John King says nostalgia shouldn’t stop Berkeley building boom

Shuttered in 2020, the 2000 University Ave. building that housed 46-year-old French spot Au Coquelet Cafe was demolished in June to make way for an eight-story development. “When that abruptly got torn down, it tore away memories from my 20s, that vivid time of life,” SF Chronicle urban design critic John King said at a talk in Berkeley. “Yet that does not translate into ‘therefore it shouldn’t be done.’ You shouldn’t not change the landscape because the changes might impinge on your memory.” Credit: Sylvia Rubin

In Berkeley, where cedar-shingled Craftsman homes are often held up as the epitome of the city’s architectural character, John King, the San Francisco Chronicle’s urban design critic and a 30-year Berkeley resident, urged the 30 or so audience members at the Hillside Club to broaden their definition of Berkeley architecture and not allow nostalgia to prevent change in the midst of a major building boom. 

John King, the San Francisco Chronicle’s urban design critic. Courtesy: John King

King said some residents’ responses to the new construction will only hinder the creation of the projected 18,000 new housing units the city will need by 2040 to escape a housing crisis that’s caused property and rental prices to climb to stratospheric heights and driven people out of their homes in Berkeley and, in some cases, onto the street.

“Berkeley is suffering from a debate over housing that tends to be so lazy and divided,” he said, “where it’s either ‘nothing should be built unless it’s ideal by every possible standard’ or ‘the more stories the better, the more units the better’ instead of ‘how can we grow in ways that we generally agree improve our surroundings and improve Berkeley as a place to live and a place to walk around.’”

King spoke Oct. 3 at an informal “fireside chat” (without the fire) at the Hillside Club titled “The Lay of the Land.” The crowd was made up of mostly white seniors, many of whom are club members — a demographic that’s statistically the most likely in the Bay Area to oppose new construction, according to a recent poll by the Bay Area News Group. King’s half-hour talk, accompanied by his cell phone photos and interjections from an enthusiastic audience, was followed by a question-answer period.

“What the hell is going on in Berkeley?” asked Sylvia Paull, a club vice president, in introducing King. “I walked downtown in Berkeley and there are all these big buildings overtaking the sky, I couldn’t even see the sky in parts. It was almost like Wall Street.” She wanted to know King’s criteria for what makes a building good or bad. 

“It has been really astonishing to watch how the place has changed,” King said. “The building boom here is like something many of us have never seen, maybe not since the postwar period. There are more cranes now in downtown Berkeley than in downtown San Francisco.” 

The landscape changes taking place in Berkeley are happening at all scales, he said. He joked that he should have invested in porta potties a decade ago because the number of home improvement projects taking place in residential neighborhoods “is astounding.” 

While individual homeowners’ projects might not be the same thing as an eight-story building going up downtown, it does signify that Berkeley is seen as a desirable place for new housing and improved housing, he said. 

Berkeley architecture contains a mix of styles

Kirk Peterson’s Regent Apartments are “all about traditional historic details,” King says. Courtesy: John King

King’s observations are drawn from his professional expertise and personal experiences in Berkeley.

He’s been the Chronicle’s urban design critic for the past 20 years and is the author of two books on Bay Area architecture published by Berkeley’s Heyday Books. He was a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He’s now working on his third book, on San Francisco’s Ferry building, which W.W. Norton will publish late next summer. He is also an honorary member of the American Society of Landscape Architects.

He grew up in Walnut Creek, went to UC Berkeley for undergrad and lived in various types of housing, from a wood-shake cottage to a 1920s apartment building, before he and his wife purchased a North Berkeley bungalow 30 years ago.

“People who live here, who have chosen to live here and — more and more — can afford to live here, definitely have a certain image of Berkeley in their head,” King said. He singled out the 1924 shingle-style Hillside Club building as what’s typically thought of when it comes to Berkeley architecture. 

