Berkeley city councilmembers voted Tuesday to pledge $4 million in federal funds to pay for community services and affordable housing as collateral for a federal loan to help fund the David Brower Center and Oxford Plaza.
The council delayed acting on an appeal from the purported owner of Dwight Way Liquors, after neither he nor his lawyer appeared to testify. The council voted to continue the hearing to their Feb. 7 meeting.
The $60 million project includes two structures that would be built on the site of the city’s Oxford Plaza parking lot, located on Oxford Street between Allston Way and Kittredge Street.
Project plans call for replacing the existing parking with an underground lot beneath the two structures.
The David Brower Center would house offices of non-profit environmental organizations, as well as the commercial retailer Patagonia and a proposed organic foods restaurant.
The second structure, Oxford Plaza Apartments, would contain 96 units—including two- and three-bedroom apartments, all reserved for low-income and very low-income tenants.
The loan application approved by the council was a necessary component of the city’s request for a $2 million Brownfields Economic Development Initiative (BEDI) grant application. BEDI grants are awarded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to projects built on sites burdened by proven or potential chemical contamination. Parking lots are included within HUD’s definition.
The BEDI funds would be used to help fund the Brower Center while the $4 million in HUD Section 108 funding the city is seeking to secure using the $4 million in Community Block Grant Development (CBGD) funds as collateral would help fund the apartments.
Federal funding of CBGD grants nationally has been declining in recent years, with a 5 percent cutback last year and a 10 percent cut approved for this year. The grants fund a variety of programs and services in Berkeley, including the city’s housing department.
Some of the councilmembers who voted to support the grant application said they weren’t entirely happy with the cautionary statements included in the written report from Housing Director Steve Barton, in which he warned of the possible dangers of commiting funds essential to many city programs.
“I’m really troubled by the report,” said Laurie Capitelli. “It’s incomplete, and it raises red flags on every page.”
Betty Olds, who cast the lone dissenting vote, said she was troubled by the fact the report had been submitted too late for her to be able to digest it.
While the developers say they intend to rent office space in the Brower Center to non-profit environmental organizations, Capitelli asked Barton what might happen if they couldn’t. “Who would be the best tenant?” he asked.
“I would say organizations like the energy functions of the Lawrence Berkeley Lab or various university projects related to the environment,” said Barton. “Certainly the university would be a deep-pocket tenant.”
“So theoretically we could undertake this project to fund office space for the university?” Capitelli asked.
“We’re taking this on primarily to get the BEDI grant that supports the affordable housing component,” Barton answered.
“I think we should go ahead, but I too have concerns about the risks. They’re hard to ignore,” said Councilmember Gordon Wozniak.
The Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) voted to declare Dwight Way Liquors a public nuisance on Oct. 25, and Oakland Attorney Robert Bryden filed an appeal on behalf of Nasr Nagi.
“Mr. Bryden does not represent the owner or the alcohol license holder,” city code enforcement supervisor Gregory Daniel told the council Tuesday. “There is only one person recognized as the operator and owner,” and that is Abdulaziz Saleh Saleh, said Daniel.
He said the District Attorney’s office reported that during a Jan. 17 court hearing Bryden told the court that Nagi was selling the store, but he can’t be because he doesn’t own it.
Bryden said Thursday that he hadn’t attended the council hearing because he hadn’t received any notice that it was occurring. He added that his client “is a partner with the guy whose name is on the license.”
Asked if he would attend the Feb. 7 hearing, Bryden said, “most likely.”
Daniel said notices of the hearing were sent out by regular mail, and that a copy had been sent to Bryden.
Daniel told the council Tuesday that if the store is operating in the name of a partnership, “they have to have a liquor license under that name. Mr. Saleh is the only person on the liquor license and the only person on the business license and the zoning permit. Mr. Nagi appears nowhere.”
In September, the city asked for a copy of any partnership agreement, but no copy was ever provided, said Daniel.
ZAB Chair Andy Katz told the council that the board “did not take the remedy lightly in recommending closure.”
Daniel had presented the council with a massive report, detailing a host of violations filed against the store and recounting a variety of state actions against the store’s liquor license. Neighbors told of violations of operating hours, sales to minors and of inebriates invading their property and discarding empty bottles on porches and in yards, along with drug paraphernalia.
The council delayed action on a new ordinance governing the care of dogs kept outdoors, as well as a proposed amendment by Dona Spring that would set different standards for animals kept by the homeless.
Both proposals were referred back to the planning commission.
The council also delayed action on a proposal from the Community Health Commission that would have the city set higher public health and safety standards for the installation of cell phone antennae.
City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque noted that federal law preempts local laws from adopting different standards than those set by federal regulations.
“We are handicapped, but people are genuinely concerned,” said Councilmember Linda Maio. “People are wearing ear pieces with their cell phones because they don’t want transmissions next to their brains. But we’re hooked on this technology.”
Albuquerque said that the city was further hampered by a recent federal appellate decision drastically limiting local jurisdictions’ ability to limit antenna installation on municipal street lighting polls.
The council voted to ask the health commission to investigate the one issue over which they do have control—whether or not the city should be encouraging the installation of a wi-fi system, a wireless Internet service.
The council also approved:
• An ordinance that would prevent new sidewalk flower vendors from setting up outside an indoor florist’s shop.
• Amendments to the Coast Live Oaks Ordinance banning excessive pruning of the trees.
• Allocating up to $350,000 for monitoring and maintenance of the closed landfill at Cesar Chavez Park.
• A$45,000 increase in a legal services contract with a private law firm to advise on the Brower Center project.