It took Howie Muir 25 hours to put together a homemade styrofoam model of his West Berkeley neighborhood, complete with handpainted buildings, which may explain why he angrily yanked it away from Patrick Kennedy when the developer started playing with the pieces.
Muir made the model to show the City Council, at an April 24 public hearing, how Kennedy’s proposed four-story building at 2700 San Pablo Avenue–the so-called Jubilee Courtyard Apartments–would tower over the surrounding neighborhood of single family homes. He guessed the buildings’ proportions from photographs he took of friends standing in front of them. The scale might not have been perfect, he conceded, but nonetheless he felt the model gave the nine people sitting behind the dais a visual sense of what Muir and his neighbors had in store for them.
After concluding his plea at the podium, Muir left his creation on an adjacent table where the council could still see it–and where Kennedy happened to be seated. Suspicious that Muir tweaked the dimensions, Kennedy pulled out an architect’s ruler, lifted up one of the faux-buildings from its base, and began measuring. Muir may have spent a day putting his little project together, but Kennedy had spent two years pushing his $7 million project through Berkeley’s byzantine land-use process. He wasn’t going to be upstaged by a “neighborhood vigilante,” as he calls Muir, with a homemade stage prop.
When Muir saw what Kennedy was doing, he rushed to the front of the council chambers to retrieve his model. According to Muir, Kennedy was lifting buildings that he had glued to the base. “I had to hold his wrist to pry a building out of his clutch,” recalls Muir, a stay-at-home dad who lives a couple of blocks away from the proposed project. “He essentially vandalized it.”
Kennedy, of course, remembers things differently. He insists that the pieces were removable. Muir freaked out, Kennedy argues, because he knew that once Kennedy took measurements he could prove the model distorted the facts. Kennedy says Muir clearly supersized the proposed apartment building, while making adjacent homes and businesses misleadingly bite-sized.
“Supposedly, the model was to scale, but it wasn’t,” Kennedy huffs. “It was a very clever propaganda tool. As soon as I started measuring it, [Muir] grabbed it and ran out of the building.”
Muir’s stage prop would not have made a difference anyway. As usual, Berkeley’s most prolific private housing developer of the past decade was probably confident that he had the backing of a majority of council members even before the actual vote. And, in fact, a bare majority of the council ultimately did give Kennedy and his partner, Jubilee Restoration, the go-ahead. That’s why it was so surprising when just as he should have been getting out the shovels, Kennedy abruptly scrapped his plan and announced that he was going to start the process all over again.
On the wall of his fifth-floor Oxford Street office, Patrick Kennedy has a framed quote from Aristophanes: “Be valiant, daring and subtle, and never mind taking a risk.” He certainly has taken risks during his decade of building housing in Berkeley. But subtle? He is anything but. Kennedy is Berkeley’s Clintonian equivalent when it comes to private development: no attack from the opposition goes without a response. Whether his critiques are from low-income housing advocates or neighbors who don’t want big buildings screwing with their views or parking, he has a reply.
Sometimes he resorts to planning buzzwords like “smart growth” to say his projects are an urban planner’s dream: reasonably affordable, high-density housing on commercial corridors near public transit. Other times Kennedy simply prefers name-calling, as the latest description of his neighborhood resisters near 2700 San Pablo Avenue (“vigilantes”) shows. (He used to refer to his nonprofit building counterparts in Berkeley as a “housing cartel.”)
Kennedy is a living oxymoron: a Berkeley developer. As such he has continually faced the contentiousness of Berkeley politics, where every proposed infill housing development is fought over as if it were the Gaza Strip. He insists big profits are not what keep him in this contested territory. Really, he admits, it has a lot to do with ego–being a big fish in small pond. Why else would a Harvard law graduate put up with all this crap?
“This is the only place,” he muses, “where a small developer like me can have an impact in shaping the personality and texture of a city.” No one would doubt his impact: when the Gaia Building opens this summer, Kennedy’s company, Panoramic Interests, will have added 213 apartments and condos to the city’s housing supply over the past decade (50 of which are set aside for low-income tenants or homebuyers). He has another 126 units in the pipeline.
To an extent, Kennedy’s success in Berkeley goes back to an axiom that would be taught in Development 101: Always contribute campaign money to local pols who are considering your projects. But Kennedy has found more sophisticated ways to earn political support. He wisely avoids renting the commercial portions of his projects to chains, and has sought out local businesses instead. (He, for instance, allowed lefty lawyer/ lounge singer Anna De Leon free rent for one year to open Anna’s restaurant in his building at 1801 University.)
Kennedy has also discovered that strategic, politically correct partnerships are far more valuable than campaign donations in Berkeley. Take his proposal for a seven-story apartment building in downtown Berkeley. Technically, the city’s downtown zoning regulations only allowed for a five-story edifice. But Kennedy seized upon a loophole that allowed him to add two stories if he could show that part of his project was devoted to cultural activities. Kennedy recruited Gaia Bookstore, a North Berkeley institution dedicated to New Age and women’s issues, to move into the project’s ground floor.
