UC Berkeley is getting a $300 million dorm as a gift

Helen Diller Anchor House. Credit: Morris Adjami Architects

The UC Board of Regents is poised to approve the largest gift ever made to UC Berkeley — a $300 million, 14-story, 772-bed dorm across from campus that will not only provide transfer students a place to sleep but will offer a “transformative” experience that pays attention to their emotional, mental and physical needs.

The Helen Diller Anchor House project, which the Regents will vote on at their July 21-22 meeting, will offer luxurious living conditions never before seen on campus — and won’t cost UC Berkeley a penny to build. In addition, net revenues spun out from rents will pay for about $2.5 million in scholarships each year for 100 first-generation, lower-income students.

The catch? Building the project will involve the destruction of two historic structures as well as a 112-year-old rent-controlled building at 1921 Walnut St. About six people, some of whom have lived there for a decade or more, will lose their homes.

Moreover, to some critics, the building has become a symbol of UC Berkeley’s unregulated expansion. While the structure, paid for by the Helen Diller Family Foundation, will provide much-needed student housing, it is too big and too fancy, they contend. Since it will be a state-owned property, it can bypass city laws about replacing rent-controlled units when destroyed. Still, other critics believe money from the foundation is tainted by its past connection to right-wing causes.

Construction is slated to begin in November. Anchor House should open to students in time for the fall 2024 semester, according to planning documents.

Anchor House: ‘More than a great dorm’

Imagine a dormitory where every student has their own room lit up by large windows that let in the sun. There is a kitchen and built-in washer-dryer in every unit and at the end of the hall, the large living-room-like space has a massive TV. Nearby is a Zen-like garden. Need to exercise? No problem. An 8,600-square-foot gym filled with the latest cardio and strength-training equipment and separate yoga and meditation rooms are available. A landscaped open space in the central courtyard brings the outdoors inside. Students can grow vegetables on a rooftop garden, their gardening knowledge augmented by a culinary library named after Alice Waters, the founder of Chez Panisse. There will cooking and nutrition classes in a demonstration kitchen and a maker space with classes for students and the community. Professors in-residence will be available for informal conversations. Throughout the year, speakers from around the country will talk in one of the facility’s spacious event rooms. Commuter students will also have their own dedicated space where they can rest, take a shower, store belongings or use a computer while they are on campus. The building, with 244 apartments with individual bedrooms for 772 students, will be LEED Gold certified.

These are some of the elements included in the Anchor House project. It may be the first UC Berkeley dorm to come with a philosophy. Planning documents mention a mission, a vision and core values residents will be exposed to.

Interior staircase at Anchor House. Credit: Morris Adjami Architects
Interior staircase at Anchor House. The design includes open spaces where students can have informal interactions. Credit: Morris Adjami Architects

“The Gateway (its former name) is more than a great dorm. (It) is a home, inspired, designed to encourage curious minds and provide students from all walks of life with a platform for growth,” read the materials. “It’s conceived upon the notion that student housing offers a vital opportunity to impact an individual’s future trajectory for years to come. In order to do so, The Gateway seeks to enrich the daily lives of its residents with resources, amenities, and programming that will help them build networks, expose them to new experiences, and uncover passions they didn’t even know they had.”

“Anchor House seeks to set a new standard in undergraduate student housing design, promoting well-being, social interaction, and education,” said Kyle Gibson, the director of communications for UC Berkeley’s Capital Strategies department.

But not everyone likes the concept. Some community members believe that Anchor House is too luxurious, even though it will cost the same as other UC Berkeley dorms, and more students could be housed on site if some of the amenities were stripped away.

Yoga room at Anchor House.
Yoga room at Anchor House. The student housing complex will offer opportunities for students to focus on their health and emotional needs. Credit: Morris Adjami Architects

“The so-called student housing … is full of luxury suites and amenities consistent with a $750-$1,500 per night hotel stay,” wrote Leila H. Moncharsh — a board member of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association and co-founder of a new organization, Berkeley Citizens for a Better Plan, formed to push back against UC Berkeley’s proposed future expansion — in a letter to Mayor Jesse Arreguín. “Tens of thousands of square feet that should be used for student beds has instead been squandered away in this lavish development. It also requires evicting rent-controlled tenants of a building UCB intends to demolish just to enable the luxurious lifestyle of wealthy students residing in this building.”

