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Developer Faces Opposition In Effort to Increase Housing

Courtesy/Panoramic Interests
Developer Patrick Kennedy (left) and Patrick Dooley, Shotgun Players director, stand in front of the Gaia Building, which houses a theater.
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Contributing Writer
Monday, April 1, 2002

Berkeley's most successful real estate developer says he has the answer for Berkeley's traffic, parking and housing problems.

Three specific city streets could "easily" accommodate 4,000 new units of housing, says prominent developer Patrick Kennedy.

"Berkeley could solve its housing crisis by building more housing on Shattuck, University and San Pablo," he says.

Kennedy, responsible for much of the recent, noteworthy construction in Berkeley, says he also believes increasing the city's urban population will actually decrease traffic and parking problems.

"I think dispersion is the (city's) problem, not overpopulation," he says. "If Berkeley had more housing Downtown, it would have fewer people driving to school and driving to work."

The recently adopted housing guidelines of the city's General Plan call for exactly that—more housing Downtown and along the major transit corridors. Kennedy says he wants to be the one to lead the new housing push.

He founded Panoramic Interests in 1990 and has since completed nine projects in Berkeley, accounting for a total of 219 residential units.

Kennedy's company uses a "mixed-use" model of development. In addition to housing, his last six projects have included a restaurant, a youth radio station and an employment center for the disabled.

Kennedy's projects have become increasingly more ambitious. His most recent is the Gaia Building, Downtown's first new high-rise since the completion of the 13-story "Power Bar Building" in 1971.

The Gaia Building best represents Kennedy's mixed-use model, he says.

The bottom two floors of the building hold a cultural center, which includes a 140-seat theater devoted to showcasing local performing arts.

Kennedy was allowed to build seven stories instead of just the five permitted by the city's zoning codes because of a "cultural bonus" for building the theater.

The building also has a parking garage that stacks 42 cars into 14 spaces using hydraulic lifts.

A business-grade T-1 ethernet line connects each of the 91 apartments to the Internet. Kennedy says this will encourage tenants to work from home—boosting the building's environmental reputation. Many of Kennedy's opponents contend that he bends the city's zoning laws.

The Gaia's rooftop combines a garden patio and observation deck with Panoramic's business offices. Because of the elevator shafts and the business office, it could be interpreted as an eight-story building—one story more than Kennedy was allowed.

Councilmember Kriss Worthing-ton says Kennedy has received approval for projects from the Zoning Adjustment Board and then made changes after the fact.

"If he would simply follow the law, he would not be such a controversial fellow," Worthington says.

Worthington's closest ally on the council, Councilmember Dona Spring, says she agrees Kennedy has a "reputation for pulling fast ones." She also says Kennedy alienates many of the residents around University and San Pablo avenues because he ignores their concerns.

But she says she supports Kennedy's projects overall because of their proximity to public transit and their cultural venues. She said she appreciates that they add apartments to housing-starved Berkeley.

"I know a lot of students live (in the Gaia Building), and it's very handy for them to be so close to campus."

Spring says she would like to see Kennedy provide more affordable housing.

Twenty percent of the Gaia's apartments are below market rents for those who meet low-income qualifications.

Berkeley law requires that 20 percent of all new apartment buildings be set aside for low-income residents. Kennedy says that restriction makes the economics of developing in Berkeley very difficult.

"I don't know many businesses that could give away every fifth product at a loss and stay in business," he says.

Much of Kennedy's success thus far has been in assembling a large enough coalition to squeak his projects past the many commissions, neighborhood groups and elected officials.

Environmentalists have signed on because of his projects' proximity to mass transit.

His last four developments have been within a few blocks of the Downtown Berkeley BART station, which, along with the many AC Transit bus lines that run past it, forms the city's public transit hub.

The building's proximity to BART, several cross-town bus lines and UC Berkeley allow many residents to live without a car. Only 19 of the building's 237 residents own cars, Kennedy says.

Tenants can rent a car on an hourly basis out of the building's garage from the nonprofit organization City CarShare, which offers two green Volkswagen Beetles out of its fleet.

Kennedy has also been involved in Berkeley's disabled community. His ARTech building, under construction on the corner of Milvia and Addison streets, will provide office space for Computer Technologies Programs, a nonprofit organization that provides services to the disabled.

Kennedy has faced strong opposition from the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which he says is "half-full of rabid NIMBYs."

He blames them for obstructing potential development by landmarking buildings to prevent construction.

Landmarks Preservation Com-mission member Becky O'Malley makes no secret of her dislike of Kennedy.

Calling him "greedy," she says his buildings are "undistinguished" and "add no charm to the cityscape."

Rather than new development, O'Malley says she would rather have old buildings be remodeled for new uses, a process she calls "adaptive reuse."

"Adaptive reuse is always more environmentally sound. It uses less new materials. The highest form of recycling is reuse," she says.

She points to the Fourth Street area of Berkeley as a better model of development—where old and new architecture were combined to create the city's most popular retail district.

She also doubts the value of building in Berkeley's Downtown.

"The Berkeley Downtown is more apparent than real," she says. "It's like the old joke about Oakland: There's no there there."

(c) 2002
Berkeley, California