increase a gym and dining space for the building's residents.  The building would be the tallest building outside of the Downtown except for the proposed Honda Building project which hasn't yet been built.

Up to that time, Planning staff had fully supported the project, but this time, staff said that the developer had to reduce the project by 3 more units (67 to 64), and, if they wouldn't do that, the project should be denied.  There was much back and forth between staff, developers, and Board members about why no 4-story alternative project was presented.  The discussion was long and convoluted:  “we were told to only study such an alternative, we did, and concluded that the 67 unit proposal was better for the neighbors” and “reducing units would require a variance for parking and we don't want to have a variance, only use permits. ”  Staff kept saying a variance wouldn't be required, they could get a parking waiver, and Board members kept saying they were confused, but two things were clear: Board members were miffed and Axis Development wasn't giving in.  In the end, the developer made it clear to all — they wanted a decision that evening.

Five people spoke in favor of the building, making the following points:

  • Fits into the City's Climate Action Plan and the “New Urbanism” of dense cities.
  • Is supported by The Center for Sustainable Neighborhoods, Livable Berkeley, Urban Habitat, Transform, and BART Director Rebecca Saltzman.
  • It's good for students and others who don't have cars and like to bike.

Twenty-two people spoke in opposition to the building, making the following points:

  • The neighborhood isn't opposed to the concept of micro units, but this building has the highest density of any such building in the entire United States.  If we want to join San Francisco in an experiment about micro-units, we should start with a much smaller building.
  • When considering climate action goals why is it preferable to put money and effort into building in the more dense areas rather than into improving public transportation all over the City?  Available public transportation is unreliable and lacking in large parts of the City.
  • The neighborhood wants infill development on this corner, but the developer has consistently refused to meet with them to try and figure out a project that everyone can support.
  • Project is 212% larger than City development standards.  Besides 5-stories, the developer is going 12 feet higher than the maximum height limit in this zone.
  • There will be a permanent loss of sunlight all year after 2 p.m.
  • This is basically a dormitory with high rents, between $1,200 and $1,600/month.
  • Building is too tall and too crowded.  Just doesn't fit into the neighborhood which is family-centered, 1 of 2 census tracts with highest percentage of school age children.
  • Buildings of this size and height are more appropriate in the Downtown.

When it came to a vote on a motion made by Sophie Hahn to deny the application, the vote was:

YES NO
Alvarez-Cohen Allen
Hahn Donaldson
Mathews Stoloff
O'Keefe  
Pinto  
Tregub  

So, what were the factors that lead to the neighborhood's stunning victory when almost everyone was predicting that the developer would have their request approved?  Perhaps it was their unity and consistency.  Everyone was going to be affected detrimentally by this building, and everyone made some contribution of time, research and effort to not let that happen.  One person took the time to research the City's code and do the math required to figure out that this project was 212% of the allowable size.  Others investigated building codes and precedents, and found persuasive arguments that completely undermined any of the developer's requests for Use Permits.  Another neighbor researched state law and developer's strategies in other cities.  Yet others kept the neighbors connected with well thought out plans and timely meetings.  And virtually everyone sent letters to the DRC, ZAB, the Planning Department and the District City Council representative.  It was a fantastic group effort.

The neighborhood discovered that arguments have to be made clearly, vigorously, and repeatedly and that the citation of specific City codes, and “detrimental” effects are what a project will be judged upon.  Just saying a building is ugly and stupid is not adequate.  For the ZAB to deny a project, a case has to be made that it violates some City code or state law, or that it creates a describable “detriment” for the neighbors and is “out of character” with the rest of the neighborhood.  In the case of 2701 Shattuck, a towering 70 foot high building, less than ten feet from single story, 100-year old craftsmen bungalows was obviously “out of character” from the rest of the neighborhood, but, it took the consistent and persistent work of the neighbors to prove their case.

