EL CERRITO -- By a 3-2 vote Monday, the City Council asked developer Edward Biggs to pay for a study to determine how practical it would be to restore a creek to its original state on his property at 1715 Elm St.
Biggs has been trying to obtain approval to construct a 14-unit condominium building on the half-acre plot, while restoring a dilapidated 117-year-old Victorian era cottage on the property.
In the process, he has received approvals from environmental agencies to maintain the creek as a stone-lined channel, the state it has been in for more than 100 years.
The channel was created by the pioneering Rodini family, who lined it with rock from quarries that once existed in the hills above El Cerrito and built the house as their family home.
Restoring the house and maintaining the channel as the Rodinis created it was a major goal of historic preservationists.
But Councilman Greg Lyman led the move Monday to send Biggs in the opposite direction on the creek by asking him to commission a hydrology report that would reveal how much space it would require to create a so-called riparian corridor on the property.
Biggs' architect, Carl Campos, was incensed by the turnabout over the creek, saying the council was reversing its field after insisting that the rock-lined channel be preserved as a historical and cultural resource.
Campos added that he is the fourth architect who has worked on development designs for the land since Biggs began the development effort in 2005 after buying the land in 2003.
He said the developer has spent $600,000 to $700,000 so far in design work and obtaining approvals.
"I'm shocked and stunned," Campos said. "We were told the creek and house had to be preserved, we've spent money on (environmental) reports and now we have to start all over again."
Lyman, who works in habitat restoration for endangered species, said he devoted a lot of thought to the project and decided that the importance of restoring the creek trumped the historical significance of maintaining the rock-lined channel.
He prepared a slide show showing how portions of Cordornices Creek in Albany and Berkeley, and Baxter Creek in El Cerrito, had been restored to their natural states within constricted spaces in the midst of development.
Lyman estimated that the hydrology report would cost about $20,000 and that restoring the 120-foot section of creek would run about $50,000 to $60,000.
He said he thinks a restored creek would require a 20- to 25-foot path to create a natural flow versus about 6 feet for the channel, although a riparian corridor, unlike the channel, would not require any setbacks from buildings.
"If we find out that restoring the creek will require a 60-foot (path) then it probably wouldn't be practical to do it," Lyman said.
He made it clear he was not bothered by concerns raised by a group of residents over the height of the proposed condominium building, its density and its possible impact on traffic and parking.
Councilman Mark Friedman and Councilwoman Jan Bridges joined Lyman in supporting a motion to require the hydrology report while Councilwoman Rebecca Benassini and Mayor Janet Abelson voted no.
Benassini listed the benefits she sees in the project as currently designed, including having the restored house for public use, preserving an enhanced stone-lined creek, creation of a pocket park, more transit-oriented housing, and a five-year development agreement that would ensure the project will be completed expeditiously.
"There's too much at risk (not to approve it)," she said.