Berkeley Says No: College Town Rejects Triplex, May Incur Legal Action
On the evening of July 12, the Berkeley City Council reversed a decision by the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board, denying a use permit for the property owner at 1310 Haskell Street to demolish a single-family home and replace it with three two-story residential buildings. The 5-4 vote went against the recommendation of the City Manager to uphold the ZAB’s approval.
Two councilmembers voted Yes (to reverse the ZAB approval) in accordance with the minority of their ZAB appointees who had voted in March to deny the use permit: Jesse Arreguin, who appointed Commissioner Igor Tregub; and Max Anderson, whose appointee is Shoshanna O’Keefe. The other Yes votes came from Councilmember Linda Maio, Mayor Tom Bates, and District 2 Councilmember Darryl Moore (1310 Haskell is in his district). Councilmembers Droste, Wengraf, Worthington, and Capitelli abstained. There were no votes to uphold the ZAB decision.
The decision flies in the face of the city’s tight-knit progressive image—a city in which concerned residents often deliver public comments calling for mid-rise density conforming to surrounding neighborhood aesthetics. Indeed, Livable Berkeley’s Eric Panzer notes that Berkeley’s initial plan as a streetcar suburb puts it in the unique position of enabling dense, walkable neighborhoods where single-family homes coexist with “missing middle” structures, including duplexes and triplexes.
During the meeting, Panzer tweeted: “I hate when Berkeley makes itself a poster-child for liberal hypocrisy. We support immigration, but don't move to our neighborhood.” When reached via email, Panzer added the following commentary: “The decision sets an number of extremely damaging precedents: that detriment is wholly subjective and impervious to any sort of reality check; that Berkeley is OK with exclusionary zoning, even in neighborhoods that already feature a mix of unit types; that two-story buildings are ‘too dense.’”
Mayor Bates’ office told us that the mayor believed three two-story dwellings on the lot was too many, but he would have approved a proposal for two dwellings.
Critics noted that despite concerns over neighborhood character, the Council denied a use permit for a project that was below the density for which the parcel is currently zoned. The city staff report underscored that the parcel is in a R-2A Multifamily Residential zone. A triplex would be the minimum allowed size, but there would be no zoning violation if the proposal were a quaduplex, for example. Indeed, an earlier staff report from the March 10th ZAB meeting shows that there are already three multi-family dwellings in the direct vicinity of the property: 1309 Haskell Street, 1313-1317 Haskell Street, and 1301 67th Street, which is a triplex.
Nevertheless, Councilmember Moore described the proposed project as a “monolith,” and lamented that the R-2A category has “too much ambiguity.”
Brian Hanlon, co-founder of the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund (CaRLA) thinks otherwise: in an email, he suggested the zoning is unambiguous enough such that the city could be in violation of state law. His full statement reads: “In apparent violation of the Housing Accountability Act, the Berkeley City Council overruled the recommendation of City staff and rejected an application to build homes yesterday. Berkeley faces a serious housing shortage, which causes displacement, increased rent burdens for working families, and longer commutes. CaRLA is dedicated to making housing more affordable and accessible. We are researching this apparent violation and will file litigation, if appropriate.”
Readers unfamiliar with Berkeley may be curious to know why there was such strong opposition to such a small-scale development that is fully compliant with local zoning.
One public comment, reported by Berkeleyside, elucidates the visceral nature of this political rift: “You are taking away neighbors and replacing them w[ith] buildings full of faceless strangers”—this is a statement deserving of some analysis. It is certainly true that the housing affordability crisis has triggered waves of displacement in low-income communities across the Bay Area. On the other hand, describing new neighbors as “faceless strangers” suggests a reluctance to meet new neighbors and humanize them, particularly on behalf of incumbent residents who were once new strangers themselves. One plays into the other: the fear of losing existing communities feeds into an unwillingness to see new residents join communities.
There is strong evidence from UC Berkeley’s Urban Displacement Project suggesting that this is exactly the kind of development needed to prevent displacement. Mayoral candidate and UC Berkeley graduate student Ben Gould noted on Twitter that Governor Jerry Brown’s proposed "by-right" trailer bill would have streamlined the process and ensured one subsidized unit. According to Chapple & Zuk’s latest study, that permanently affordable unit would have been twice as effective at curbing displacement.
Rather than follow Berkeley’s own zoning code to encourage development without displacement, the majority of the Council favored the objections of neighbors, whose complaints included having to find parking around the corner during street sweeping times, an aversion to two-story heights, and losing morning sunlight for a vegetable garden.