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Project Finds The Formula To Build In Berkeley

From a distance, the Gaia Cultural Center in Berkeley does not appear to be an unusual building. Designed in a subdued Classical style with arching windows and pilasters, the seven-story building looks as if it has been standing on Allston Way for many decades, like the genuinely historic buildings that surround it. That only thing out of the ordinary, perhaps, are the palm trees waving on the roof. When we get a little closer, however, we realize that the Gaia (pronounced "guy-ah") may not be so ordinary after all. The building is tall, densely populated and has a number of progressive touches. The building stands head and shoulders above its two-story neighbors. Gaia, which opened in June 2001, is in fact the tallest building to be completed in downtown Berkeley in nearly 30 years. With 91 apartment units, it is also one of the densest residential buildings in the city. The rooftop is an 11,000-square-foot landscaped courtyard that is a demonstration project in urban greening and is filled with people most times of the day. Committed to clean air, the landlord has provided three electric vehicles for residents to share. In short, this is a building with a Berkeley flavor as strong as Peet's coffee—even if some Berkeley residents reacted to the project, when first proposed, as if it were a nuclear waste dump. The building is basically six stories of apartments that sit atop a 20-foot podium. The podium contains the parking, a 100-seat theater and a street-front café that will double as a jazz club five evenings a week. Above the podium are six stories of apartments, arranged like a square doughnut around an internal courtyard on the third level. Staircases connect this internal courtyard to all upper floors. And on the roof is the courtyard, with potted palms, clematis and other plants. A glass-walled solarium stands in the center of the rooftop garden, and has become a popular gathering place. The developer is Patrick Kennedy, a graduate of Harvard law school and MIT's real estate development program, who has made a career out of building apartment buildings and lofts in Berkeley. Such a vocation requires a strong intellect, resilient idealism and, a thick hide, all wrapped up in a robust ego. Berkeley is a city renowned for its hostility to a new development. "There is a certain segment in Berkeley that believes that anything undertaken by the private sector is bad," said Kennedy, who added that the most virulent opposition came from what he described as "two or three career obstructionists." One opponent described Gaia as a "Stalinist monstrosity and monument to civic corruption." The alleged corruption was the 20% density bonus that the city granted the developer for providing low–income housing. (The city in principal also granted the project a second density bonus for the cultural use, but denied Kennedy the right to use both bonuses.) The architect, Oakland-based Kirk Peterson, recalled the public-hearings on Gaia as a "pretty crazy process, with all these people and their agendas." Preservationists, he said, "did not want a tall building with a tall front elevation on the street, and the Ecocity Builders group was campaigning for a green building with trees on top." As the architect, Peterson said, "I was in the middle, and I did not really enjoy it a lot of the time." In the end, the developer compromised with both groups: setbacks lowered the facade on Allston Way, and the developer hired Ecocity to provide environmental consulting. As for the suspicion about the private sector, the Gaia project "demonstrates that high density can be beautiful and socially desirable at the same time," said Kennedy, pointing out that he provided 19 units for low-income residents without any public subsidy. If the city had built those units on its own, he added pointedly, "it would have cost a couple of million, at the very least." Some of the most progressive thinking in the Gaia Cultural Center concerns transit and transportation. Despite its density, the building is not a big traffic generator. There are only 42 parking spaces in a building where nearly 240 people live, or fewer than half a parking space per unit—surely some sort of record for a new building in California. The low parking ratio has a number of justifications. The building is about 100 feet away from the downtown Berkeley BART station, and within easy walking distance of UC Berkeley, where many of Gaia's residents work or attend classes. A number of residents use wheelchairs. In addition, the building contains two conventional automobiles that are made available to Gaia residents on a reservation basis. (The program is modeled on a program in Oregon known as Carsharing Portland.) Additionally, three electric vehicles (Kennedy calls them "glorified golf carts") are available to qualified residents who have insurance. The garage itself is unusual. The garage contains stacking parking elevators from Germany that triple the capacity of each available space. According to a Kennedy brochure, "the car elevator liberates valuable ground floor street space for livelier uses, including a cultural center and café." For me, the most interesting part of the design is the rooftop garden, which is unusual for California, even though, Peterson said, "It is done all over all Italy." Open space is critical in making high-density bearable, even desirable, and rooftop courtyards are an idea worth promoting. Rooftops, of course, cannot replace parks and plazas and courtyards. But in a densely developed setting like downtown Berkeley, developers must look for open-space opportunities where they did not before. The idea of high-density urbanism means, among other things, that leftover spaces need to be used as gardens and playgrounds. For Kennedy the developer, however, the lesson of the Gaia building is the rediscovery of downtown Berkeley, which he described as a "weather-beaten and neglected part of the city," adding, "I think the Gaia building has demonstrated that downtown can be a stimulating place." Kennedy also said, without irony, that Berkeley has a lot of potential for development. "It's been so hard to do," he observed, "that there are plenty of opportunities."
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