Developer demands Berkeley approve high-profile housing development under new state law
Developers aiming to build 260 apartments in Berkeley are pushing back on city officials’ initial refusal to let the project move forward.
Blake Griggs Properties submitted a proposal in March for 1900 Fourth St. under SB 35, a state law passed in 2017 that speeds up approvals for housing projects that include 50 percent affordable units.
Earlier this month, the city responded to the developer with a 10-page letter and 73 pages of attachments that the project doesn’t qualify under SB 35. On Thursday, the developer submitted a response of more than 200 pages to refute the city’s assessment.
“We believe (city officials) are incorrect,” said Lauren Seaver, vice president of development at Blake Griggs. “We’re hopeful that Berkeley will see our continued assertion that they must approve the project under the state law.”
Blake Griggs proposed building 260 homes, 27,500 square feet of retail space, a community center and public park on a 2.21-acre site that is now used as a surface parking lot.
The city’s main grounds for rejecting the submission is that the property is a designated city landmark near an ancient Native American burial ground and could have historical structures underground.
Seaver said the developer conducted studies that found no evidence of archaeological significance on the site and has presented that information to the city.
Besides the landmark designation, city also said in its letter that other parts of the project application did not satisfy SB 35 requirements or lacked information. Mark Rhoades, a member of the development team, said his team painstakingly addressed each point.
The team, along with lawyer Jennifer Hernandez of Holland Knight, said that based on their response, the city should reverse its original assessment.
“We are under an obligation to comply with the law and look at it very carefully and implement it based on that,” said Matthai Chakko, a spokesperson for the City of Berkeley.
The goal of SB 35 was to encourage developers to build more housing set aside for low-income residents and force cities that resist new housing to approve projects. Berkeley falls far short of meeting state requirements for affordable housing and has been sued in the past for denying projects that fit city zoning guidelines.
Under SB 35, cities have 90 days after a proposal is filed to inform the developer of an initial assessment of the project and then another 90 days to formally approve it, so that projects could receive approval in 180 days — typically much faster than cities take to approve new housing developments.
Blake Griggs submitted the first proposal in the state under SB 35 and could lock in city approval in September unless the city denies the application again. In that case, the developer’s next course of action is to sue the city.
“When a new law passes, in many instances, it takes a court decision to convince cities that the law has changed and they have to change with it,” said Matt Regan, director of public policy for the Bay Area Council, an advocacy group made up of local business owners. The group official endorsed 1900 Fourth St. and considers it “the poster child for the type of development Berkeley ought to be doing.”
The site is near an Amtrak stop, Interstate 80, the city’s Fourth street shopping cluster and is underutilized, Regan said.
“Berkeley has done nothing to accommodate its share of the state’s population growth but has received many millions of dollars in transportation infrastructure investment,” he said. “If there’s a community that has an obligation to increase its density in this era of climate change, it’s Berkeley.”
Earlier this week in Cupertino, city officials gave Sand Hill Property Co. a greenlight for an SB 35 proposal that would add 2,402 homes, 400,000 square feet of retail space and 1.81 million square feet of office on 58 acres of the nearly vacant Vallco shopping center. The city found that the project fits the criteria of SB 35 and now has 90 days to take a closer look at the details and vote on the project.
“SB 35 is designed to cut through the endless back and forth and really demand that the cities approve projects that comply,” Hernandez, the lawyer, said. “We showed our work. We gave the city extremely detailed and thorough responses to their concerns. We’re really bending over backwards to give the city and residents the respect they deserve in this process, but we also deserve an approval.”