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Berkeley blocks housing project again, citing historic value of parking lot site

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Even SB 35 can’t get West Berkeley plans past city skepticism

A rendering of a five-story, 260-unit building in Berkeley.
The proposed Fourth Street development.
Renderings courtesy of the city of Berkeley

Berkeleyside reports that its titular city has prevented a proposed 260-unit development in West Berkeley from employing the development-friendly state law SB 35 to fast track city approval, citing the proximity of the city’s Shellmound as a protected historic resource.

According to the development application, 1900 Fourth Street would be a 260-unit apartment complex built on what’s presently a parking lot.

“The project site is ideally situated for mixed-use development: it is transit rich, is adjacent to one of the City’s most vibrant retail areas and has easy access to the 1-80 corridor,” the would-be developers note in the application.

Dana Ellsworth, vice president of Rue-Ell Enterprises, hoped to use SB 35 to net speedy approval of the project.

SB 35, written by San Francisco-based State Sen. Scott Wiener, gives new housing development extensive leverage to skip past potential permitting roadblocks in virtually all California cities.

In fact, the law looks so aggressive on paper that when Gov. Jerry Brown signed it into law in 2017, NIMBYs all but called it the end of the republic. But SB 35 has its limits too.

On Tuesday, Berkeley Planning Director Timothy Burroughs sent a letter informing Ellsworth that 1900 Fourth Street does not quality for SB 35’s largesse, chiefly citing the fact that it “cannot be applied to [a] city-designated historical landmark site without violating California’s constitution.”

The site at 1900 Fourth Street, though merely a parking lot today, sits in the area the city has designated as onetime part of a local Shellmound, which, according to Berkeley Landmarks, is “a pyramid of shell and earth, a burial ground for ancestors of the Ohlone Indian.”

As detailed in an exhaustive Sacred Land Film Project blog, Ohlone activists and supporters have long been at odds with develoepers over the potential Fourth Street construction. Ellsworth and development backers contend in building applications that the lot does not actually have any historic significance.

But the city has come down on the side of the shellmound again and barred the development from invoking SB 35 to cut through red tape. Berkeleyside notes this is the second time the city has rejected the petition.