Berkeley’s California Theater to be redeveloped into housing

BERKELEY — A theater could return to downtown Berkeley after the City Council rejected an appeal over the proposed California Theater redevelopment, removing an obstacle for developers wanting to reopen the century-old entertainment space with hundreds of new housing units .

Gilbane Development Company plans to demolish most of the California Theater on Kittredge Street, preserving the historic theater’s facade but replacing the interior with a 24,273-square-foot live performance space and 18 stories of housing.

“The California Theater project is a beautiful reimagining of how we can preserve our historic downtown architectural fabric while finding space for new housing in our historic transit-oriented downtown, where it’s most owned,” Mark Rhoades, founder of the Rhoades Planning Group, one of the companies behind the project, said at the June 4 meeting.

Plans call for the development of a theater space that can accommodate both films and performances, with a drop-down theater screen, orchestra pit and other amenities. Of the 211 housing units, 22 residences will be classified at the very low income level, and will be affordable for people earning between 30 and 50% of the region’s median income, or between $54,500 and $102,800 depending on the size of the household, according to the Department of California. housing and community development.

The proposal had undergone a series of reviews since its introduction in October 2022, but hit a roadblock in February when East Bay Residents for Responsible Development, a coalition of craft unions , filed an appeal. The group disagreed with the findings of the Zoning Board of Adjustment and Landmarks Preservation Commission that the project did not need an environmental assessment because it was a development interlayer.

Instead, the group argued that the project would have significant impacts on air quality and historic resources and that the city relied on various mitigation measures to reach the conclusion that the project would have little or no environmental impact. They also said it did not fit with the city’s general labor policies because developers had not agreed to various employee benefits.

Specifically, the group wanted the developer to voluntarily comply with the city’s standards to assist in responsible development through health care and apprenticeship training, or HARD HATS. The project was deemed complete in 2022, before the HARD HATS order took effect.

“Unfortunately, the current applicant has not committed to workforce standards that will reflect these policies, meaning we can expect a project with minimal, if any, learning opportunities for your residents, and substandard health care, if any, for the workers who end up there. here and a significant lack of skilled labor that is unlikely to be from this area,” said EJ Cire, a sheet metal worker and member of East Bay Residents for Responsible Development.

City staff disputed the group’s claims in a report submitted to council on June 4. They noted that the defining historic features of the site were preserved, the developer was already using various techniques to reduce environmental damage and had agreed to more conditions on this issue, and the project adhered to the general plan.

Rhoades cautioned the council against forcing the developer to adhere to the HARD HATS ordinance or rely on union labor, noting that the project is complex and will be costly. The theatrical part of the project alone is estimated at $25 million. Christian Cerria of Gilbane Development said the appeal made obtaining financing difficult, but assured the council the project would be completed.

“We’ve already done everything we can to get a live performance theater in Berkeley in these economic times,” Cerria said. “We’re all involved (in a cinema) and you won’t get that from any other developer.”

The council sided with the developers and denied the appeal, with Councilwoman Cecilia Lunaparra recusing herself from the vote because she was on the Zoning Board of Adjustment when this project was considered.

While acknowledging the concerns raised by the labor group and sharing their disappointment with the lack of meetings between the developer and labor groups, council members also shared their enthusiasm for the return of a downtown theater with the addition of housing. The California Theater closed its doors in 2021 amid the COVID-19 pandemic after more than 100 years in business. It originally opened in 1914 as a performance hall and later operated as a movement theater.

The Shattuck Cinemas, opened in 1988, closed shortly after the California Theater in 2022, and the Regal UA Berkeley, a seven-screen theater first opened in the 1930s as the United Artists Theater, closed permanently open on Shattuck Avenue in 2023.

“It’s an important project. There’s a lot of important history here,” said council member Terry Taplin. “The city is not just its buildings or its industries. Cities are not just places of capital and profits. The city is also its inhabitants.