EL CERRITO -- A 15-unit condominium and building rehab project on the site of a historic house at 1725 Elm St. won Planning Commission approval April 16 over objections from a couple of dozen residents.
By a 4-2 vote, commissioners overrode criticism of the project over the size of the planned three-story structure and the potential for increasing traffic, aggravating parking problems and casting shade over nearby homes, among other issues.
The half-acre property, within a short walk from the El Cerrito Del Norte BART station, is the site of the 110-year-old Rodini house, the third-oldest structure in the city.
Property owner Edward Biggs of Albany wants to move the dilapidated house to the rear of the property and renovate it before selling it as a single-family home.
He also intends to build a 14-unit condominium structure across a tributary of Baxter Creek that runs through the property. The project will have design elements that tie the new structure to the historic home.
After an initial commission hearing on the project last month, representatives met with the owners of the Keystone Montessori School next door to the property and worked out an agreement to provide some relief from noise and improve air quality during construction.
Keystone Director Linda Shehabi nonetheless voiced objections, as she had at the March 19 hearing.
Shehabi said she had a petition signed by 79 parents of children who attend her school opposing the plan.
"There will be too many people in too small of a space," Shehabi said. "The project is three stories high and not in harmony with anything else on Elm Street."
A parade of other speakers voiced similar concerns. In the end, though, the majority of commissioners said they thought the positives of the proposal outweighed any drawbacks.
"I'm very impressed with the project," said Commissioner Michael Iswalt, who was joined by Bill Kuhlman, Carla Hansen and new commission Chairwoman Andrea Lucas in voting for approval. "We have an acute housing shortage, the plan preserves the creek and the historic home, and the site is close to BART."
The planning commission's approval of a use permit can be appealed to the City Council. For the project to go forward, the council also must consent to amending the city's general plan, which limits development in the neighborhood to 35 dwelling units per acre. The proposal has a density of 35.7 units per acre.
Before the vote, Kuhlman expressed a concern that the entire project would be market-rate housing with no affordable housing element.
Development Services Director Margaret Kavanaugh-Lynch explained that city zoning ordinances do not oblige the developer to meet affordable housing requirements.
She also cited the nearby Ohlone Gardens project, now under construction, which will provide 57 units of affordable rental housing, and a couple of other proposed projects that will be priced at affordable housing rates.
Commissioner Tim Pine, who voted no, said he thinks the plan will face opposition from the state Water Resources Control Board because the compact size of the property requires that the structures be located too close to the creek.
"There will be a challenge (from water quality regulators) over setbacks," Pine said. "The building is out of scale for this location."
Kavanaugh-Lynch told commissioners that the project is being reviewed by federal and state environmental agencies in parallel with the city approval process.
Commissioner Amy Coty, who joined Pine in voting no, said that the city should wait for a better proposal before approving development.
"We need to be doing the right thing by this land," she said.