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Berkeley City Council approves demolition and reconstruction of California Theatre

The California Theatre has been closed since March 2020. Photo credit: Nico Savidge Credit: Nico Savidge, Berkeleyside

Construction of an 18-story apartment tower above the now-closed California Theater on Kittredge Street took a big step closer after the City Council on Tuesday rejected an appeal of the developer's demolition and construction permits.

The theater's renovation – which will preserve the nearly century-old facade and slightly younger canopy and create a 24,273-seat space for live performances – has been in the works for nearly two years. Development plans began just months after West Hollywood-based Landmark Theaters announced in late 2021 that it would not reopen the theater, which had closed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This rendering shows what an 18-story multi-use residential tower would look like on the footprint of the California Theater. Photo credit: City of Berkeley

To begin construction, Rhode Island-based Gilbane Development, which also has offices in San Francisco, must first demolish most of the building in its current state. The city's Landmarks Preservation Commission voted to preserve the facade and canopy, but left the rest of the 110-year-old building bare.

Gilbane's proposed event space is twice the size of the building's original 11,000-square-foot theater. The proposed 211 residential units are a mix of studios, two- and four-bedroom apartments. Eleven units are to be designated as low-income housing units.

This rendering shows what an 18-story multi-use residential tower would look like on the footprint of the California Theater. Photo credit: City of Berkeley

During its review in January, the Zoning Adjustments Board concluded that the proposal was exempt from the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) because it was an “infill development” – or more simply, because the size, scope and location of the project were consistent with the city and surrounding area’s planning policies and did not pose significant environmental hazards. The Zoning Adjustments Board voted to grant the developer’s building permit.

East Bay Residents for Responsible Development, a coalition of building unions and residents, disagreed with the planning authority's decision and appealed the decision in February. In its appeal, the group argued that the project would harm air and water quality, that the city had not properly applied environmental protection regulations and that the proposed building was not demonstrably consistent with Berkeley's General Plan, a policy document that, among other things, influences land-use decisions.

This rendering shows the planned lighting on the Cal Theatre construction site. Photo credit: City of Berkeley

However, any potential environmental impacts would be well within regulatory guidelines, Berkeley's senior planner Sharon Gong told the council on Tuesday.

The appeal also argued that the project would damage a historic site – but the Landmarks Preservation Commission has already determined “that the proposed design preserves the distinctive features of the California Theater,” Gong said Tuesday.

The development project is not subject to restrictions under Berkeley's HARD HATS (Helping Achieve Responsible Development with Healthcare and Apprenticeship Training Standards) ordinance, which sets requirements for health insurance for workers and apprenticeship opportunities on large construction projects.

The city considered a preliminary application for the project to be completed in late 2022, more than two years before the HARD HATS policy took effect, and the proposal was subject to restrictions in place at the time, thanks to a 2019 state law that limits local oversight of some development proposals, according to Gong's presentation. But the appeals coalition urged the developer to voluntarily comply with the standards anyway.

“We are tired of seeing big business making big profits at the expense and exploitation of construction workers,” John Dalrymple, a spokesman for the group, said Tuesday. “If they are not being paid the wages that are common in the area, this project should not be built. As much as we need housing, new people will come along who are willing to do the right thing.”

You can watch the presentations, discussions and public comments here starting at approximately 2:56:25.

The council unanimously rejected the objection and upheld the planning committee's decision to grant the developer planning permission to demolish the non-heritage portion of the theater building and begin construction. New council member Cecilia Lunaparra, who was on the planning committee at the time the project was discussed, abstained from discussion and voting.

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