29 August 2016

Why the PSR/Mather Holy Hill project is bad for Berkeley

Photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004

In 1994, the California State Assembly enacted AB 133 (Willie Brown), exempting non-commercial property owned by religious organizations from local ordinances protecting historic resources. Thereafter, it has been impossible to designate religious buildings as city or county landmarks without their owners’ permission.

AB 133 left historic religious buildings with little protection against development. The brunt of that bill is becoming acutely evident now, as local seminaries are experiencing declining enrollment and operating deficits.

Currently, two Berkeley seminaries, the Pacific School of Religion (PSR) and the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, are planning to downsize, abandoning all or most of their historic campuses. While the Lutherans have decided to sell their property an relocate downtown, PSR, located on “Holy Hill” just north of the University of California campus, is proposing something far more radical and disruptive.

PSR established its campus in 1925 and constructed five distinctive buildings on it over a period of 55 years. In addition, PSR acquired many residential buildings in the immediate neighborhood to house its students.

Now PSR has teamed up with Mather LifeWays, a developer and manager of upscale senior housing and continuous care facilities headquartered in Illinois. PSR and Mather recently submitted development plans to the City that propose to demolish 17 of PSR’s 19 buildings and replace them with new ones, including a continuous wall of five-story buildings on the campus site.

Project rendering (Mather LifeWays)

This overscaled development would do away with the beloved historic PSR campus, an oasis on the hill. Gone will be the beautiful open space, the western vista, and all but one of the campus’s architecturally significant buildings.

The Mather development would tear the fabric of a residential neighborhood, razing an unprecedented number of dwellings constructed mostly in the 1920s along Virginia Street, Le Conte Avenue, and Arch Street.

The project purports to follow the LEED Gold standard yet would be extremely ungreen. As we all know, the greenest building is the one already built.

Demolition and construction would last for years, disrupting the life of untold residents in this quiet neighborhood.

Building senior housing on top of a steep hill is ill-advised. Those of us who live on the Northside are familiar with its hilly topography and can only shake our heads at the thought of the Mather residents huffing and puffing their way uphill or stumbling and falling while descending the precipitous slope of Le Conte Avenue. The Mather residents’ cars (potentially hundreds of them) and the facility’s regular shuttle buses, not to mention ambulances, would turn peaceful Holy Hill and its narrow streets into a traffic hub.

Berkeley badly needs affordable housing, but no affordable housing would be available in this project. Residents would buy in with an initial payment to the tune of about $500,000, followed by thousands more in monthly “care services” fees.

There’s more than one way for PSR to overcome its financial shortfall. The school could sell its buildings individually, or it could rent a limited portion to its shrinking enrollment of students and lease the rest to the general public at market rates. Yet PSR and Mather have devised no fallback plan in case their mammoth building scheme should fail.

In short, the PSR/Mather project favors the few over the many, demonstrating a sense of entitlement so brazen, the likes of which we have not seen for decades, if ever.


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