The Hillside Club in North Berkeley. Credit: BrokenSphere / Wikimedia Commons

But the real Berkeley, King said, includes other, more contemporary styles, too. He showed four buildings he also considers a part of Berkeley’s architectural heritage: the round firehouse at the intersection of Marin Avenue, Monterey Avenue and the Alameda designed by Ratcliff Architects in 1961; a classic 1920s bungalow; a wooden house at 2321 California St. that “looks utterly modern but has some character to it”; and a mid-century apartment building with parking underneath, a so-called soft-story building.

King admires the “columnar modernism” of Berkeley’s 1961 round firehouse. Courtesy: John King
One of Berkeley’s many 1920s bungalows that are a part of the city’s architectural heritage. Courtesy: John King
A California Street contemporary King admires. Courtesy: John King

“These buildings also are Berkeley and they have always been Berkeley as variations always will be,” he said. 

He compared the public’s current aversion to contemporary architecture to the way some Berkeley residents, in the name of neighborhood preservation, rejected soft-story apartment buildings of the 1950s-1970s that were needed to accommodate the city’s then burgeoning housing demand. Such buildings are now a source of economic diversity, King explained, acting as a type of affordable housing for young families who want their children to attend public school here.

At the same time, King said, not all of the new construction is aesthetically appealing and, in fact, can be “awful,” a bland form of contemporary architecture that draws on some of the hallmarks of modernism, like clean lines and a lack of detail, yet lacks innovation and character. 

Such housing is showing up on a national scale because many developers, more so in San Francisco than Berkeley, are large, national companies based elsewhere, King said. So they take a homogenized version of an apartment building and, during the local review process, add details and local suggestions to fit in with the vernacular and win approval. 

“They will wrap the building in metal panels with a little bit of red or orange or white to show it’s contemporary. It’s a long linear building and the planners say, ‘We want it to look like it’s several vertical buildings,’ so they divide the buildings into bays,” he said. 

How King judges a building

One of the “good neighborly buildings” by architect Rony Rolnizky that King singled out. Credit: Joanne Furio
King described the Higby Apartments on San Pablo Avenue as “pure boiler plate.” Credit: Gerding Edlen

King presented another group of photos showing residential buildings that have gone up in the past decade. He called the Higby at 3015 San Pablo Ave. (at Ashby Avenue) “pure boiler plate” and many apartment buildings of recent vintage along University Avenue “humdrum.”

King’s 2 cents on hot-button land use issues

Here are some of King’s other opinions based on audience questions:

On using non-profit developers to create low-income housing: “Nonprofit developers need public funding. The problem is there’s a finite amount of public funding available.”

On parklets: “I don’t have a problem with things like that being put in place, but they should look halfway decent and not be a traffic hazard.”

Example of a city that’s done a good job handling growth: “Portland’s done that rare thing of creating neighborhoods out of thin air. Portland has the advantage of small blocks, much smaller than a lot of the standard blocks here. Just by having that you’re forcing a different type of scale.” 

On People’s Park: “Before 1980 it had kind of fallen off the map as any sort of gathering place that regular students felt comfortable being in. Whatever it signified in 1969, I don’t think that the drama of that summer or that year renders it immune to change forever and ever.” 

On San Pablo Avenue development: “What’s being filled in are car repair shops, parking lots. It’s not as if wonderful stuff is being torn down to put in the new stuff. Part of the problem is that a lot of the stuff is not very good, just bigger.”

However, he said, the recently opened Jordan Court at 1601 Oxford St., was “not great architecture, but physically fits into the texture of the community.” “I know there was some opposition at the time. But it’s the kind of thing that, once it gets built, doesn’t look so bad.” 

He pointed out the work of architect Kirk Peterson’s Regent Apartments at 2550 Regent St. (at Parker Street). “He’s all about traditional historic details,” King said, and “did it very fastidiously in that building.”

And he praised Telegraph Gardens, 3001 Telegraph Ave. (at Ashby Avenue), designed by Rony Rolnizky, a San Francisco architect also behind a mixed-used building at 1797 Shattuck Ave., which contains apartments, the Victory Cafe and gelato shop Caravaggio. 

“They’re just straightforward, very traditional but not with faux historical details,” he said. “It’s not groundbreaking architecture, but good, neighborly buildings.”

