This letter was sent by 24 neighbors and families whose homes are in the close vicinity of the proposed PSR/Mather complex:

October 6, 2016

TO:      Carol Johnson, Acting Director, Berkeley Planning Department, Berkeley City Council

FR:      Berkeley Neighbors of Pacific School of Religion (see below)

RE:      Objections to Mather LifeWays/PSR demolition and development plans, #ZP2016-0165
            1798 Scenic Avenue

Berkeley is a unique city, blessed with numerous historic resources. Unfortunately, some of the most iconic architectural heritage sites throughout Berkeley have not been designated as city landmarks owing to a state-mandated religious exemption. Currently, many local religious institutions are experiencing financial difficulties and considering alternative uses of their buildings and lands. The key issue is whether an alternative use will respect the heritage of the site or desecrate it.

We would like the leaders and managers of the City of Berkeley to work to ensure that religious exemption does not become systemically used as a loophole for destroying historic resources in Berkeley, and to see to it that reuse occurs in a manner that respects and retains their historic fabric and character and that of the neighborhoods in which they are located.

A prime example of this issue is the proposed project at the Pacific School of Religion’s campus, located on what is commonly known as Holy Hill. This project represents a worst-case scenario in terms of balancing reuse with preservation of historic character and open space. The project would demolish, rather than incorporate, many buildings of architectural significance; it would cut down redwood groves and live oak stands; reduce and enclose open space; and block off one of the most iconic bay vistas available to the public. Beyond the damage done to the Pacific School of Religion campus, this project would destroy the fabric of the surrounding residential neighborhood through the introduction of density that is totally out of scale with the area and cannot be supported by existing single-lane road access.
The PSR/Mather proposal will be a testing ground for Berkeley: Do we intend to allow development to destroy the elements that make our city unique, or shall we cultivate our development to preserve our historical treasures? Do we want to follow the architectural sameness found in every suburb, or can we take a stand to retain those unique spaces and buildings that fill Berkeley’s residents with civic pride and spiritual uplift? We choose the latter.

1. Increased congestion:
Being adjacent to one of the largest universities in California, the neighborhood is extremely inappropriate for a large retirement condominium/nursing home complex spanning the whole block bounded by Scenic Avenue, Virginia Street, and Arch Street. Thousands of university students, professors, and staff converge on this area every morning and flow down Euclid, Hearst, and Virginia streets every evening as they come and go from the University. Already food delivery trucks block the area between Hearst and Ridge Road on Euclid every weekday morning. To add to this daily congestion the delivery trucks, emergency vehicles, and resident, staff, and visitor vehicles associated with this project would make the area impassable both mornings and evenings and at times throughout the day.

2. Unsuitable site and location:
Parts of this neighborhood are too steep for people with mobility problems and present serious challenges for a large housing complex and senior long-term care facility. Such a facility is incompatible with this neighborhood of apartments, homes, and educational institutions. A proposal to place elderly people in a high cost residential/geriatric care institution at this location a block from the University of California does not serve the Berkeley community, nor the Northside neighborhood, nor the geriatric, end-of-life care community.

3. Neighborhood preservation:  
The houses and apartments along Virginia Street, in conjunction with the apartment buildings on Arch Street and Scenic Avenue, are part of the Daley’s Scenic Park tract, subdivided in 1889 and the oldest residential neighborhood in the North Berkeley hills, representing an important time and style of architectural design and neighborhood construction in our community. The existing buildings on Virginia Street, threatened with demolition by this proposal, were constructed in the late 1920s, following the 1923 fire which destroyed much of the Northside. During the current housing crisis the destruction of any housing is absolutely inappropriate, but it is especially unacceptable to destroy housing with historic character that contributes to neighborhood fabric and cohesiveness.

4. Inadequate transit access:  
Adding a high density residential/nursing care complex to the neighborhood would intensify the congestion already present here. The complicated intersection of Ridge Road, Scenic Avenue, and Le Conte Avenue at the top of the hill on the east side is already a difficult, dangerous area for traffic and pedestrians. Given the steep uphill approach to this intersection from three of the five converging streets, the idea of a roundabout is simply ludicrous and would create a dangerous pedestrian situation in the middle of the Graduate Theological Union complex. To add 500 new residents and another one or two hundred staff, their cars, their visitors’ cars, delivery vehicles, and emergency vehicles is clearly untenable.  On the west side of the proposed development, Arch Street is a very narrow street with no visibility of oncoming vehicles, always dangerous as one faces unseen oncoming uphill traffic. Such a site for a dense new residential/geriatric care development would guarantee accidents and pedestrian casualties.

