Pacific School of Religion, developers discontinue plans for senior living home

Originally published on January 19, 2017 for The Daily Californian

The Pacific School of Religion, or PSR, and Mather LifeWays announced last week that they have discontinued their plans to construct a senior living community in North Berkeley that was protested by many surrounding residents and PSR students.

PSR cited “changes in the local political landscape” in its public statement as the reason for withdrawing the project’s applications to the city of Berkeley.  In the recent election, several candidates who supported building preservation were elected to Berkeley City Council — a change PSR said increased “the uncertainty regarding the project.”

The 265-unit senior home would have been constructed on a part of PSR’s campus, locally referred to as  “Holy Hill,” taking the place of existing PSR student housing.

“Given the changes in our educational programs, we do not fully utilize all of the property we own,” PSR President David Vasquez-Levy said in the public statement. “Our intent is to leverage our real estate property towards a partnership that will strengthen our financial ability to fulfill our mission to prepare theologically and spiritually rooted leaders for social transformation within and beyond the church.”

North Berkeley residents, including Michael Hohmeyer and Daniella Thompson, founded the activist group Save Holy Hill, and Thompson said the group contributed to the “changes in the local political landscape.” The organization gave its support to candidates, including Mayor Jesse Arreguin, who have shown interest in supporting preservation in Berkeley.

Many residents were concerned about the project because of the proposed size of the senior home, according to Hohmeyer.

“It’s a quiet residential neighborhood,” Hohmeyer said. “(The residents) didn’t want to see the largest building ever built in Berkeley built in that neighborhood. That was the neighbors’ main concern.”

Hohmeyer said students from PSR wished to preserve their campus, especially one that is focused on spirituality and community organizing. According to Hohmeyer, they didn’t want to see a majority of the campus land constructed on and wanted to preserve the old buildings.

Thompson, an architectural historian, described the project as “inappropriate” and said he believed that it would destroy an entire neighborhood on the North Side. Thompson said she has done a great deal of research and writing on the neighborhood and held walking tours to showcase the history of Holy Hill.

Though relieved to hear that the project was discontinued, Thompson and Hohmeyer said they are worried about who PSR will now sell the land to, as the school still intends to sell the property.

“We’re hoping that they will be open to small buyers,” Hohmeyer said. “Since it’s a nonprofit and a religious teaching institution, maybe if they sell not to the richest buyer or the top bidder, but to an institution that has an objective aligned with their own.”

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