Planning Commissioners Thursday voted unanimously to ask the City Council to amend the Berkeley’s Downtown Plan to allow construction of the David Brower Center complex.
Two buildings will rise above the site of the city’s Oxford Plaza parking lot along the west side of Fulton Street between Kittredge Street and Allston Way, and a one- or two-level underground parking structure will be dug into the earth beneath the site.
The Brower Center itself will be one of the world’s “greenest” buildings, incorporating the latest technology to minimize energy consumption, while the solar panels that will form the structure’s parapet will generate a significant part of the power consumed within.
The adjacent Oxford Plaza building with 96 units will provide the city’s largest collection of apartments for low- and very low-income tenants, including three-bedroom units.
“This is a really great project,” said Commissioner Rob Wrenn. “It’s one of the few that actually provides affordable family-size units. You can count on two hands the number of affordable three-bedroom apartment built here in the last three years.”
Principal Planner Aaron Sage told the commissioners the changes were needed “because it doesn’t quite fit within the Downtown Plan standard.”
The plan sets specific height limits in the “Oxford Edge” sub-area—the stretch of Fulton/Oxford Street facing the University of California campus.
Bonuses allowing additional height are available only to projects that devote 75 percent of their space to residential units and to those providing at least 5,000 square feet of cultural and/or fine arts space.
The Oxford Plaza housing component, including ground floor commercial spaces, occupies 55,000 square feet, while the Brower Center measures in at 35,000, well below the requisite ratio.
None of the Brower Center uses qualify under the fine arts/cultural uses bonus.
Sage said that the project nonetheless has a large housing component and that an auditorium in the Brower Center will be available for some arts and cultural uses.
“The amendments call for minor changes to the available bonuses applied specifically to this site, and keeps the height at no more than the current bonuses allow,” he said.
Questions and answers
Noting that most of the Brower Center itself would be leased to non-profit tenants, Commissioner Susan Wengraf posed a question to John Clawson, the complex project manager for Equity Community Builders.
“The largest non-profit in the city is right across the street. Will there be any provision for not renting to the University of California?”
Property leased to the university is removed from the tax rolls, a matter of growing concern in the city.
“There are no restrictions,” Clawson said.
“I have very grave concerns about the city building office space for the university,” said Wengraf. “They are the largest tenant in the downtown area.”
“The city is not subsidizing the Brower Center,” said Clawson. “We are paying full market value for the land, approximately $5 million.”
But the city is subsidizing the Oxford Plaza building, including $2.9 million in federal funds allocated by the Housing Advisory Commission, and the two projects are joined at the hip in the city approval process, a point Wengraf didn’t pursue.
Commissioner Sara Shumer asked about another funding source now being solicited, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Brownfields Economic Development Incentives (BEDI) grants.
The Ed Roberts Center at the Ashby BART station has received BEDI moneys for their project.
Brownfields are usually defined as land polluted by various toxins which require remediation before development can occur.
“My understanding is that the name is somewhat misleading because the site doesn’t have to be a brownfield,” Sage said.
“They consider underutilized property as brownfields,” Clawson said, “not brownfields as contaminated.”
“We recommended the brownfields BEDI grant because HUD defines it broadly,” said Housing Advisory Commission (HAC) Vice-Chair Jesse Arreguin, who gave the project a ringing endorsement.
HAC endorsed the grant proposal in a divided vote during their regular meeting Wednesday.
Another self-described enthusiastic supporter was Anna de Leon, of Anna’s Jazz Island, Berkeley’s newest night club which recently opened in the Gaia Building, one building west of the Brower Center site on Allston Way.
“We should give them whatever changes are needed,” she said. “How could we do otherwise?”
Planning Manager Mark Rhoades drew chuckles from commissioners and the audience when he noted that de Leon “is the occupant, finally, of a cultural space.”
Her club is located in the Gaia Building in part of the ground floor cultural space that allowed developer Patrick Kennedy to building the structure higher than would otherwise been allowed under the Downtown Plan.
Deborah Badhia, executive director of the Downtown Berkeley Organization, said that while her group couldn’t make a formal recommendation on the project, “I’m looking forward to it. It will do a lot of things for a lot of people.”
The group can’t take a formal stand, she said, because President Raudel Wilson is a member of the Zoning Adjustments Board which must vote on the project.
When it came time for the vote, the planners gave their unanimous endorsement.
Rhoades dropped a small bombshell late in the meeting when he declared that the city intends to assert jurisdiction over development at the school district’s West Campus site.
“My reading of the [district’s] plan is that the city will have jurisdiction over the whole thing,” he said. “The Zoning Adjustments Board will address the specific issues.”
If the school board has its way, jurisdiction would rest with the state architect’s office, which has purview over development of educational buildings and is exempt from municipal zoning codes.
Rhoades said the city would have final say over everything except for a few interior spaces where teaching activities would occur.
Attorneys for the city and the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) will hash out the details.
His comments came as a result of a proposal by members Rob Wrenn and David Stoloff to ask BUSD to radically reduce the 170 parking places included in plans for development of the West Campus site.
The initial hitch with the notion came when Rhoades said he’d need to ask the city manager’s office if the commission needed city council authorization to send the letter.
Wrenn noted that the current school district offices at Old City Hall and its annex have only 13 spaces.
“You couldn’t do anything more environmentally unfriendly” than to provide one space for every employee, he said. “The school district is even more backward that the university when it comes to urging alternative transport.
“This is a very clear conflict with General Plan policy and it’s clearly appropriate for the Planning Commission to address.”
But other members said they wanted to know more about the district’s plan before reaching a decision.
“I’m totally uncomfortable getting into this towards the end of the process and using the august grandeur of the Planning Commission to intimidate the BUSD,” quipped Commissioner Gene Poschman, “I would love to refer this to the Transportation Commission [chaired by Rob Wrenn].”
The commission meeting ended with no action taken on the proposal.
The West Campus plan goes to the school board for a public hearing at its June 29 meeting.