As the Chronicle put it, the project “scrambled traditional alliances” in Berkeley as preservationists found themselves fighting against feminists and incense-sniffers who supported Kennedy’s plan. In the spring of 1998, the council finally gave the Gaia Building its blessing. Soon thereafter, Gaia Bookstore went belly-up, but by then it was too late for the council to take back its support.
In 1999, Kennedy learned that Pastor Gordon Choyce Sr. of Berkeley’s Missionary Church of God in Christ was looking for a new development partner. A few years earlier, Choyce had incorporated Jubilee Restoration, which specialized in using federal dollars to fix up small, rundown properties and selling them to first-time homebuyers. Choyce had hoped to build a twenty-unit apartment building at 2700 San Pablo, a project that would have been, by far, Jubilee’s biggest development to date. Upon the advice of the city’s Housing Advisory Commission, Choyce teamed up with a more experienced nonprofit developer, Resources for Community Development, but to everyone’s surprise, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development refused to fund the project.
With the public funding spigot clogged, Choyce’s architect suggested he talk to a private developer in town named Patrick Kennedy. “We had heard Patrick’s name before,” Choyce recalls, “but we didn’t know of all the work he had done in Berkeley.”
Kennedy, too, was looking for a new partner. Despite winning approval for the Gaia Building, the council majority was still comprised of progressives who generally favored nonprofit developers to built low-income housing. Kennedy needed to convince at least one of the progressives to see the virtue of his work.
As it happened, Choyce is close to West Berkeley Councilwoman Margaret Breland, a member of the progressive majority. Choyce had backed Breland when she unseated incumbent Mary Wainwright (who was a Kennedy supporter) in 1996. After partnering with the African-American pastor, Kennedy suddenly became a Breland booster. The developer, his contractors, and their spouses donated at least $1,500 to Breland’s 2000 reelection campaign (hardly a fortune, but the contributions amounted to about ten percent of what Breland spent). “It was a strategic alliance [with Jubilee],” Kennedy acknowledges, “that would connect Panoramic Interests with a respectable [player] in West Berkeley, while also allowing Jubilee to get experience working with private developers.”
In March 1999, Kennedy and Choyce submitted plans to the city for a five-story, 63-unit apartment building with ground floor retail at 2700 San Pablo. Neighbors–who hadn’t objected to Choyce’s more modest senior housing proposal–immediately protested the bigger size of the newly planned building. Feeling the pressure, Kennedy and Choyce (who have since teamed up to do another project on the corner of Acton and University) scaled down the project to a four-story building with 48 apartments. Kennedy also cut a deal to have Nathan’s Produce occupy the ground floor. But the neighbors still weren’t happy.
Though the neighbors quickly complained that the plan only provided 61 parking spaces for both residential tenants and Nathan’s customers, neighbor Howie Muir, who lives two blocks from the proposed project, says that people were mostly worried about having a building at least twice the size of any other in the area. “It’s a big building for San Pablo,” Muir says. “At four stories, you’ll see it for blocks.”
Muir helped organize Neighbors for Responsible Development and circulated a petition demanding Kennedy and Choyce cut the building size down to two or three stories. According to Muir, the group collected more than 400 signatures of nearby residents.
Last November, the Zoning Adjustments Board agreed with project neighbors that the building was way too high for the area and denied Kennedy’s application. Kennedy appealed the decision to the City Council. There, he heard Margaret Breland tell him to make the building smaller. Kennedy did as he was told and returned in the spring with a smaller version of the project–sort of. He reduced the number of apartments to 35, but the building remained four stories high, which Kennedy argued was necessary to make the project profitable. He made other changes that raised eyebrows like reducing the number of parking spaces from 61 to 33, which opponents said guaranteed spillover onto the surrounding streets. Despite the continued objections of Muir and his crew, the council voted to approve the project with Breland providing the crucial fifth vote.
Still, Muir didn’t give up. His group hired Los Angeles lawyer Michael Fitts, who all but threatened to sue the city for green-lighting Jubilee Courtyard. Fitts argued in a May 22 letter to city officials that the council had essentially approved a brand-new project, one that had not undergone the legally required environmental review. The only environmental impact report done, Fitts said, was for the earlier, larger building concept.
At first, Kennedy dismissed the letter. But his attorney later had to inform him that the vigilantes had a point; they might even win in court. When Kennedy reluctantly withdrew his project, and said he would resubmit an application to the Zoning Adjustments Board to cover all his legal bases, Muir didn’t exactly celebrate. “I kept wondering,” he recalls, “what the hitch was.”
The hitch, of course, is that in all likelihood project neighbors are only delaying the inevitable. Kennedy presumably will still have five votes behind him when the project eventually makes its way back to the City Council. Kennedy says he will submit his plans to the city in the next two weeks. Don’t expect the project to look much different from the one the council approved.
Muir, meanwhile, says he’ll be ready. And he’s even cautiously optimistic that Kennedy will compromise, but Berkeley’s most successful developer doesn’t sound like he’s in a compromising mood. Kennedy points out that Muir himself is building a second-story addition to his house which his neighbors have objected to (Muir says he’s trying to resolve the situation). As far as Kennedy is concerned, the only reason Muir objects to the four-story project is that it will block his view of the Marin Headlands. “It’s classic NIMBYism,” he says.