The appeal against the city-approved plan to build a new, contemporary home at 2707 Rose Street will be presented in a hearing on April 27. The authors of the appeal have just seven minutes to make their case.

The appeal concerns the application made by Lotus founder Mitch Kapor to build a new 6,478 sq ft home, and 10-car garage, on the property he owns at 2707 Rose Street in north Berkeley. Berkeleyside broke the story of the  application on January 25. The appeal centers on whether proper procedures were followed by the zoning board.

Kapor bought the Rose Street property in 2008 for $725,000. The home currently on the site (pictured above) has been abandoned for some time and would be torn down. The lot on which it is sited is secluded and surrounded by trees. It is abutted on the south side by the elevated section of La Loma Avenue and gives onto Shasta Avenue on the north side.

Architect Gary Parsons, who wrote about the appeal on Berkeleyside in February, says: “The more we dig the more we find to object to”.

  • To read the ZAB application for the project, click here. To view drawings associated with the application, click here.
  • To read the appeal to this project, and its many letters and exhibits, click here.

Tracey Taylor

Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...

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17 Comments

  1. Nicely said, Gary. I appreciate you taking time to help keep the discussion civil – and focused on the key issue of asking the Zoning Adjustments Board to do its job correctly.

    The city will be better off if the ZAB’s work process is recognized as personality-neutral, even-handed & transparent.

  2. Hi Dutch,
    Good question. I’m in the position of having to explain the City of Berkeley approvals system to clients on a daily basis. Though time-consuming and expensive, the approvals process is generally fair and often leads to good results. The nature of ZAB’s approval for the Kapor house means that I no longer can characterize the process as fair or even knowable. It is my hope that Council looks long and hard at the staff process and the ZAB actions that led to the current state of affairs. No one is saying that the Kapors shouldn’t be able to build a house on rose Street, but the Kapors should be held to the same process enjoyed, or endured, by everyone else in town.

    Beyond that, I am a commissioner on the Landmarks Preservation Commission, and I take exception to staff’s conclusion that there are no locally designated historic resources in the vicinity of 2707 Rose Street when the immediate environs contain an incredible number of important, and designated, buildings. It is important for the LPC to be able to work with other branches of the city government, and reliable information shared between the planning staff and the LPC is crucial. Many of us have worked very hard to make the LPC into a more reasonable and responsive commission; that kind of progress isn’t possible if historic resources are ignored by planning staff.

    As to why I refer to the neighbors, the appeal was generated when more than 25 letters of concern and several instances of public testimony (asking only for a month’s continuance and the installation of story poles) were rather rudely ignored. This is not the process that I have come to know, one that often errors on the side of caution and allows concerned neighbors both the time to understand proposals and the opportunity to work with project proponents. The neighbors were unceremoniously pushed aside and the request for a month’s continuance denied, in the words of one ZAB boardmember (I paraphrase) ‘because that would just allow more protest’. No one was protesting at that point, but such a patronizing attitude did much to spawn an appeal of ZAB’s decision and subsequent close scrutiny of the application and the staff report. Those turn out to have serious deficiencies which would, in a fair city, lead to a Mulligan for ZAB. We’ll see what kind of city we have on April 27th.

    I was born and raised in this town and I live here and raise my family here for good reasons. I have city-wide interests both in my business and in my volunteer work. I care deeply for this city, a city that is as often held up as an example of progressive values as it is made the butt of jokes. As naive as it may seem, I want to be able to be proud of my city and to be able to honestly tell people that they will be treated equally here, whether they are rich or poor, philanthropist or misanthrope. (a tip of the hat to Fred W for that last turn of phrase…) I don’t usually get too involved in issues like this, but this one has just pushed me over the edge.

  3. Gary,
    You keep referring to “the neighbors” of the 2707 Rose St project, but you don’t live anywhere near the project. Why are you so involved?

  4. Robert:
    I’m starting to be very ashamed of my architect-brethren (see the article in the 3/11/10 Home section of the New York Times re: green mansions), and you’re not making me feel any better. Have you read the appeal document? Did you read my original piece in Berkeleyside? There has been a consistent and concerted effort to keep the issues out of the realm of aesthetics and though they may be a concern to many, they are not being raised as an issue in the appeal outside of conformance to the city’s General Plan guidelines. Somehow architects can’t seem to believe or understand that this is an appeal about information and process, not aesthetics.

    As to your points:

    The objections are not specious. the staff report is so flawed that using it as a basis for any type of decision is out of the question; why ZAB raised not a single question about it is a subject that should be explored. If Council holds the project over for a public hearing maybe we’ll get closer to the root of the matter. On the other hand, I would be surprised if a public hearing was granted as that would simply be a source for more public city embarrassment. ZAB already has egg on its face today due to the Lau escapade (see today’s Berkeley Daily Planet article).

