Zoning board approves 8-story building for Downtown Berkeley

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Johnson Lyman Architects /Courtesy

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At its Thursday meeting, the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board unanimously approved the construction of an eight-story residential and retail complex set to be located in Downtown Berkeley.

The project, dubbed StoneFire, is slated to be a mixed-use building with 98 residential units, a 76-car garage with bike parking and ground-floor retail space. It is one of several new projects currently planned for the Downtown area and will replace the Firestone Complete Auto Care storefront, which is located at 1974 University Ave.

The project’s location is particularly ideal, according to John Caner, the CEO of the Downtown Berkeley Association, because its proximity to the “arts district” — the area surrounding Shattuck Avenue, which includes several cinemas, live theaters and other entertainment — will attract young professionals, seniors and retirees.

“It’s an area that’s lagged in the revitalization of Downtown,” he said, “and I think it’ll act as a vibrant gateway to the Downtown (area) as people drive up University Avenue.”

Igor Tregub, a Zoning Adjustments Board commissioner, said a shortage of vacancies in San Francisco drove commuters to seek housing in surrounding East Bay cities, including Berkeley, and may be at least partially responsible for the Downtown housing boom.

The StoneFire project comes in the wake of the Downtown Area Plan — a set of revisions to building codes designed to promote expansion of Downtown Berkeley — which had its most recent iteration passed in 2012. Though none of the proposed residential buildings spurred by the plan, including StoneFire, have broken ground yet, Berkeley City Councilmember Jesse Arreguin said he believes the area is already benefiting from the new regulations.

He said he has some reservations, however, about the newly approved building’s height. Under the Downtown Area Plan, buildings that are more than 75 feet tall are required to provide “significant community benefits” that include low-income housing. StoneFire’s plans only account for eight such units — enough to qualify for California’s density bonus, which would permit more market-rate units to be built, but not enough, in Arreguin’s view, to benefit the community at large.

“The developer, by using the density bonus, was able to game the system to gain the additional (building) height without providing community benefits,” he said, calling the number of low-income units “absurd.”

Arreguin also said he had concerns about some of the new developments displacing longstanding Berkeley businesses and forcing them to move.

“While new projects are formed, we need to mitigate the effect these projects have on existing businesses,” he said. “That’s not to say these projects shouldn’t happen, but it is an issue we need to address.”

Despite his criticisms, he said both the height and placement of the building were appropriate for its location.

 

G. Haley Massara covers city news. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @BylineGraph.