Berkeley City Council returns 57-unit development project to zoning board

Ireland Wagner/Staff

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The Berkeley City Council narrowly voted to send a proposal for a five-story development back to the city Zoning Adjustments Board at its Tuesday regular meeting, holding off on approving the project until some design tweaks are implemented.

The vote to remand the project, submitted by the development company BayRock Multifamily, back to the board comes after a history of delays and setbacks. City staffers projected that it would be another four to six months before the project — mostly consisting of one-bedroom “micro units” — would receive approval. The development seeks to provide a total of 57 mixed-use units at 2701 Shattuck Ave.

Reinforcing a staunchly pro-housing stance before the city, a handful of students representing the ASUC Office of the External Affairs Vice President, or EAVP, came out to press council members to approve the project. They exhorted the need for student housing above resident objections, which mainly centered on concerns regarding potential intrusion of privacy and excessive shade cast by the building.

“Those things just seem so trivial compared to the massive housing crisis in the Bay Area,” said Angie Chen, the local affairs director for the EAVP who commented at the meeting. “It was frustrating how City Council keeps moving the goal post for what seems to be a simple project. … What we see here is local bureaucracy preventing housing from being built.”

Many aspects of the proposal that council members criticized stemmed from the city’s own ordinances and codes, and council members suggested that they might implement policy changes in the future to resolve them. Council members who voted to remand the project back to the zoning board — Sophie Hahn, Kate Harrison, Ben Bartlett, Cheryl Davila and Mayor Jesse Arreguín — sent with it recommendations to increase neighbor privacy. The five council members also sent recommendations to increase the number of subsidized affordable units from the five units that were proposed and to further reduce parking.

As it was presented, the proposed number of parking spaces was lower than the city’s minimum requirement for the area, an exception previously granted by the board to address neighbor complaints. As part of the vote, Arreguín also clarified that the rate of affordable on-site units would be at the behest of the developer, as the city requires developers to either include the units or pay an in-lieu fee — which in this case amounted to $1 million to the city’s affordable housing fund used to develop units for low-income individuals.

Stuart Gruendl, the CEO of BayRock Multifamily and a co-founder of its predecessor company, said he is “considering our legal options,” leaving open the possibility of a lawsuit.

“This (makes it) really clear that this is why the state is developing these pro-housing laws because this project was approved 7-1 at ZAB,” Gruendl said. “If (the proposal) keeps going around in a circular fashion, then you just sue. A judge would rule in our favor because it is compliant (under the state law).”

Bartlett took the opportunity to mark a new stance on the Inclusionary Housing Ordinance, which mandates that developers either include subsidized, low-income housing or pay fees in their place toward the city’s affordable housing trust fund. Bartlett said he would “from now on be advocating that the buildings have (a) maximum” number of affordable units, citing the $135 million already in the fund provided by Measure O, which passed in November 2018.

Gruendl said it is expected to take at least two years after approval to build the project.

Brandon Yung is the lead city government reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @brandonyung1.