    The appeal is motivated by a need for information, and also by a need for access to a process that has worked well (if onerously) for the citizens of Berkeley for quite some time. The wider neighborhood has been shut out of the process altogether and has been denied very minimal requests. This stonewalling has led directly to the appeal. Once the appeal was undertaken the neighbors (and others) had the time to look very closely at the staff report and it has been found to be quite lacking. The appeal is not motivated by opinion, or on the merits of the design.

    There are not ‘plenty of larger houses’ in the vicinity. If you really live nearby you know this to be true.

    You suggest increasing the height of the house. Brilliant. It already exceeds the 35′ maximum height limit (although incorrectly claimed otherwise), and if you add in the massive plinth the house rests on, it rises 54′ or so above natural grade. Make it taller? How about limiting excavation by making the house smaller? This house has nearly 10,000 square feet of developed space, could have even more if the lower story is enclosed at a later date (it seems to be designed specifically for that purpose), and if you think about the developed roof terrace and the huge plinth, the usable area is simply vast. Oh, but this house is ‘green’ so that makes such conspicuous consumption OK, right? Wrong.

    Eleven mature trees will be taken out during construction. The architects’s model shows much less tree cover than the renderings do. The trees to the west will be in the way of the bay view (the true reason for the height of the building), so how long do you think they will last? To say that the house is great and that no one should worry because it will be hidden by trees, beyond being a case of self-cancelling logic, is simply not supported by the information put forth thus far. You are right, the 1,500 cubic yards of excavation does for the most part take place under the footprint of the building; 800 cubic yards of it will be used to reprofile the hill and make the plinth (which is retaining 20′ of fill at some points). Maybe a less ambitious house would make less of an impact, you think?

    And then you return to aesthetics. That isn’t what the appeal is about and you’re not furthering the discourse by framing that way. We architects always want to think that everything revolves around the aesthetic essence of our creations, but in this case no one in the neighborhood is complaining (yet) about what the building looks like. They are lay people and have a hard time translating a small two-dimensional drawing into a huge three dimensional reality; they are asking for story poles so that they can understand the implications of the height and bulk of the building. The proponents have not been forthcoming with information about the building’s cladding (and since Berkeley doesn’t have residential design review they may never have to), or what the massive earth-retaining walls will look like. The neighborhood simply wants to know what they are getting. I agree with you that the building is rather uninspired, but that is something for the Kapors to worry about; the quality of the architecture is not addressed in the appeal.

    Once again: the appeal is not about aesthetics and it is not about the Kapor’s character. This appeal is about information, a subject dear to Mr. Kapor’s heart, and I’m sure that he can understand the outrage spawned by such incomplete and unsupportable ‘information’. The neighbors are simply trying to get the level playing field that also seems to be a leitmotif of Mr. Kapor’s philanthropic work. Another commenter suggested that the best course would be for Mr. Kapor to volunteer to do the story poles right away. The appeal would still go forward, of course, as it addresses many other issues, but agreeing to do the story poles would be a responsible and neighborly gesture at this point.

  5. Alec,

    I think that the testy replies are provoked ultimately because: (a) as noted above, the application highlights the intended use of the property for philanthropic use to raise money for local concerns; (b) some of the letters in support to ZAB talk mainly about Mr. Kapor’s fine upstanding character and hint for approval on that basis; (c) someone was even seen to say (perhaps it was on this blog, pehaps in BDP) that the project should be approved because Mr. Kapor “has Berkeley values”.

    So there’s at least the *appearance* of a somewhat organized push from the “pro” side to get the project through because Mr. Kapor is such a swell guy. And that ain’t right. Equal protection under the law and all that, you know?

    Hell, I’ve very briefly met the man, myself years ago and met and interacted with a bunch of his employees at a software-oriented NPO he was running. (Heck, I don’t remember but perhaps I even met you then.) Judging from the work environment there I’ve no doubt that Mr. Kapor is a swell guy. But that shouldn’t figure into ZAB decisions beyond the most rudimentary assessments of his credibility and it shouldn’t be such a heavy element of the news coverage. It gets a bit weird if, somehow, his proper name is transformed into “Mr. Kapor-generous-philanthropist-and-all-around-good-guy”. Kind of biases the proceedings, if you know what I mean.

    If Mr. Kapor were to take away a hint from these threads I would suggest that it shouldn’t be “people are looking for something to be angry about” so much as it should be he’s kind of gotten off on the wrong foot here. I say again that his best option might be to voluntarily join the protesters and request a re-evaluation, in part to sooth over the polarized divides before people on either side become too entrenched. I could be wrong. I do understand that sometimes you just have to butch things through or you never get anywhere – sure. From the coverage of this case, though, I don’t think this is one of those “plow ahead” cases: that would just open up a world of hurt.

  6. asa local architect/designer and nearby homeowner – i find many of the objections to be specious and motivated by taste and opinion rather than on the merits of the design. A couple of relevant points worth considering.
    • It is a difficult site – any new project on this site regardless of footprint would require extensive excavation and site work as a result of todays seismic and building codes. Additionally the requirement for the additional parking and the turnaround – as requested by the neighbors, increase the amount of site work required.

