274 units of housing approved in Downtown Berkeley amid controversy

The front of a Walgreens store.
Jenna Wong/Staff

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An 18-story, mixed-use building with 274 residential units is set to replace the Walgreens building in Downtown Berkeley after the City Council approved the project in a Zoning Adjustments Board appeal hearing at Thursday’s special meeting.

The project, dubbed the Shattuck Terrace Green Apartments, passed muster despite resident objections to its height, which will obstruct a view of the San Francisco Bay from the UC Berkeley campus. Priced entirely at market rate, it will be situated adjacent to the Downtown Berkeley BART station, in line with efforts to increase dense, transit-oriented development.

Soon to be one of the largest buildings in one of Berkeley’s densest corridors, Shattuck Terrace drew heated debate leading up to Thursday’s meeting. Some students demanded the city increase its housing stock in light of a crippling housing crisis, while other community members argued that the building would interfere with a historic view line of the bay from the base of the Campanile.

“It should have never been controversial if not for its location in this view line,” said City Councilmember Rigel Robinson. “The fact that so many of the people who enjoy this view every day — dozens and dozens of students — came to City Council to say and ask that we prioritize this housing … speaks volumes about students’ priorities today.”

Before the hearing, residents who contested the board’s approval unsuccessfully tried to halt the project by registering the view line as a historic site. Shirley Dean, a former Berkeley mayor who served on the council from 1975 to 1994, filed the appeal to the City Council as a last effort to preserve the view. Dean tried to convince council members to reduce the project’s height without compromising the housing it would add.

“I’m really concerned about where we’re headed right now,” Dean said. “The state and the city of Berkeley use that view as a symbol, and when you sell that symbol down the river and put it in the hands of a few people, you really have to question why.”

Dean also expressed concerns that the project’s lack of below-market-rate units would accelerate gentrification in the Downtown Berkeley area. While the project’s advocates point to the $10.1 million in developer fees added to city’s Housing Trust Fund — which goes toward low-income housing — to Dean, the benefits of the project simply do not outweigh the costs.

The $10.1 million toward the Housing Trust Fund is only “kicking the proverbial can down the road to fund affordable units somewhere else three to 10 years from now,” according to Berkeley resident and UC Berkeley alumna Moni Law. In a letter drafted to City Council after the unsuccessful appeal, Law argued that students in particular would struggle to pay current market-rate rents on Shattuck Avenue.

At the meeting, multiple ASUC senators voiced support for the project, bringing with them a letter of support signed by all 20 senators. Several UC Berkeley students also shared how they had been impacted by the dire housing shortage in the city.

While opponents of the project contended that a vast majority of students would not be able to afford the asking rents at Shattuck Terrace, ASUC President Alexander Wilfert framed the housing shortage as a problem of supply and demand. According to Wilfert, Shattuck Terrace would alleviate some pressure that UC Berkeley students face in competing for rental units by simply creating more housing. Students turned out, he said, to advocate for a message larger than this single project.

“I think we all value the view, but at the same time, I think a thing that students value more is that other students aren’t going homeless and that they have a roof over their head to go back to every night,” Wilfert said. “If that means losing a view that they look at every day for maybe five seconds, that takes precedent.”

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

A previous version of this article misspelled Berkeley.