Berkeley housing project first to seek fast-track under new California law

BERKELEY - Developers who have been trying, and failing, for five years to get approval to build hundreds of housing units on a parking lot here went over city officials' heads on Thursday - making them the first to make use of a controversial new state law aimed at fast-track municipal approvals of residential developments.

Developer West Berkeley Investors has filed an application for streamlined approval of a 260-unit project at 1900 Fourth St. in Berkeley, of which half will be reserved for low-income families. The planned project also would include 27,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space, a park and a community center.

The developer says the project is eligible for the fast-track under Senate Bill 35, a bill passed last year that wrests power away from local governments, requiring cities to approve certain residential developments if the cities are behind in meeting their state-mandated housing goals. Nearly 98 percent of cities and counties in California are subject to the new law, according to a recent report released by the state.

“This is about the dire need for housing in California, and we're proposing 130 units of affordable housing - half the project - compared to the 17 units Berkeley has approved since 2014,” Lauren Seaver of West Berkeley Investors, a subsidiary of Danville-based Blake Griggs Properties, wrote in a news release. “It's time to move from the emotional era of California's development process, to a common sense era of creating much-needed housing for teachers, firefighters, service workers and others priced out of their own community.”

The site became mired in controversy, Seaver said, because of fears that the parking lot was once an Ohlone tribe shellmound.

“We undertook archaeological, geological, historical studies on the property,” Seaver said. “A shellmound was never present on the site. There is nothing at all of any cultural or historical significance on this property whatsoever.”

Under the fast-track application, Berkeley city staff now has 180 days to render a final decision on the apartment and mixed-use complex.

“Staff received the application today (Thursday), and as with all projects, will evaluate it in compliance with all the relevant laws and regulations,” Berkeley city spokesman and assistant to the city manager Matthai Chakko wrote in comments emailed to this news organization.

In a February blog post, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin criticized some elements of the state legislative housing package signed into law in 2017 that included the provision of the fast-track requirements.

“We all agree that we need more housing,” Mayor Arreguin wrote in the blog. “But getting there must happen in a way that takes into account people from all walks of life and not just the privileged few, and without destroying the very elements that made communities desirable places to live in the first place.”

Seaver insisted that the project will make more affordable housing available.

“This lack of housing is stifling our economy, worsening pollution and climate change, and hurting middle- and lower-income workers,” Seaver said. “Today's announcement is good news for workers who can't afford housing in the Bay Area.”

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