Zoning Adjustments Board approves student housing complex on Durant Avenue

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At a meeting Thursday, the Zoning Adjustments Board, or ZAB, approved a use permit for the construction of a student housing building on Durant Avenue.

The construction will involve knocking down the existing two-story, 18-unit building located at 2631 Durant Ave. to build a five-story building with 56 apartments intended as student housing. The building’s designers have been altering the architectural plans with counsel from the city’s Design Review Committee since September 2013, and the building has been vacant since May 2014.

The loss of 18 rent-controlled apartments troubled speakers from the Berkeley Tenants Union, who said at the meeting that the new building’s rents would be unaffordable.

Katherine Harr, a Rent Stabilization Board commissioner and the tenant union’s secretary, said at the meeting that apartments in new buildings have much higher rent compared with that of apartments in older buildings.

Under California state law, no building built after 1995 can be subject to rent control, which establishes annual rent ceilings. But when an apartment changes hands, under state law, landlords can raise rates to reflect the market price of housing.

The builders originally planned to voluntarily place a rent ceiling on 20 units and provide one unit of very low-income housing, but they added three more units of very low-income housing after ZAB members expressed concerns over enforcement of the rent ceiling.

ZAB chair Prakash Pinto believes the new building, which he said was a “beautifully designed building by a fantastic architect,” will be brighter and have better amenities than the current building.

According to Pinto, the city is trying to encourage the construction of higher-quality housing and low-income housing.

“Students are people, too, and they need to have a good quality of life as well,” Pinto said.

Some speakers at the meeting were concerned that the owner of the building deliberately worsened its condition in order to get approval for its demolition. John Selawsky, a substitute for Sophie Hahn and the only ZAB member to vote no on the use permit, said the building showed signs of deliberate neglect.

Cliff Orloff, managing partner of developer OPHCA LLC, agreed to let the Berkeley Fire Department conduct training exercises in the building in 2014. Orloff said that the fire department contacted him with a request to carry out the exercises and that he was already planning to demolish the building.

According to Harr, these exercises hastened the destruction of the building before the owner had received a demolition permit.

But the building was “totally trashed way before that,” Orloff said.

According to Orloff, the certification process with the city has taken 28 months so far, and the new building will barely scratch the surface of the demand for student housing.

“They need a hundred of these buildings,” Orloff said.

There will be a chance for the public to appeal the ZAB’s decision in about two weeks. If there are no appeals, the builders will go back to the Design Review Committee for final approval.

At the meeting, commissioners also certified the environmental-impact review for the 18-story complex planned for 2211 Harold Way in a 5-3 vote, contingent on the planners responding adequately to concerns raised by the Berkeley Unified School District.

Contact Mira Chaplin at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @mirachaplin.