EL CERRITO -- The city's Planning Commission reversed course Wednesday and voted not to recommend a group of entitlements that would allow a much-disputed condominium and building rehab project at 1715 Elm St. to proceed.
The 4-2 vote to advise the City Council to reject a proposed general plan amendment, development agreement and planned development district for the project is an about-face from the commission's April 16 decision to grant the project a use permit.
The earlier decision was appealed to the council by a group of residents who say the project's height and density are out of scale for the neighborhood and criticize how close the housing will be to a tributary of Baxter Creek that runs through the property.
Speakers at Wednesday's meeting again expressed concerns about the project's potential for increasing traffic, aggravating parking problems and casting shade over nearby homes.
The City Council will hear the use permit appeal on June 2, taking the commission's latest advice into account.
Property owner Edward Biggs of Albany wants to build a 14-unit condominium structure to the north side of the creek on the half-acre property.
He would also move the dilapidated Rodini house, the third-oldest home in El Cerrito, to the rear of the property and renovate it before selling it as a single-family home.
The General Plan Amendment would provide the height, creek setback and parking variances the developer needs to proceed.
The parcel is in an area zoned multifamily residential which specifies 21 to 35 dwelling units per acre, while Biggs is proposing a density of 35.7 units per acre.
Plans call for the condominium structure to be 42 feet high while the maximum height allowed under zoning rules is 35 feet. The developer says the added height is necessary to accommodate a mansard roof that will tie the condominium building design to that of the historic home.
The new building will be 7 to 8 feet from the creek and the home about 5 feet away at its closest point, compared with a 30-foot distance required by city's creek protection ordinance.
Zoning rules require 21 parking spaces for the 15 units whereas the development plan specifies 15 spaces, all of which would be located beneath the condominium building.
Commissioners Amy Coty, Lisa Motoyama, Tim Pine and commission Chairwoman Andrea Lucas voted to recommend that the City Council deny the general plan amendment while commissioners Carla Hansen and Michael Iswalt voted against the denial motion. Commissioner Bill Kuhlman was absent.
On April 16, Lucas, Hansen, Iswalt and Kuhlman voted in favor of the use permit with Coty and Pine voting no and Motoyama absent, making Lucas the only commissioner to change course on the project.
Pine said he thinks the project is too high and dense for the neighborhood and that the condominium building and the historic home will be too close to the creek, potentially creating a flood hazard.
He suggested that Biggs should consider a less-intrusive development that might include other single-family homes along with the historic home, while restoring the creek in an environmentally sensitive manner.
"I don't believe we are that desperate to develop that site," Pine said. "Someone would pay a premium for a single-family home that wouldn't tower over the street."
Iswalt disagreed, saying the requirements to preserve the creek as an aboveground waterway and maintain and restore the home justify the variances that Biggs is seeking. The creek flows through a culvert both east and west of the property.
"Maintaining the historic home increases the density of the project and also affects the creek setback," he said.
The proposed development agreement would give Biggs 10 years to complete the project, which Pine and Environmental Quality Committee member Howdy Goudey criticized as too long.
"I wouldn't want that property to stay in its present state for 10 years," Goudey said.