Design Review Committee approves contentious Durant Avenue student housing development

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Michael Drummond/File

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The Berkeley Design Review Committee’s conditional approval of architectural plans Thursday marks another step towards the construction of a contentious five-story apartment building at 2631 Durant Ave.

The new building — intended for student housing — would replace the 18-unit apartment building at the site. The current building has been vacant since 2014 and, according to DRC member Savlan Hauser, is hazardous.

The building caught fire early Friday morning, likely due to debris from a homeless encampment behind the building. Community activists have alleged that Cliff Orloff, the building’s owner, deliberately allowed the building to go into further disrepair after he bought it in order to justify its demolition.

The city has previously reprimanded Orloff for failing to secure the building from squatters in the past, according to Katherine Harr, vice chair of the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board and community activist.

Orloff said the building had been neglected since before he bought it and would need to be demolished before redevelopment. The new Durant Avenue building will consist of 41 studios and 16 two-bedroom apartments, as well as a rooftop terrace.

“(The design) was really responsive to the way I know students and young people live in expensive urban settings,” Hauser said.

Orloff has not yet applied for the city building permits he needs to begin construction, according to city spokesperson Matthai Chakko.

Campus and community activists have opposed the building’s demolition due to concerns that the new building would not include rent-controlled units. In addition, some worry that fees paid to the city for the construction — including a mitigation fee for not including affordable units in the property and a demolition fee — would not cover the cost of replacing the rent-controlled units with affordable housing. Some residents allege that the project incentivizes the destruction of rent-controlled housing.

“We want every rent-controlled unit replaced with permanently affordable housing,” Harr said. “We want one-for-one replacement.”

In accordance with the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, buildings constructed after 1995 — like Orloff’s proposed development — are exempt from rent control. In April, Berkeley City Council voted to raise its affordable housing mitigation fee from $28,000 to $34,000 per unit.

The demolition fee for city buildings, however, has yet to be determined in Berkeley. Berkeley City Council is set to assess the fee for demolishing existing rent-controlled units after a study is conducted.

In a lawsuit he brought against the city in June, Orloff argued that the fees discourage development.

“It’s all still in flux,” Orloff said of the building’s construction. “The city has not been making it easy.”

At the Thursday meeting, the committee also approved plans to build a seven-story, 107-unit multifamily development at 1950 Addison St. Committee members said both developments would help alleviate the city’s housing crisis.

“(Housing is) a huge need in Berkeley,” Hauser said.We need to be aware of that crisis and respond with more housing where it makes sense.”

Contact Simon Greenhill and Talia Wenger at [email protected].