City Council sends back development project for environmental review

A meeting takes place as multiple people sit at a large wooden semi circle desk.
Kristen Tamsil /Staff

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A controversial proposal for a residential development in northwest Berkeley will be sent back to the city Zoning Adjustments Board for consideration after Berkeley City Council members sided with a community appeal against the project at Tuesday evening’s regular meeting.

The debate that consumed much of the meeting centered on the project’s potential to displace tenants. The proposal in question was submitted by developer Mark Rhoades and comprises plans for two adjacent lots on 1155 to 1173 Hearst Ave., which would add three duplexes and renovate current rental units.

While the board initially gave the proposal the green light, neighbors and residents who submitted the appeal successfully argued that the project warrants deeper environmental analysis because the site sits above a filled-in branch of Strawberry Creek. While city staff members agreed with Rhoades that the current infrastructure could handle runoff, council members sided with the neighbors’ argument that the project would have a significant environmental impact, triggering the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA.

The biggest issue is simply the fact that there’s been a lot of evidence over the years for the residents that the area has been flooding,” said Lucas Paz, a principal hydrologist at Terraphase Engineering, which provided hydrological analysis for the appellant. “The historic maps that show the former tributary of Strawberry Creek running underneath the property are undeniable.”

A video viewed during the meeting, however, showed runoff overflowing onto the curbed sidewalks outside the property and therefore appeared to contradict a staff report that found “no evidence in the record that the storm-drain system is inadequate for the site area.” Paz also said the city staff report overlooked more detailed maps that suggest the area is susceptible to liquefaction — soil destabilization that occurs during earthquakes — and called the report “completely unfounded.”

Despite concerns over environmental consequences, the project’s potential to displace tenants lay at the center of community and council concern. Many of the current City Council members ran on pro-tenant-rights platforms, and the debate was particularly charged given that six of the seven units on the property are under rent control. Despite the board’s condition that tenants be “voluntarily vacated” in order for improvements to be made to existing units, council members anticipated pressure to get tenants to move.

Dozens of community members attended the meeting to support the appellants. Among them, former Berkeley mayor Shirley Dean, who served on the council from 1975 to 1994, spoke during public comment in favor of preserving the rent-controlled units. Dean framed the board appeal as primarily a struggle against tenant displacement, asserting that the voluntary relocation condition “creates an atmosphere of fear among tenants.”

Although the proposed project would not demolish the structures under rent control, current tenants expressed worry that Rhoades may intend to eventually turn the structures into condominiums, which then would not be subject to rent control under the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act.

Yashu Jiang, a resident of one of the duplexes, sees the successful zoning board appeal as a small victory for tenants who fear potential harassment and pressure to move out. Jiang claimed Rhoades offered her cash payment to leave “sooner rather than later.”

The project will be remanded to the board to undertake the CEQA process to consider the site’s hydrology issues as well as its impacts on current tenants.

“We (were) asking for CEQA because that is the only way to hold these people responsible because we want them to show us exactly what they are going to do with the rent-control units, exactly how their project is going to affect the environment,” Jiang said. “Without these assurances, we can’t trust them to do the right thing. We can’t trust them to protect us or the neighborhood.”

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