The McDonald’s corner could boast of having the tallest building in Berkeley, at 26 stories

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Developers submitted plans for 1974-1998 Shattuck Ave. in Berkeley. Credit: Trachtenberg Architects

Familiar names in the Berkeley subdivision are seeking to transform the corner of Shattuck and University Avenues, now home to a low-slung McDonald’s outpost, into a gleaming 26-story tower of apartments where rooftop restaurant patrons will enjoy a view of the Golden Gate.

The project team, which includes Rhoades Planning Group, NX Ventures and Berkeley design firm Trachtenberg Architects, hopes to land the location for the fifth and final major building permitted under the city’s downtown plan. As designed, the skyscraper would reach nearly 280 feet.

The team on Tuesday submitted the pre-application for the completely car-free project under SB 330, a 2019 state housing law that streamlines the authorization process limiting local control over developments that are at least two-thirds residential.

The existing structure – which houses the historic Spats bar, the Missing Link Bicycle Cooperative, Turkish Kitchen and McDonald’s – would be demolished. The project team are hoping to bring Spats back in a different form and are in discussions with the other companies about whether they want to return.

Nathan George of NX Ventures and Mark Rhoades (founder of Rhoades Planning Group) own the Spats business, although the ownership itself belongs to someone else.

“We would like to preserve it and try to bring it back,” Nathan George said on Berkeleyside of Spats on Wednesday. “We’ll keep all the relics, as much as possible, in storage and see what we can do.”

The plan is to retain the “community orientation of the ground floor” and make as much of it available as possible for retail, in keeping with the spirit of the bustling pedestrian block in the heart of downtown Berkeley.

Rhoades described Shattuck and University, directly across from the newly opened 205-unit Modera Acheson Commons complex, as what is, in effect, Berkeley’s “Main and Main Street” intersection.

“It’s going to be the building that really marks that gateway,” he said of the new skyscraper on Wednesday. “This project provides the opportunity to place a beautiful and appropriate scale of transit-oriented density at the intersection of Berkeley’s two most important streets.”

As designed, the new building would have 297 units, including 66 two-bedroom apartments, 23 one-bedroom apartments and 208 studios, as well as approximately 13,500 square feet of commercial space on the ground floor. The rooftop restaurant would span 5,000 feet. On the north side of the 12th floor, there will be a rooftop terrace for residents.

No parking is provided, but the project, at 1974-1998 Shattuck Ave., includes 135 bicycle spaces. The project will target young professionals, although it is also likely to be attractive to the university community given its proximity to campus.

Current zoning allows up to 18 stories in downtown Berkeley, but the project team says a state density bonus could take the building up to 26 stories in the proposed layout. If history is any indication, this is likely to cause significant community resistance.

According to current plans, the building will have at least 30 very low-income units to obtain this density bonus. The developers will also contribute an amount, yet to be determined, to the city’s housing trust fund to meet the remainder of its below-market housing needs.

The team hopes to secure project permits by fall 2023 and begin construction, which is expected to take about 18 months, in 2024.

George, who went to graduate school at Cal, described the entire project team as “very Berkeley-centric.”

“I don’t do development anywhere else,” he told Berkeleyside. Almost all of the project’s investors have ties to Berkeley, he said.

“They’re all basically friends and family,” he said. “It’s not one of those big, big capital investment funds trying to get into the Berkeley market. We are all small investors. This has always been our MO.

“It gives us the freedom to make our own decisions,” he continued. “We are able to make decisions on the ground with Berkeley in mind and the interest of the project. And we take a few liberties to do additional things that may not always be the most cost effective – but which we believe make for a better project overall.

George’s first Berkeley housing estate, The Overture on University Avenue, was approved in 2014. The partnership between George and Rhoades dates back to those early days.

Since then, NX Ventures has submitted plans to build approximately 1,500 units in Berkeley across seven projects on Shattuck, University and San Pablo Avenues.

Meanwhile, Trachtenberg Architects designed at least 11 other major apartment complexes in Berkeley, which number more than 800 units among them.

George said that the development team is now under contract for the McDonald’s package, but is not authorized to disclose the terms of the agreement as per this agreement.

The project team had been working for eight years—since George and Rhoades purchased Spats in 2014—on what would become the current plan for 1974-1998 Shattuck Ave. There were preliminary discussions with the family owning the McDonald’s plot, but the parties were unable to reach an agreement initially.

This preliminary effort has stalled. But conversations have picked up in recent years and seem to have had more success.

“Our vision from the very beginning was to shape this whole corner to be more of what it should be,” George said Wednesday. “Now it’s finally happening.”

What’s going on with the other high-rise buildings in downtown Berkeley?

The City of Berkeley’s Downtown Area Plan, which passed in 2012, allowed for the construction of three 180-foot buildings, including a hotel, and two 120-foot buildings.

Ten years later, the 17-story Residence Inn Berkeley, which opened in December at 2121 Center St., is the only non-academic project to have been completed. (His 12th-floor rooftop bar, which faces east toward campus and the Berkeley Hills, opened in March.)

Meanwhile, work is underway on a 12-story building at 1951 Shattuck Ave., from developer Grovesnor Americas, which was approved in 2019. Several storefronts in Shattuck and Berkeley Way were demolished in the spring, marking the beginning of the roadworks.

Last August, Chicago-based Core Spaces applied to build 17 floors of “student-oriented” housing directly across from campus at 2128 Oxford St. If approved, the 283-unit project would transform a popular stretch restaurants on Center Street. Rhoades Planning Group is also working on this application.

In February, Georgia-based Landmark Properties submitted new designs for the 25-story building it hopes will replace the downtown Berkeley Walgreens at 2190 Shattuck Ave. An earlier 18-storey design failed when the finances were no longer in pencil, according to a spokesperson for the project team.

As of February, according to information on the city’s website, the bid for the skyscraper, also designed by Trachtenberg Architects, remained incomplete.

As part of the downtown plan, UC Berkeley won the rights to build two additional 120-foot structures. One, Berkeley Way West at 2121 Berkeley Way, was completed in 2018. The other is Anchor House, a 14-story, 772-bed student apartment under construction on Walnut Street.

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