But that’s just his opinion. He admitted that architecture is inherently subjective and a matter of taste. People also have widely divergent opinions on exactly what architecture is and should be. 

“In terms of style, there are people who would say there are buildings that should be beautiful and beautiful is defined by … fill in the spot. And if it’s not that, it’s a violation of that,” he said. “At the other extreme, it’s ‘buildings should be of the moment, of the now, they should be contemporary.’” 

To illustrate his point, he recounted visiting a book club in Claremont and being met with criticism over Telegraph Gardens, which club members described as “horrible” because of its size. It just happened to be a building King liked. “It’s not like it’s looming above little thatched huts, it’s across from the Whole Foods parking lot,” he quipped.

On the subject of opinions, King warned that longtime residents should not resist change just because they might have a nostalgic connection to a certain building or neighborhood. 

“Basically, we see all these changes and the older we get, the more the changes are not just changes to the physical landscape, they’re changes to our mental landscape and our landscape of knowing,” King said.

King happens to like the design of Telegraph Gardens. “It’s not like it’s looming above little thatched huts, it’s across from the Whole Foods parking lot,” he says. Credit: Telegraph Gardens

Using himself as an example, he described his reaction to the tearing down of Au Coquelet, the 64-year-old eatery and Cal student favorite that King himself had visited many times as both an undergrad and an adult. 

“When that abruptly got torn down, it tore away memories from my 20s, that vivid time of life,” he said. “Yet that does not translate into ‘therefore it shouldn’t be done.’ You shouldn’t not change the landscape because the changes might impinge on your memory.”

The larger challenge for Berkeley is how new buildings can be designed in a way that respects the public, the public culture and the public realm, he said. 

He cited his May 31 Chronicle column about how Berkeley’s downtown housing boom will transform the city’s character. In it, he critiqued two residential developments on Shattuck: Logan Park and the Aquatic Shattuck, but noted how the latter created a better street-level experience for pedestrians. 

The column cited two high rises proposed for downtown that King shared on a slide: Rhoades Planning Group and NX Ventures’ 26-story project at 1974-1998 Shattuck Ave. (at University Avenue) that “kind of looks good for a big shaft”; and Landmark Properties’ 2190 Shattuck Ave., which “fills in the site and goes up 25 stories.” Both are designed by Berkeley architect David Trachtenberg, who’s behind several Berkeley developments, including the Aquatic Shattuck. (Full disclosure: I live in a Trachtenberg-designed home.)

A rendering of Trachtenberg Architects’ proposed 26-story project at 1974-1998 Shattuck Ave. in Berkeley. It “kind of looks good for a big shaft,” King says. Credit: Trachtenberg Architects

Such tall buildings are going up all over the state under the state’s housing density bonus, which allows up to 50% extra space and height when affordable units are added to a project. In such projects, developers will inadvertently try to find ways to maximize the site, King said. 

King argues that as taller buildings rise, paying attention to what happens between a building and the sidewalk becomes more important, as witnessed by the Aquatic Shattuck. Urban designer (and Berkeley resident) Daniel Parolek calls it “the building from the knees down,” King wrote. 

“Where I do give the city of Berkeley credit, and this is part of a larger Bay Area movement, is the idea that the sidewalk should be wider as a result,” he said. “There should be bands of landscaping as a result. The building should be moving toward a better public realm.” 

A good example of housing that meets such criteria, King said, is the two-year-old Jones Berkeley Apartments, 1080 Jones St. (at San Pablo Avenue), designed by Oakland’s Pyatok Architects. (The building has several empty storefronts, except for Teak Me Home, a teak furniture shop.)

King finds the ground-level retail at Jones Berkeley appealing. Courtesy: John King

“At least here there is the idea that you can meet the landscape with ground-floor retail. It is scaled in such a way that you can imagine it getting better if that area does develop and you start to get shops,” King said. “Ten to 15 years from now, things will start to come together slowly. That is how cities often work. If you build a good structure, things can start to move in that direction and they will pay off later.”