    • Size is not the issue: while the house is large by some standards [6500sf] it is not by others. There are plenty of examples of larger houses with the local environs. and beyond that far outstrip this house. – secondly this is mitigated in some respects by the size of the site.

    • One solution to reduce the amount of site work would be to increase the projects height – which is restricted due to the slope of the lot and would probably be objected to by the neighborhood. – and although it is noted that the project is essentially a three story structure – this assumes that you are placing living space in a basement.

    • Trees – the site is heavily wooded and I personally though they did an ok job of preserving most of what is there. and pulled most of the excavation inside the perimeter of the foortprint – minimizing site damage.

    • Aesthetics – Many of the comments I have read in other venues have cited the “modern” aesthetic as a concern; this is sort of narrow critique troubles me – particularly in berkeley – Berkeley ‘s “tradition” is in fact quite modern – Maybeck was considered quite the avant-garde modernist in his day [first concrete residence in america – located in Berkeley] and the city is home to many examples of exceptional design which transcend style and taste. While i personally think this project is a little tame [should be more modern] it is pretty tasteful and well executed.

  7. Wow. My original point of bringing this up was about the coverage of this story on this website, not about anyone getting any kind of favored exemption from the law. It’s like everyone here is just looking for something to get angry about.

  8. The Kapor project includes the removal of 1,500 cubic yards of soil from the hillside, which is 13,500 cubic feet, to construct a structure of 9872 square feet. That’s 1.3 cubic foot of soil removed for every 1 square foot of construction. If you just count the 6478 square feet of dwelling space, without the internal garage, it’s 2 cubic feet of soil for every square foot of construction. That is one reason the appeal asks for an earthquake study under the Alquist Priolo Act, from which Mr. Kapor has asked for an exception on the grounds that his 9872 sq. ft. house is a two story single family dwelling. The appeal questions that it is only two stories and argues that structurally it is three levels or stories. As for the high green score rating, 9872 square feet for 2 people is questioned by the appeal.
    No one involved in the appeal is questioning Mrl Kapor’s worthy philanthropic activities nor his personal qualities, nor those of his wife, but philanthropy and good personal qualities should not be able to secure either exemption from nor favorite treatment by the law. The appeal is about that principle.

  9. Quote below is from a February 23 article in the Daily Californian:

    “Kapor said in an e-mail that a substantial part of the home would be used to raise funds for community and campus groups, including scholarship programs for low-income and underrepresented students enrolled at UC Berkeley”.

    This description sounds more like Hillside Club or the International House in terms of use & traffic impact – does this fit an R1 definition? Yet another reason to take a 2nd look at this project.

  10. I find individuals like Mr. Kapor to be the pinnacle of hypocrisy. He can “afford” to have wildly leftist views, and “afford” to take his posture on global warming, yet he builds a “10-car garage”? Puleeze. You are a hypocrite Mr. Kapor, pure and simple, and your opinions on a host of topics for which you have little knowledge should be kept to yourself.

  11. I also hope that character references can be left out of the process from here on out. They certainly weren’t in the ZAB hearing. The issues here are ones that should be dear to Mr. Kapor’s heart: timely access to comprehensive information and the generosity to allow affected neighbors a little time to understand that information. The information supplied will be found wanting, and the process that allowed for approval with so little scrutiny that basic requirements were missed will be exposed. No one is trying to be mean to Mr. Kapor and his wife, but many of us who have made our way through the approvals process are passionately interested in seeing this project held to the same standards as any other. Given that this project will have a very large impact in many ways, staff and public scrutiny should be rigorous, not lax.

  12. I second Ms. Burke.

    Also: Thanks for the photo. Oh! it’s *that* place! I haven’t been up around there for years but that place always struck me as funky gorgeous. It’s a shame it went to hell.

  13. I fail to see the relevance of someone’s philanthropic activities when it comes to the equitable application of zoning laws.

  14. Alec: I take your point, and I am happy you highlighted Mr Kapor’s Level Playing Field Institute.

    However when referring to Mr Kapor for a broad audience, and when constrained to using one reference, the Lotus connection seems to be the obvious one to go for.

    I do make sure to always link to Mr Kapor’s online biography so that readers can learn about all of his professional and non-profit involvements.

  15. Full disclosure: I worked for Mitch Kapor about 4 years ago, and this is purely my own take on this.

    I find it sad that as the objections to this project arise, Mitch Kapor’s description is evolving from “Lotus founder, philanthropist and angel investor” to “the founder of Lotus Development Corporation” How about “founder of the Level Playing Field Institute” – a far more important relevant accomplishment of his that reflects his involvement in the Berkeley community? This story is subtly hinting that he’s some “superwealthy newcomer” when in fact he’s been an important socially-conscious philanthropist serving the bay area for years.