Lawsuit against contentious Downtown Berkeley high-rise reviewed in court Friday

Jihoon Park/Staff

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Following months of community unrest, the case against the development of a Downtown Berkeley high-rise entered its latest stage Friday, after an Oakland Civil Court judge reviewed evidence from a lawsuit brought forth by two local residents alleging that the city of Berkeley did not follow proper procedure for approval.

The trial followed criticism from community members regarding the city’s approval of the 18-story, 11,000 square-foot building with 302 dwelling units. Berkeley residents Kelly Hammargren and James Hendry separately filed lawsuits against the city of Berkeley in January that were later consolidated into one suit, which alleged that the city did not adequately assess the environmental impact of the building before approval.

Under the 1970 California Environmental Quality Act, cities are required to compile an environmental impact report, or EIR, for construction projects that are expected to have a large environmental effect. Hammargren alleges that the project’s EIR was not accurately completed because the project’s impact on local schools, noise pollution, air quality and other factors was not fully examined.

“It’s not like trying to protect banana slugs … it’s not a single issue that’s pretty easy to present. It’s a complicated case with a lot of facets,” Hammargren said. “When we talk about environmental impact, it’s not just fish and rivers, it’s (impact on) people.”

While the city was represented by professional attorneys, Hammargren said she and Hendry were unable to afford full legal counsel and are representing themselves, though they did obtain some professional legal advice.

In addition, the lawsuit alleges that the project will not only alter historic buildings Downtown and the popular Bay view from Campanile Way but will also obstruct the learning environment of both Berkeley High School and Berkeley City College. Prior to the building’s approval by City Council, developers and Berkeley Unified School District representatives formed an agreement to work toward abating noise and equipment staging during construction.

Under a current agreement, construction will halt on 47 designated testing days to avoid interfering with Berkeley High School students’ performance. Hammargren said this compromise is not enough as students cannot possibly test well if they cannot hear their lectures.

The project will replace the current Shattuck Cinemas building — located at 2230 Shattuck Ave. since 1988 — with a new 10-screen movie theater. Hammargren said local restaurant owners and other small business owners are worried that the loss of movie-goers in street traffic will decrease business.

When approved by City Council, the project came with approximately $14.5 million worth of community benefits through a union agreement, a payment to the city’s Housing Trust Fund and a donation to support arts and culture in the city, among other assets. Over the course of dozens of public meetings, the design of the project has evolved to be less obtrusive in relation to the view from Campanile Way. In addition, the building’s plans have received a Gold LEED certification.

Hammargren argues that the same benefits could be achieved if developers located the complex at a less controversial place.

“There’s all kinds of places we could be building,” Hammargren said. “We could have this high-density building that everyone thinks will help our climate, we could do that and at the same time, we don’t have to destroy what people care about.”

Neither city spokesperson Matthai Chakko nor the city attorney could be reached for comment.

Contact Pressly Pratt at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @presslypratt.