Berkeley 4th Street developer plans to use new housing law to bypass review
The battle over a proposed housing project on a parking lot across the street from Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto restaurant in West Berkeley escalated Thursday when the builder became the first in California to invoke a new state law that allows residential developers to bypass local environmental review processes in exchange for providing more affordable units.
On Thursday, developer Blake Griggs Properties of Danville, after five years of contentious debate and political squabbling, said it would invoke Senate Bill 35 at 1900 Fourth St.. American Indian groups, as well as North Berkeley antidevelopment forces, have long opposed building on the 2.2-acre parcel, contending it is the site of an Ohlone burial ground.
The new state law, authored by state Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco, allows an over-the-counter approval process for zoning-compliant projects that provide certain levels of affordable housing. In Berkeley — as well as in San Francisco and Oakland — a development must be at least 50 percent affordable to take advantage of the law.
Blake Griggs plans to construct a 260-unit apartment complex, half of which would be affordable to households earning 80 percent of area median income, which is $80,400 for a family of four. The development will also have 27,000 square feet of retail, a 7,000-square-foot park and a small community center.
Passed in January, SB35 “establishes a streamlined, ministerial review process for certain multifamily affordable housing projects that are proposed in local jurisdictions that have not met regional housing needs,” according to the legislative summary.
Projects that comply with the law’s requirements are guaranteed approval within 180 days, unheard of in a region where even straightforward housing developments can take three or four years.
Blake Griggs Vice President Lauren Seaver said using the legislation to move the project forward is “a monumental step toward solving California’s housing crisis.” She called SB35 “a legislative tool” to “cut through the logjam and allow housing projects like 1900 Fourth to move forward.”
Opponents to the project say the property is part of the West Berkeley Shellmound, a city landmark since 2000. Representatives of three autonomous Ohlone family bands — Confederated Villages of Lisjan, Himre-n-Ohlone, and Medina Family — spent years negotiating with the developer over the size and configuration of the development. Most recently Blake Griggs offered to give the American Indian family bands a quarter of the property in exchange for the Ohlone’s endorsement.
The Ohlone bands rejected the offer, stating that the bands “unanimously stand together to oppose the development of the West Berkeley Shellmound located at 1900 Fourth Street in Berkeley.”
“Our sacred sites were never given up by our families — not legally, nor in theory,” said Vincent Medina, spokesman for the groups. “They are not properties or parcel numbers that can be bought and sold. We did not stand in opposition when you developed other parts of our land. We do not get in the way when you put up apartment buildings or shopping malls. But where we draw the line is when you propose to dig up and desecrate the most sacred places where our ancestors are buried.”
But an environmental study released as part of the project review found that 1900 Fourth St. was actually tidal marshland for most of its history and was not part of the shellmound burial site.
Principal Brad Griggs said his company promised that “we would not move forward if we found any evidence whatsoever of the West Berkeley Shellmound.”
Wiener said that the West Berkeley development is exactly the sort of project he had in mind in drafting SB35.
“This is fantastic,” he said. “The whole point of SB35 was to accelerate the process and allow the project to move forward that would otherwise by stymied. The fact that this is a large project and is 50 percent affordable is amazing.”
J.K. Dineen is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @sfjkdineen