Berkeley City Council Approves Brower Center/Oxford Plaza Project


Brower Center Project Clears Key City Vote

City councilmbers Tuesday approved transferring the Oxford Plaza parking lot to developers Tuesday night, but their vote—the first of two—left as many questions as answers.

On a 6-1-2 vote, with Betty Olds voting no and Gordon Wozniak and Laurie Capitelli abstaining, the council voted to approve the $62 million project for the site of the city’s current Oxford Plaza parking lot.

In its place, if all goes as currently planned, will rise the David Brower Center, touted as an international showcase of environmental organizations, and Oxford Plaza apartments, 97 units, half of them with two or three bedrooms—all reserved for those who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to live in Berkeley.

Capitelli had the most questions—26 that he’d emailed to Housing Director Steve Barton—but Wozniak had several as well, while Olds already had the answers she needed.

The project is complex, reflected in the 333 pages of paperwork that constitute the Disposition and Development Agreement that accompanied the 25-page staff report and four pages of resolutions.

That agreement, as Capitelli pointed out, could well change as the project moves forward, since it includes a provision vesting City Manager Phil Kamlarz with the power to change it in whatever way he sees fit.

While Capitelli proposed amending the ordinance right then to include controls mandating council review of significant changes and Councilmember Kriss Worthington wanted an amendment requiring quarterly reports to council, Mayor Tom Bates closed the discussion and forced a vote, saying amendments could be added when the measure comes up for a second and final vote at the council’s next session Tuesday night.

“The amazing irony is that this is being built next to the Gaia Building, which is named after something that never came to fruition,” Capitelli said, “and I hope that’s not the case with the David Brower Center.”

The Gaia Building was named after a bookstore, which was scheduled to occupy the two floors of “cultural space” that allowed the builder to add two more floors of apartments. The bookstore went broke before its namesake building was ever completed.

One of the uncertainties never addressed at the council meeting involves whether the David Brower Center, the building planned for the corner of Oxford Street and Allston Way, would actually house non-profit environmental groups.

While the mayor, Barton, project developers and environmental groups all hale the building as—in Barton’s words—“a centerpiece for bringing together environmental organizations in the city of Berkeley,” nothing in agreement says any such thing.

In fact, Barton’s staff report reveals that “the developer has not agreed to limit the use of all the office space” in the center, “but rather insists that, to ensure the financial feasibility of this component of the project, leases may need to go to for-profits.”

Under the worst-case scenario, he wrote, “51 percent of the office space could be leased to government entities with no relationship to the environment and 49 percent could be leased to for-profit entities (with an environmental component to their business).”

Or, as he acknowledged at the Jan. 24 council meeting, the offices might go the University of California, which is embarked on a massive campaign to acquire office space in downtown Berkeley.

John Clawson, the founding principal of Equity Community Builders, the San Francisco firm hired to handle the development, said he had letters of intent for 70 percent of the space in the Brower Center, and interest from others “that could fill the remaining space three or four times.”

The university could be a major source of tenants for the 97 housing units to be built in the affordable housing complex that will front along Oxford between Allston and Kittredge Street.

“The need for affordable housing is indisputable,” said Carolyn Bookhart, project manager for Resources for Community Development, which will be operating the housing—reserved for families earning 20 to 30 percent of the area’s median income, with some units for those earning up to 60 percent of that level.

As an example of likely tenants, she cited the 87 percent of UC Berkeley service workers and the 39 percent of university clerical works “who are not paid a sustainable wage—almost 2,000 people working downtown who cannot afford to live here.”

She also cited the “close to 50 different classifications of people working for the city” who aren’t able to afford housing in the town where they work.

Capitelli said he was also concerned that while the proposed agreement said no transfer of the property from the city to the developer could occur until all the needed financing was secured, “there are a couple of indications” in the agreement “that we may have to waive that contingency.”

“We are the deep pockets here,” Capitelli added.

Wozniak said his concern was the Oxford Plaza component.

“We’re losing the parking revenues” during construction from the city’s lot that now occupies the site, and the city is paying the property taxes of about $1.5 million, as well as paying another $445,000 for real estate transfer and oversight costs.

“The cost per unit of housing is $350,000, and yet we’re calling it affordable. That’s just too expensive,” he said.

Wozniak said he was also alarmed that the so-called “soft” costs of the project—money not involved in actual construction or land purchase—amount to one third of total project costs,.

“We’re giving away a lot that we’re going to live to regret and we’re going to ruin the downtown, and I’m glad that’s not going to be my legacy, because I’m going to vote no,” said Olds, the lone no voter.

By the time the item surfaced on the agenda, midnight was in sight and many would-be speakers had left, including members of the family of the late environmentalist for whom the project is named, the late and Berkeley-born David Brower.

“This is very exciting to me,” said Linda Maio, one of the council majority, praising “a very bold and important project” that will be “markedly wonderful for the downtown.”

Of the $62 million in projected costs, about half would come from commercial lending sources and half from government funds and tax credit programs earmarked for housing. That total includes $2.5 million from the city’s Housing Trust Fund and another $1.54 million in city redevelopment funds.