Neighbors who worked on this issue have suggested some items that other neighborhoods in similar situations might find helpful to use:

  • Create and keep a large email list of interested neighbors
  • Stay on top of any changes to the development or other information regarding the proposal before you, so check the web or ask City staff for records.
  • Talk to your neighbors and get to know people really well.
  • Note and use the various strengths you have in your group (one might research well, one might be a good writer, one might speak well, one might have a house that is a good meeting place, etc.)  Everybody has a valuable contribution to make, and spread the work around.
  • Stay united in your fight: find the points you can agree on.
  • Show up to every meeting!
  • Make your points and back them up with city ordinances, state law, precedents, etc.
  • Never exaggerate!  No hyperbole, know your facts, be precise.
  • Don't be strident: show passion, be firm, but be nice.
  • When the other side does sleazy things, point them out, but don't do them yourself.
  • Ask other neighborhoods to join you.
  • Circulate a petition to let all neighbors know what is going on and involve even those who do not have time to participate actively due to family and other responsibilities.
  • Don't assume that information from the Planning Department or developer is correct.  Fact-check every detail.

We all need to be aware that Axis Development could appeal the ZAB's decision and that the City Council could approve this building.  We must also understand that the issue of inappropriate high density development is a community-wide fight that all neighborhoods should join.  In-fill development without proper restraints could ruin Berkeley's neighborhoods and we need to think seriously about formulating common sense regulations that neighborhoods would work together to get approved.  One might be a regulation that when new development shades a home so that it cannot create solar power during most daylight hours, the new development should be required to be scaled back to more appropriate proportions.  Let BNC know what you think about this or other ideas you might have.

BNC will keep you informed.

And Another Victory:  The Coffee Shop at 3001 Telegraph Ave. (corner of Ashby and Telegraph)

On November 19, 2013 the Council heard an appeal filed by James Smith and Andrew Johnson on behalf of the Bateman Neighborhood Association of the ZAB decision to grant an Administrative Use Permit (AUP) to allow a quick service restaurant on the corner of Ashby and Telegraph that would be 2,063 square feet, open from 5:30 AM to 9:00 PM with no customer parking.  When such appeals are heard by the Council, the Council must decide between one of three options:

  1. To affirm the decision of the ZAB and dismiss the appeal, or
  2. To send (remand) the issue back to the ZAB for further consideration, or
  3. To set the matter for public hearing before the City Council.

Planning Director Angstadt stated that the staff recommendation was that the Council should affirm the ZAB decision and dismiss the appeal.  He described the project and the process it had undergone and cited a study done by the applicant that concluded there were at least18 parking spaces available in the area at all times, and that the City's Transportation Department approved this study.

Mayor Bates opened the discussion by advising the 50 to 60 people in the audience holding up yellow signs asking for a public hearing that they need not bother because this was the public hearing .  After a rather sharp discussion, the Mayor was corrected that  this was not the public hearing.  He then stated that the appellant and applicant would each have 7 minutes to state their case, followed by 1 minute comments from the public.

James Smith spoke on behalf of the appellants and the Bateman Neighborhood Association made the following points:

  • The proposed use would increase the already bad traffic experienced by residents and businesses in the area.  Pedestrian safety issues would increase.
  • The City granted an AUP for a changed use without any analysis of detriment.  The Master Use Permit for the building was based on a traffic study done in 2008 and assumed there would be a low level retail use generating only 1.5 vehicle trips during the morning peak hour at this location.  A quick service restaurant use would generate 200 to 300 vehicle trips each day, many of them in the morning peak hours.
  • The permit assumes only 25% of the customers for this use would come by car, the rest would walk or bicycle but no evidence has been submitted to substantiate these assumptions.
  • Seven parking spaces are required by this use.  Four have been reserved for employees only and are in a locked garage.  Zero spaces are provided for customers.
  • The traffic survey done by the applicant and cited by the Planning Director over counts available street parking by including white zones, ADA spaces and spaces that are outside of a 500 foot radius from the proposed use.