5. Loss of historic resources:
The PSR campus is an important historic resource, both as a whole and in its components. Among the architecturally notable buildings slated for demolition are Benton Hall (Walter H. Ratcliff, 1925); d’Autremont Hall (Ratcliff, Haymond, and Ratcliff, c.1950); the Chapel of the Great Commission (Herbert J. Powell, 1955-56); and the Seeley G. Mudd Bldg. (Charles Stickney, 1980).

6. Loss of open space:
Open space is rare on the Northside. The city of Berkeley owns the right-of-way known as Ridge Path that traverses the PSR campus from the corner of Le Conte Avenue and Scenic Avenue to Arch Street.  It is 1.7 acres, 75,000 square feet of public space.  Ridge Road was a street across the top of the hill which the Pacific School of Religion turned into a “path,” but it continues to be a public passageway. This right-of-way would be effectively eliminated by the MatherLifeWays/PSR project, setting a bad precedent for all right-of-way paths in Berkeley. The public right-of-way on Holy Hill, as it’s affectionately called by the neighborhood, has long been a special gathering place for community members for its magnificent view of Berkeley and the Bay, unmatched by any other Northside public location except the Rose Garden. It is used by the neighborhood as a place to walk and to view the sunset, to walk dogs, a safe place for children to ride bikes, accessible by the Arch Street steps or the entrance at Scenic and Le Conte. The dense Mather development would displace this invaluable community amenity by crowding large buildings into the open space and funneling access on the west side through an archway in an institutional building.  

7. Inappropriate scale:
The monster scope of the project would permanently warp the nature of our North Berkeley neighborhood. The massive demolition and construction required over a three or more year span would be a major disruption not only for the immediate neighbors, but throughout the entire area of Berkeley north of the UCB campus.

8. Fire zone:  
Berkeley General Plan Land Use Element 7C advises careful review and regulation of any additional residential development In the Hill Fire Hazard Area. PSR/Mather Lifeway's proposal is by far the highest density residential development in the Hill Fire Hazard Area, including one of the largest private parking garages in the city and the largest in the Hill Fire Hazard Area. Many of the residents will have limited mobility and will be unable to flee on foot. To add cars exiting a 285-car parking garage to a limited number of escape routes could spell gridlock and disaster.

9. Consequences of the loss of PSR/Graduate Theological Union student housing:
The housing units owned by the Pacific School of Religion house not only the school’s own students but also many students from other member schools in the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) consortium. Especially in view of Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary’s recent decision to sell its residential property on Marin Avenue, the demolition of PSR’s housing units would drastically reduce affordable housing options open to PSR and other GTU students. Seminarians and graduate students are generally low-income and would therefore not be able to afford market-rate housing in the area, one of the most expensive real estate markets anywhere in the nation. If PSR is allowed to demolish its student housing, all its largely low-income residential students will be displaced, and Northside will lose the unique gifts and contributions that seminarians bring to the wider neighborhood. Indeed, without the ability to provide affordable housing to its students, the GTU as we know it could very well fold, striking an axe-blow to the character our Northside community.

When PSR acquired the majority of properties on the south side of the 2300 block of Virginia Street in the 1960s, it made implicit promises that the properties would be used solely for their student housing as written in the use-permits.  Their selling of the properties to an out-of-state real estate developer appears to renege on those promises. The alternative of selling the properties as-is to the market is far less disruptive and is consistent with the preservation of
the neighborhood.

If this out-of-state developer gets approval to place an unwanted large-scale project in our north Berkeley neighborhood, it will set a precedent. All neighborhoods in Berkeley will then be subject to unwanted developments without the protections that the people of Berkeley expect from their city government. If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere in Berkeley.

The undersigned fully appreciate the need for affordable senior housing in Berkeley as well as student housing. Our concern with this project is its inappropriate location and its high cost for senior housing and its intent to demolish all the residential buildings along the south side of the 2300 block of Virginia Street except a privately-owned house, that currently provide housing for PSR students and other GTU students, with no provision for replacing them.

Doug & Andrea Arnstein    
Sebastian Chouillet & Peggy Chu
Mishell & Kiki Erikson
Fred Dodsworth
Nancy Feinberg
Linda Franklin
Christian & Erinn Geideman
The Hamilton Rubin family – Mike, Jennifer, Roxanne & Ben
Hawley Sterling Holmes
Jill Israel & William Karp
The Lum Hohmeyer family – Lisa, Michael, Inigo, Dane & Linus  
Chunyi & Jeff McIver
Dean Metzger
Elvira Orly
Jessica Parker, Peter Molnar, Eszter & Gabriel Molnar
Michael Parman
Jim Sharp
Tara Steeley & Jay Shapiro
Judy Sui & Bruce Bernhard
Daniella Thompson
Monique Webster & Jon Kerry-Tyerman
Kathleen Weaver & Bob Baldock
Helen & Bill Whitson
Charlene & Bill Woodcock