1367 University Ave. in Berkeley. Image: Trachtenberg Architects

‘A Mini-Urban Miracle,’ New Berkeley Homeless Housing Could Be Model For The State

It’s been a big week for subsidized housing in Berkeley. And it just got bigger

On Thursday night, the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board unanimously approved a new project from Panoramic Interests for a 39-unit complex made from modular construction to house people who were formerly homeless. Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS), a 49-year-old Berkeley nonprofit, will run the operation, which could open within a year, barring delays.

Commissioner Denise Pinkston said it was “nothing short of a mini-urban miracle” to see what is essentially a market-rate building provide homeless housing. “The highlight of my week is getting to approve a beautiful building to house homeless people,” she said.

Earlier this week, the city broke ground on the Berkeley Way project, featuring 53 units of homeless and disabled housing and 89 affordable units for the general public, in addition to 44 shelter beds. The mayor also announced that the city had won $42 million in state grants for two affordable housing projects totaling about 150 units. And Alameda County secured rooms at two Berkeley hotels for up to 60 of the city’s unhoused residents.

Donald Frazier, executive director of BOSS, said the supportive housing project at 1367 University Ave., near Acton Street, would be staffed round-the-clock by seven BOSS employees. Residents would get help with employment, housing navigation and benefits eligibility, as well as training related to cognitive skills, nutrition and restorative justice, among other opportunities designed to “help people stabilize and connect to the community in a positive way.”

1367 University courtyard, architectural rendering
Rendering of the courtyard at 1367 University Ave. in Berkeley. Image: Trachtenberg Architects

BOSS intends to seek funding for the project through Berkeley’s Measure P subsidies and has already let city staff and officials know about its plans, Frazier said.

The current plan is for BOSS to sign a master lease with Panoramic Interests for 30 years, or a 10-year lease with two 10-year options to extend, Panoramic’s Michael Thomas said Thursday night.

“This is a project we would not have undertaken without this partnership,” Thomas said. “If they ask us to sign a 50-year lease, we will sign a 50-year lease. We just need to be sure the building can pay for itself, but the longer the lease the better.”

Thomas said the complex at 1367 University is the first of its kind for Panoramic Interests, which is looking to replicate the model at other sites in the Bay Area and around the state if it can secure the investment needed to proceed.

“This is our first,” Thomas said, “and what we’re really hoping to do is come up with a repeatable financing model.”

Project architect David Trachtenberg, of Berkeley’s Trachtenberg Architects, said 1367 University could establish a prototype for addressing homelessness on small sites across the state.

“It’s an important case study project for us,” he told the board.

Zoning board members said they too hope to see the model gain traction with other developers in Berkeley and elsewhere.

Modular means lower construction costs

The new complex is set to cost 30%-40% less than buildings using the traditional approach to construction, said Patrick Kennedy, Panoramic’s founder. Construction is slated to take 14 weeks and could begin by September.

Kennedy got his start building in Berkeley and built only in the city for 22 years. In 2018, he put up a four-story student housing complex in Berkeley in just four days. He told Berkeleyside on Thursday that he was excited to try out this new model in Berkeley because “I always like to support my home team.”

“Berkeley has innovated in many ways,” Kennedy said. “This is another chapter in that story.”

Kennedy said the project also demonstrates the benefits of collaboration, joining the “efficiency of the private sector with the good works of the public sector.”

Trachtenberg told the zoning board Thursday that an open courtyard in the center of the complex will provide a place to gather and help build a sense of community. Each unit has its own sink, shower and bathroom, as well as a microwave and a small refrigerator. There is a shared kitchen and communal storefront on University Avenue, as well as on-site laundry.

As proposed, 100% of the project’s units will function as transitional housing for BOSS clients. Frazier said clients could stay “as long as they wanted,” but that BOSS staff will work closely with them to figure out their options.

“Most folks will want to move on because of the limited amount of space in the units,” Frazier said.

According to the staff report for Thursday’s meeting, each room is 178 square feet.

Approval without substantive changes is required

Two neighbors who spoke during public comment Thursday said they wished Panoramic had done more outreach to get their input. One said he was concerned about privacy due to windows on the west side of the new building that would face the property where he lives.

Zoning board members asked Panoramic to look at the window placement and see if frosted glass or other alternatives might be appropriate to address the privacy issue, as the modular units mean the windows themselves are in a fixed position.

Commissioner Igor Tregub said he wished there had been more neighborhood outreach but also noted that the project complies with the state’s Housing Accountability Act, meaning that the board is legally required to approve it without substantive changes.

“It is absolutely crucial that we do everything we can to support transitional housing for folks transitioning out of homelessness,” Tregub said.

Staff and project representatives said Panoramic did comply with all the legally required noticing.

Commissioner Patrick Sheahan described the new building as “a fine project and well-executed.” He suggested moving the community room from the west corner of the building to the east corner — so that the potentially noisy area is next to a commercial tenant rather than a residential building, in line with a suggestion from a neighbor who spoke — as long as the lower height proposed on the west side of the new building could be maintained.

Sheahan asked the project team to bring new drawings to the final Design Review Committee meeting for 1367 University if flipping the layout is financially feasible. Sheahan also asked Panoramic to look at whether there might be a way to put bike parking in the central courtyard so it could be more secure.

Although they had some minor suggestions, Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) commissioners said they were excited to see the project Thursday and have the opportunity to approve it.

“I was looking forward to tonight and I don’t normally look forward to ZAB meetings,” quipped Commissioner John Selawsky.

A promotional video of the project appears below.

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