EL CERRITO -- A group of 20 residents and neighbors voiced their disapproval when a condominium development proposed for a historic site at 1715 Elm St. came before the Planning Commission on Wednesday.
The half-acre parcel near the corner of Blake Street and Elm is home to the 117-year-old Rodini house, now in serious disrepair. The property also has an aboveground tributary of Baxter Creek running through it and the nearby intersection is a major traffic hub in the city.
Owner Edward Biggs, an Albany-based developer, wants to build a 14-unit, three-story condominium building with parking on the ground floor.
The proposal by Biggs would also restore the historic farmhouse, moving it to the rear of the site on the opposite side of the creek from the condominium building. The two-bedroom house would be sold as a single-family residence.
But the plans as described by city staff and Carl Campos, the Walnut Creek architect who designed the project, received a poor reception from residents at the study session.
The Planning Commission will consider granting a use permit for the project, according to senior planner Sean Moss, and the project's design will also need to be approved by the city's Design Review Board.
Neighbors complained the development would worsen traffic and make street parking even tighter in the neighborhood, and would be out of character with the one-story and two-story homes on adjacent blocks.
"There are no homes in the neighborhood that are higher than two stories," said Dan Pines, who noted he lives in a one-story duplex next to the site. "We would have a 35- to-43-foot-high building 10 feet away from our fence."
Employees and parents with children at the Keystone Montessori School on the other side of the site spoke of possible adverse consequences on their children's mental and physical health because of noise and windblown toxic materials during construction.
Keystone Montessori director Linda Shehabi cited the potential for increased noise and pollution and said the developers were "trying to fit too many people and cars into too small a space."
"(Construction) would expose 60 small, developing children to toxic problems," she said.
Karen Mitchell, a member of the city Parks and Recreation Commission, suggested the property be developed as a park while preserving the home, although she acknowledged the city does not have the money to purchase the property.
Resident Tom Panas, who has been in the forefront of local historic preservation issues, was the one speaker with something good to say about the development, praising plans to restore the Rodini house to U.S. Department of the Interior historical standards.
Panas also requested the developer provide interpretive displays about the history of the home, the third-oldest structure in the city, to be placed in an outdoor plaza area planned for the southeast corner of the complex.
The current design of the project would require that the city make exceptions to several zoning and other standards for the area, according to Margaret Kavanaugh-Lynch, development services manager for the city.
Current plans would require a waiver of the 35-foot height limit for the neighborhood because of the roof design intended to hide vents and other structures while providing a visual connection with the design of the relocated home.
Because of space requirements on the property, the buildings would have to be closer to the creek and to property lines than normally allowed.
In addition, the developer wants to provide 15 parking spaces, which would necessitate an exception to the city parking requirement of 21 spaces. This could be allowed because the site is less than a half mile from the El Cerrito Del Norte BART station and has convenient access to bus transportation and shopping, Kavanaugh-Lynch said.
The project also exceeds the 35-unit-per-acre density limit for residential development, which would require an amendment to the city's general plan, according to the staff report on the project.
Kavanaugh-Lynch said that despite some of the comments from neighbors, the neighborhood "is actually very dense."
"It's an eclectic neighborhood with buildings of different sizes," she said. "The height is an issue, but it's not a ridiculously high building."
She also said the developer would be meeting with operators of the Montessori school to try to work out ways to minimize the impact of construction.
The City Council will make the final decision on the project regardless of whether the Planning Commission's or Design Review Board's decisions are appealed, Kavanaugh-Lynch said.
"We hope to have it back to the Planning Commission in April and to the City Council in May or June," she said.