The attorney for the applicant and the Starbucks employee in charge of development spoke and made the following points:

  • Coffee shops are not destinations.  People go to the closest one.
  • The traffic study shows at least 18 spaces are available at all times.  Plus Starbucks will lease 3 spaces for use by Starbucks customers only in the Chevron gas station kitty-corner from the proposed use.
  • There are 2 groups of Starbucks in Berkeley.  One like the Solano store where customers drive to and one like the Downtown store, near the campus where the majority of customers either walk or bike.  This proposed use would be like the Downtown store.
  • There are only 2 coffee shops on Telegraph between Dwight Way and Oakland, while there are 6 on College between Dwight Way and Oakland.  Shops can co-exist.
  • One thousand people have signed a petition of support for this project which will bring $100,000 in sales taxes to the City annually, employ 25 people and the company will provide benefits to their part-time workers.

The City says 29 speakers followed these presentations.  BNC, however, counted 33, 8 in favor of the project and 25 opposed.

The speakers in favor of dismissing the appeal and granting the AUP stated that Starbucks:

  • was a great company to work for
  • would provide amenities like WIFI that were not currently available
  • would be a great place for the community to meet
  • had a great reputation, it isn't a bar
  • would provide a balance with Whole Foods and Café Mokka, down the street
  • anecdotally Alta Bates doctors and nurses wanted Starbucks to be in this location
  • customers don't drive to the Downtown Starbucks

Speakers in favor of setting the matter for a public hearing before the Council said:

  • The ZAB meeting regarding whether the matter should be set for public hearing before that body was flawed.  Forty-five people wanted to speak, the ZAB Chair didn't want to hear from that many, prevented people from speaking, and was biased in his personal praise of Starbucks and their iced mocha product.
  • Two-thirds of the 77 notices informing people of the proposed use were sent to then unoccupied units in the building above it.  Examples were given of notices that were sent to out-of-date addresses, so they never reached the intended organizations.  Notices on the building itself could not be read by pedestrians because of a cyclone fence in front of the building.
  • Over 2,000 residents have signed a petition in opposition.  The Bateman, LeConte and Willard Neighborhood Associations have united in opposition to this project.
  • Presented a detailed map that showed parking in the area is very restricted.
  • Traffic study done was seriously flawed because it was done when UC was not in session.
  • Based upon the figures supplied by the applicant, it can be shown that they will have to have 800 to 1,200 customers daily.
  • 20% of Café Mokka's customers drive to their store which is just down the street from the proposed use.  Café Mokka has 3 customer parking spaces, plus 10 available on the street around the corner, and they find that is not enough.  Several dentists and doctors, a bike shop and another business testified they would be harmed because they already have severe parking problems.  Some are considering they may have to relocate because of this.
  • The problem is not only parking, it is the existing traffic congestion in the area that hinders ambulance access to Alta Bates Sutter emergency services.  Don't add more congestion.
  • The Ashby/Telegraph intersection is very congested and dangerous for the approximately 5,000 pedestrians, including school children, who use it daily and to cyclists that currently use it.  A major bike lane leads to it, disappears at the intersection, then picks up again on the other side of it. People won't cross two sides of this intersection just to get a cup of coffee, and the Chevron gas station has indicated its intention to open a convenience store selling coffee on their own site.
  • A former Starbucks employee testified that it was a great company to work for but this proposed use was the wrong location because customers will drive to it.
  • The information about only 2 places on Telegraph from Dwight Way to Oakland selling coffee is incorrect.

The Council discussion was interesting with the Planning Director indicating that the last ZAB meeting referenced by the speakers “didn't go so well.”  He also stated that Café Mokka had been required to have customer off-street parking but that the rules had since been changed so quick service uses were eligible for a parking waiver if they met one of 4 criteria, one of which was that it was a quick service restaurant. He added that the proposed use at 3001 Telegraph met all 4 of the criteria for a parking waiver.  Council Member Worthington pointed out e-mails the Council has received coming from out of town stating that they support Starbucks at this corner so they can drive by, stop, pick up their coffee and drink it on campus.

