Berkeley Neighbors Fight Micro-Unit Proposal on Shattuck Avenue
By Emilie Raguso, Berkeleyside
A 70-unit five-story building proposed at Shattuck Avenue and Derby Street faced steep neighborhood opposition at a recent zoning board meeting in Berkeley.
The 60-foot-tall proposal, set to include 35 garage parking spaces, 81 bike spots and a 2,000-square-foot restaurant, has been designed by Lowney Architecture, and comes to the city from Axis Development Group in San Francisco. The project has been scheduled before the city’s Design Review Committee six times since December. Units as currently designed range from 307 to 344 square feet. The project would result in a payment of $1.4 million into the city’s affordable housing fund.
Proponents say these “micro-units” — which have sparked fierce debate in San Francisco — are the way of the future, offering a more viable financial alternative to renters who otherwise would not be able to afford their own apartments. An attorney for the project, Rena Rickles, said at the Aug. 8 Zoning Adjustments Board meeting that micro-units “have been lauded in every design review magazine,” adding that the Berkeley proposal would offer even more amenities than a similarly high-end project, 38 Harriet, in San Francisco (built by Berkeley-based developer Panoramic Interests): “It meets the highest standards for this kind of housing in this area.” Rickles also noted that it would bring some much-needed vibrancy to the area.
Fifteen neighbors who live near the proposal, and spoke before the zoning board, were unconvinced. One woman called the development “a resident hall stuck at the end of a very residential neighborhood.” Another, Marianne Sluis, said the developers had been “very bad neighbors” who “came to our neighborhood and didn’t listen to what we had to say. They never understood the neighborhood at all. … In terms of precedent, I think we’re looking at something very freakish here.”
Neighbors took issue specifically with the height of the proposal, asking that it be dropped one or two stories; the size of the units; and the lack of space between the project and nearby residential homes. Neighbors also said that, while micro-units might work in the heart of downtown where there are other community resources, students would be unlikely to find many activities near that particular stretch of Shattuck. Noise, parking and shadowing were also among the concerns expressed.
“This is a terrible model to propose,” said Ellen Langer. “It’s a new standard of tenement houses for the people of Berkeley.”
One Berkeley resident, who said he lives about five blocks away, said he supports the project, although he added that his firm is under consideration to serve as the project’s structural engineer. He noted that the modular design of the building would halve construction time and minimize disruption to neighbors, and said a proposed community room would give residents a place to come together to socialize. He was the only member of the public who spoke in favor of the plans.
Zoning commissioners said they’d like to see the possibility of more family-size units and a lower building that would be more harmonious with the neighborhood.
Commissioner Igor Tregub said he wasn’t sure the size of the proposed units would work in Berkeley, though he said he’d like to see more revitalization in that part of the city: “Just about anything is better than a vacant building there.” Still, he continued, a three- or four-story building might accomplish that goal as well. “It’s a very sensitive neighborhood. It’s in a buffer zone: It’s along a transit corridor, but it also abuts a residential area.”
Commissioner John Selawsky, who was sitting in for that night’s meeting, said he found many of the neighborhood’s concerns to be “very, very legitimate.” He said he wanted to see more space — setbacks — around the property, and that the height should come down 10 or 12 feet: “I don’t think 60 feet is compatible with that neighborhood.” He said adding two- and three-bedroom units would be more in line with what Berkeley needs.
Commissioner Sophie Hahn said she was sympathetic to the “very real concerns about parking and massing” from neighbors, and said she, too, was unconvinced about the lack of proposed setbacks. She also took issue with the concept of micro-units, saying she didn’t see them offering a healthy lifestyle to students or other tenants. She criticized the designs, calling them “penitentiary housing,” and said there wasn’t enough room for exercise, cooking, intimacy or other types of enriching activities.
“The only vision that I see in this project is profit,” she said. “It’s a bleak, lonely, unhealthy life that I would have a lot of trouble endorsing.”
Commissioner Bob Allen said there’s still work to be done, but that he thinks a solution that will work will ultimately be forthcoming.
“There are a lot of issues here,” he said. “We shouldn’t go jumping off the roof saying, ‘You can’t do this, this is nasty.’ …We’ve gotta really work at this. And I think the developer … made a big step when they brought in the current architect. … It’s a vast improvement as far as the units, and I think we should be open to this stuff.”
After the meeting ended, Rickles said a height reduction would be unlikely, in that it would lead to a project that was not financially viable. She said several previous plans on the site ultimately fell through in part because of that limitation.
“None of them got built,” she said. “For the cost of land and the utility of the land, it just isn’t feasible to do it much smaller.”
[Editor's Note: A quotation from Sophie Hahn inadvertently misstated a word she used that night; the quotation has been corrected.]
More on micro-unit housing: