What is the proposed project?

The Pacific School of Religion (PSR) is under contract with Mather LifeWays, a developer and operator of upscale retirement facilities headquartered in Evanston, Illinois, for an option to buy PSR’s Holy Hill campus and adjacent properties, comprising a total of 19 buildings. Mather plans to demolish 17 of the buildings and build a 265-unit continuing care facility on the site.

How large is the project?

The project will comprise 469,000 square feet. The buildings on the campus proper will represent a 450-foot wide wall spanning an entire city block. The development would cover 49% of the land, considerably more than the standard 35% allowed lot coverage. By comparison, the 12-story Wells Fargo Building has 49,000 square feet. The recently approved 2211 Harold Way building will have 360,000 square feet. A good portion of the of the PSR campus site would have its top 20 feet excavated, and 50 feet would be removed in some locations. This magnificent hilltop, once decapitated, can never be replaced.

As shown in the project plans, one of the projected buildings on the PSR campus site will contain 10 floors. An elevator shaft spanning 10 floors is shown in the building’s southwest corner, another elevator shaft spanning eight floors is in the northwest corner, and a third elevator shaft spanning nine floors is in the southeast corner. Ten floors will be visible from Hearst Avenue, and nine floors will be visible from Virginia Street. The proposed project rises 65 feet from the ground and would have an average height of 85 feet as calculated by the City’s method.

Is this legal? What are the zoning limits?

The parcels owned by PSR are zoned either R3-H or R4-H. In both zones, buildings are limited to a height of three stories/35 feet and lot coverage of 35%. To exceed these limits the developer must obtain a Use Permit. A Use Permit is only allowed if the ZAB or the City Council determines that the project:

“will not be detrimental to the health, safety, peace, morals, comfort or general welfare of persons residing or working in the area”

The city council may not, under law,  approve a use permit without finding the above to be true. That still leaves the ZAB or the Council a tremendous amount of leeway to define what that statement means.

How far along is this project?

Mather has purchased an option to purchase PSR’s properties, contingent upon approval of their permit application. The plans have been submitted to Berkeley’s Planning Department, which has until November 20 to decide whether to deem the plans complete. It is expected that several more iterations between the applicant and the Planning Department will take place until the plans are deemed complete. At that point, various timers will start running that will dictate the schedule for an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) with public comment.

Who is PSR/GTU/Mather?

The GTU is an assembly of 9 separate religious schools who are physically located adjacent to each other in a neighborhood just north of the UC Berkeley campus. Most of the schools occupy buildings that reach right to the street. PSR owns a much bigger parcel of land with a green space that used to be a public road, running right through the middle. The public has had access to traverse this land since 1926 when the school moved there. As such this former street is as close to a geographic center as the GTU has.

The Pacific School of Religion is a non-denominational religious school that just celebrated its 150th anniversary. They are known for being very progressive and having a LGBT friendly community. Without a large church backing them (like the other 8 schools) they don’t have as much money but they do have a lot of land (bad pun). They are also facing declining enrollment and are trying transition away from students living on campus to on-line/distance learning. On their land they have a significant amount of student housing. With an excess of housing they rent out much of the housing to students at other GTU schools. This housing is NOT controlled by Berkeley rent control rules.

Why is this site special /historic?

The Holy Hill site is part of the Daley’s Scenic Park tract, which Frank M. Wilson acquired in 1891 for $4,000 in gold coin. In 1894, Wilson built himself a brown-shingle house at 2400 Ridge Road (current site of the GTU Library) and set about attracting University of California VIPs to his new neighborhood. Around the turn of the century, he sold UC regent Phoebe Apperson Hearst a large parcel at the top of the hill, including the current PSR campus.

Wilson supervised the construction of adjacent residences for Mrs. Hearst and UC president Benjamin Ide Wheeler, located across Pacific Avenue from his own home. Mrs Hearst’s house still stands at 2368 Le Conte Avenue. She had plans to build a proper mansion on the current PSR site but never got around to it and died in 1919, during the post-WWI influenza pandemic. Her son, William Randolph Hearst, sold the hilltop to PSR, uprooting the palm trees that grew on the property and replanting them in his Cuesta Encantada (Hearst Castle) in San Simeon. The palms had been planted by Frank Wilson along the length of Ridge Road and Scenic Avenue, and some of them are still standing.