City Council to continue assessing proposal for homeless housing project

Benny Grush/Staff

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Berkeley City Council agreed on Tuesday night to further assess a proposal for a new homeless housing project that has been both hailed as visionary and denounced as dangerous.

The environmentally sustainable project would provide permanent housing, along an with emergency shelter and supportive services, to the city’s homeless residents, according to a staff report. But the project would take the place of a 112-spot parking lot at Berkeley Way and Henry Street and has brought up numerous questions surrounding its financing and parking in the Downtown area.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates said the city potentially faced an “acute problem” of access to the Downtown area because of the scarcity of parking and wondered how the project, which he estimated would cost $50 million, would be bankrolled.

“We don’t have that kind of money,” Bates said at the meeting. “Why would you start doing something that you could never afford to do?”

City Councilmember Jesse Arreguin says the city would not have to bear the brunt of the cost, and the Berkeley Housing Trust Fund, which pools funds for affordable-housing construction, could provide other sources of funding for the project.

The site of the proposed development was chosen for its proximity to Shattuck Avenue, public transit and a variety of social services for the homeless, but the plan deeply worries local business owners.

“The loss of parking in the Berkeley Way lot, even temporarily, will be catastrophic to businesses in the immediate area,” said Craig Larsen, owner of the building at 2054 University Ave., in a statement to the City Council. “I consider (it) a direct threat to my continued presence as an investor in Berkeley.”

Both John Caner, CEO of the Downtown Berkeley Association, and John Paluska, owner of Comal Restaurant, urged the council to double the existing parking supply if plans for the housing project move forward. Parking space has already been lost because of the construction of the new Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive and the proposed demolition of a parking garage on Center Street.

Arreguin says ameliorating the parking situation in the Downtown area and expanding services for the homeless are not mutually exclusive, and he hopes to at least replace the parking spaces that would be lost.

Councilmember Kriss Worthington, however, is not in favor of financing more parking spots.

“I agree that there shouldn’t be a negative impact on parking, but to make the affordable-housing project pay for more parking is totally unprogressive and inhumane and against Berkeley’s values,” he said.

According to the staff report, a 2009 count found more than 800 homeless people in Berkeley, including 680 that were chronically homeless, and the majority of them were men. The men’s shelter in Berkeley has been deemed seismically unsafe since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

The City Council will continue to flesh out the details of the plan in the coming months.

Contact Nico Correia at [email protected]