A $241 million life sciences campus is being built in West Berkeley

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Credit: Nico Savidge

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Workers are renovating 2222 Fifth St. in West Berkeley, turning the building into a new life sciences workspace called theLAB. The renovation is the first phase of developer SteelWave’s plans for a 3-acre campus that spans two blocks. Credit: Nico Savidge

A San Mateo real estate firm has begun work on a renovation project that is the first part of a $240.7 million plan for a new life sciences campus that will span two industrial blocks in West Berkeley.

The teams are working to convert three buildings on the 2200 block of Fifth Street between Bancroft Way and Allston Way into what developer SteelWave describes as “ultra-stylish, amenity-filled office, light industrial and laboratory space.”

SteelWave is now seeking city approval to construct a five-story, 415-space parking garage adjacent to the three renovated buildings. Then the company plans to redesign the next block to the west by building a new three-story research and development facility on the corner of Bancroft Way and Fourth Street, renovating an existing building at the end of the block on Allston Way, and adding another parking lot area.

If each phase of theLAB is approved by the city, nearly 600 employees could be working on the just over 3-acre campus by early 2024. Nine buildings currently standing on the two blocks would be either demolished or relocated to make room for the project — including a 144-year-old house on Fifth Street.

Steve Dunn, who oversees Northern California real estate for SteelWave, said the project aims to tap into the life sciences talent pool at UC Berkeley and allow East Bay workers who “otherwise would have commuted elsewhere” to be closer to home to stay. SteelWave plans to lease space under development to several companies, Dunn said, with two tenants, Bolt Threads and Conception Bio, signed so far.

Berkeley planning and development director Jordan Klein said the project’s renovation phase will continue after it receives governmental occupancy approval, while plans for demolition and new construction would require a hearing before the Zoning Adjustment Board, which has not yet was planned.

A rendering shows the view from Fourth Street of the proposed new three-story life sciences facility that SteelWave plans to build at 787 Bancroft Way. The building would be the largest piece of theLAB, a 3 acre development proposed for West Berkeley. Photo credit: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP

SteelWave hopes to complete the renovation project next month and receive city approval for the remainder of its plans in the summer and then begin work on the parking garage and new West Block buildings in the fall.

The company, which bills itself as a “full-service creative life science, creative office, and industrial real estate management firm,” owns multiple properties in Northern and Southern California, as well as in Seattle, Denver, and other western cities. The Company acquired the West Berkeley site in January 2021 and is pursuing four major life science projects in the Bay Area, with two additional theLAB campuses planned in Emeryville and Foster City, and an additional development in South San Francisco.

Several major new life science and biotech campuses are in the works around the Aquatic Park in West Berkeley. SteelWave’s proposal complements the 462,000-square-foot Berkeley Commons project at the north end of the park, which received city approval last summer, and a San Francisco developer’s plans for a 187,000-square-foot project on the 700 block of Grayson Street. Berkeley executives also last year approved a new 30-year development agreement with Bayer that could see the pharma giant double the workforce at its nearby campus.

A Google satellite image shows the two West Berkeley blocks that developer SteelWave plans to convert with his project. On the east block, facing Fifth Street, the company is renovating three buildings and planning to build a five-story parking garage. A new three-story R&D facility, another parking lot, and a renovation project are planned for the western block. Credit: Google

Mix of old and new on campus

While SteelWave’s renovation project aims to create sleek and modern facilities, the buildings at 2246 and 2222 Fifth Street will retain their distinctive latticed concrete facades, a detail found on several West Berkeley buildings that feature glass block create a grid pattern in the concrete.

“We’re trying to keep some of the character of the area in the project,” Dunn said.

These two buildings, plus a third located between them, would collectively offer nearly 90,000 square feet of space, with plans for a gym, an outdoor mezzanine, and other amenities to accompany the new workspaces.

In the west block of the project, SteelWave’s plans put more emphasis on what’s new: The company plans to demolish five industrial buildings to make way for the campus’s largest building, the building at 787 Bancroft Way, which will offer 162,000 square feet of space.

However, the plans for the parking garage in the Eastern Bloc are met with resistance.

Among the three buildings SteelWave is seeking permission to demolish to make room for the building is a vacant Italianate-style Victorian home built in 1878 at 2212 Fifth St. To keep the house from the wrecking ball, SteelWave is offering to sell it for $1 to any buyer who can move it to another Berkeley location. Dunn said the company hasn’t found anyone interested in the offer, however.

This vacant house at 2212 Fifth St., built in 1878, could be demolished to make way for a five-story parking garage. Developer SteelWave is offering to sell the house for $1 to anyone who can move it to another Berkeley location. Credit: Nico Savidge

Conservators wanted the house to be a landmark, arguing that it deserved protection as one of West Berkeley’s oldest structures and an “outstanding example” of the architectural style. However, Berkeley’s Landmarks Preservation Commission denied her request last year, noting that the structure “adds no exceptional value to the West Berkeley neighborhood structure.”

Several neighbors have also objected to the parking garage, which would face homes and apartments, saying they are concerned about the noise, traffic and pollution caused by the hundreds of cars pouring into the neighborhood each day.

Dunn said the company has held meetings with neighbors and is adding green space on the side of the garage that faces their homes to make the structure more attractive. In its bid, SteelWave also wrote that it plans to implement strategies to reduce the number of people commuting to campus, such as requiring tenants to provide their employees with subsidized public transit tickets.

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