Mayor Bates moved and Council Member Anderson seconded the motion to set this matter for public hearing before the City Council.  Council Member Anderson recounted his own experience regarding the shortage of parking in the area as he regularly seeks medical and dental care there and that the sheer amount of opposition was enough to require setting a public hearing. There was a sharp interchange between Mayor Bates and Council Member Anderson when Anderson complained that it wasn't fair that residents had to come to fight both staff and applicant, and Bates didn't want such a statement to stand.  In the end the Council voted unanimously, 9 to 0 to set the matter for public hearing.

Some Council Members asked staff to specifically look into 1) incentives that Starbucks might offer to encourage100% of their customers to walk, bike or come by public transportation, and 2) what are the legal ramifications and assurances regarding off-site parking being reserved for Starbucks customers only at the Chevron Gas Station kitty-corner from the proposed use.

So, the matter is clearly not ended, but the neighborhoods indeed won a stunning victory.  The public hearing should occur sometime in January, and it will be exceedingly important to neighborhoods all over to support the Bateman, LeConte and Willard Neighborhood Associations in their opposition to this proposed use.

BNC notes that no one, neither staff, Council or speakers, mentioned the possible traffic increase predicted in the Environmental Impact Study for the opening of the Fourth Bore.  See related story in our Neighborhood Forum Section.  We feel we should look at that and also add to our list of things to consider for future action such questions as:

  1. How do the current rules about parking spaces for quick service restaurants impact our existing and new businesses and surrounding neighborhoods and help us meet goals in both the Master Plan and the Climate Action Plan, and
  2. How can we improve notices about proposed uses for new permit applications.

Update on the Amendments to the Demolition and Dwelling Unit Controls Ordinance

The Planning Commission met on November 6, 2013 regarding this subject.  They took no action until information relative to the Supreme Count Sterling Park decision and the nexus study specific to the issue of loss of affordable housing because of demolition of older housing has been completed.

BNC will keep you advised on what happens next.

Now, on to a Subject More Reflective of the Season

An American Redstart Sighted in the Elmwood

On November 18, 2013 the San Francisco Chronicle and about the same time, Berkeleyside, posted that an American Redstart bird had been sighted in the Elmwood on Sunday, November 17th.  If you're a birder, and even if you are not, this is exciting news that drew in some 200 people to catch a view of this small warbler.  This is the first time this bird has been seen in Berkeley and the first time in Alameda County.  The sightings in Berkeley were on Prince, Woolsey and Lewiston Streets.  There have been 6 reports of sightings in Southern California, one in Auburn in 2010 and one in Point Reyes in 2012.  Its native habitat is in New Mexico, the middle of the country and the eastern seaboard.  It migrates to Mexico and Central America.  How it got to be in Berkeley this November, of course, is The Big Question.

BNC doesn't have a photo of the Redstart bird but you can easily see one by Googling American Redstart bird.  The bird is only about 4.5 to 5.5 inches big with red, orange, or red-orange patches on its wings and tail.  The internet tells us that the bird is a boldly patterned warbler of second growth woods and that it frequently flashes its orange/red wings and tail to flush insect prey from foliage. The female is less colorful than the male.

The really neat thing about looking up this bird is that you can hear recordings of its calls and songs at such web sites as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  These recordings were made in Maine, Montana, Massachusetts, New Brunswick and New York.  They are described as “tsee, tsee, tsee, tsee, tsway.”  You can also hear recordings on the National Audubon web site which describes their song as “chewy-chewy-chewy-chew-chew-chew.”  It's actually great fun to listen to and learn about them.

That reminds BNC, that we should encourage everyone to look into how to attract birds to your backyards by providing food, nesting materials, water and natural habitat.  The web and our local Audubon Society Office on San Pablo Avenue are sure to help you figure out exactly what to do.  This is a wonderful family-oriented project for the whole family and for people of all ages to undertake.  It's also another reason why our backyards should neither be eliminated nor over shadowed.  We were shocked to learn that nearly 80% of wildlife habitat in the United States is in private hands and that an average of 2.1 million acres each year are converted to residential use.

Let's protect and preserve our birds, and work to ensure that we plan wisely for their benefit as well as for ours.  Happy Holidays to all!