City of Berkeley’s zoning board approves construction of residential home on hillside

Cheyenne Tex/Staff

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The city of Berkeley’s Zoning Adjustments Board, or ZAB, approved the conversion of a vacant elementary school property and historic landmark into a residential home with additional units and amenities at Thursday’s meeting.

1581 Le Roy Ave., the location of the proposed new residential home, is set to include an approximately 50,000 square foot single-family residence with former classrooms reconstructed into private art studio spaces. The property will see an installation of a swimming pool and hot tub, elevator penthouse, garage and surface parking. It will also see five new storage sheds and portions of the former playground to be partially repurposed as an outdoor, but not commercial, art practice space.

Jerri Holan, the applicant, mentioned that the building “has a lot of damage” and was in a state of “neglect.” She added that Samuli Seppälä, the owner who purchased the former school in 2018, “loves the property,” also noting that “he has the means to preserve it and improve it.”

The site of the school was previously sold, once by the Berkeley Unified School District, and later by the German International School of Silicon Valley, or GISSV. Because of its proximity to a fault line, GISSV has seismic vulnerability issues and requires seismic retrofitting that the school cannot afford.

At the meeting, many members of the public expressed support for Seppälä for repairing the abandoned building from a “state of neglect,” as well as supporting artists by creating art studios.

Others, however, questioned the legality of the construction of this site and expressed concern that it would not be used just for residential use, but rather for commercial use with the art studios.

“I saw an enormous mansion there on a large site where there is already housing in the area where there could have been more,” said community member Paul Bickmore.

The board approved the permit almost unanimously.

The ZAB also approved a permit that would allow a project on the 2352-2390 block of Shattuck Avenue to demolish two existing commercial buildings and build two new mixed-use buildings with 204 units, including 14 very low-income units.

Multiple public commenters noted the city’s need for housing and supported the project. There were several UC Berkeley students present who mentioned that students desperately needed more housing.

“Housing isn’t a privilege, it is a human right, it’s a basic need, and if we have to sacrifice our aesthetic sensibilities for the sake of fulfilling that need for students and other residents in Berkeley, then yeah, let’s do it,” said Somya Jain, a campus senior and local government relations director for the ASUC external affairs vice president.

While the project was generally supported, ZAB member Leah Simon-Weisberg raised concern regarding whether the housing units would only be marketed to students.

The ZAB also approved a proposal for a three-story mixed-use building on 2422 Fifth St., as well as the construction of a new two-story building on 2015 Eighth St.

“It’s really, the juxtaposition of the two,” said Alfred Twu, a community member, regarding the Le Roy and Shattuck projects. “The other project (conversion of the school property) — the piece of land is several times the size of what this piece of land is — and they are building a mansion. And here we are getting 200 apartments.”

Contact Nina Narahari at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ninanarahari_dc.