The donor behind Anchor House: Jaclyn Safier

Much of the push to create “more than a dorm” comes from Jaclyn Safier, the president of the Helen Diller Family Foundation, which has donated $20 million to UC Berkeley since 2002 and which is paying the $300 million for Anchor House through a limited liability corporation it set up, Oski 360 LLC. The foundation also donated $500 million to help UCSF build a 21st-century hospital, among other large gifts,

The foundation is funded by Prometheus Real Estate Group, founded by Safier’s father, Sanford Diller in 1965. Prometheus is now the largest private owner of multifamily properties in the San Francisco Bay Area with about 13,000 units spread throughout multiple counties. Safier is CEO of Prometheus and also serves on the policy advisory board for the Fisher Center of Real Estate and Urban Economics at the Haas School of Business. She did not attend Cal, but both her parents, Sanford and Helen Diller, did.

UC Berkeley plans to lease the block-long area bounded by University Avenue, Oxford Street, Walnut Street and Berkeley Way to Oski 360 LLC, which will build the dormitory and then gift it for 99 years to UC Berkeley. This will be the first donor-funded student housing project in 79 years, according to the university. In 1942, Rosalie Stern paid for the construction of Stern Hall. In 1930, John D. Rockefeller paid for The International House.

Safier is notoriously press shy and declined to talk to Berkeleyside about her vision for Anchor House. The foundation also decided not to respond. “It’s the Foundation’s strong preference to have UC Berkeley respond and be quoted on matters related to Anchor House,” Larry Kamer of The Kamer Group, a strategic communications company, wrote in an email.

In 2019, however, Safier sat down for an in-person interview with Inside Philanthropy where she discussed how the “customer experience” is at the center of the properties she rents and builds, from rentals to the “philanthropically driven structures” she funds. Prometheus’s website talks about its values, stating that it is a B Corporation, which legally must balance profits with purpose. “We join a group of companies that believe in business as a force of good in the world,” the website states.

Safier’s design approach for Anchor House appears to be similar to the approach she took for the UCSF hospital the Helen Diller Foundation funded. In that project, she “hired a hospitality group that usually focuses on high-end hotel and restaurant interiors,” according to Inside Philanthropy. “We’ve already designed a prototype more like a living room, with residential features like shelves so it feels more like home than an institution,” Safier said. “The choice of colors” in a room is also key because “it changes your mood,” she noted. “That goes for the staff areas, too. A happier staff makes happier patients.”

Mood board for mornings at Anchor House. Credit: Brand/Bureau & AvroKO
Mood board for evenings at Anchor House. Credit: Brand/Bureau & AvroKO

In thinking about the design of Anchor House, the architects and creative consultants imagined there would be four types of students: “The Explorer, The Pragmatist, the Idealist and The Scholar.” Programs and services will be established to support all types of students, from those independent and clear about their futures to others who haven’t set an academic direction, according to the gift agreement between UC Berkeley and the Helen Diller Family Foundation. A series of mood boards with idealistic pictures of life in the dorm delineate what the donor and university hope to achieve. They show students sitting on pillows on the roof at dusk, surrounded by candles. Others share a meal, take a yoga class or sleep in.

Safier appears to have high standards for both the design and operations of Anchor House and has made those expectations explicit in the memorandum of understanding with UC Berkeley. While Oski 360 LLC will turn over the building to UC Berkeley once it is completed, and UC Berkeley will run the dorm, there will be a “Project Advisory Board” overseeing its operations. Safier is a permanent member, one of two appointed by Oski 360 LLC. UC Berkeley will appoint the other two. Not only will that board approve the executives appointed to run the facility and any repair expenses over $25,000, it will ensure the facility is maintained to Safier’s expectations through its approval of the “Management Standard, the Experience Plan and the Operations Plan,” according to documents.

The standards laid out in the gift agreement range from specific details on how to clean the communal areas, the kitchens, the trash chutes, the fitness center and other areas. They also spell out how staff should write emails and interact with the students living there. “When you see a resident or fellow team member, acknowledge them and give a courteous and professional greeting,” states one portion of the documents. “Make eye contact and smile. Say ‘hello,’ ask how they are doing or wish them a great day!”

“Answer emails within 24 business hours whenever possible,” reads another part.” Be concise and to the point. Do not write in CAPITALS, this is the electronic version of shouting.”

The Anchor House project will hold mostly transfer students

The Anchor House project was envisioned to address the needs of transfer students, many of whom have fewer resources to navigate Cal than other students, according to the university. In the academic year 2020-21, 4,779 students transferred to Cal, the large majority coming from California community colleges. About 45% of them were first-generation college students. One-third were from underrepresented minority groups and 43% were eligible for Pell Grants, (meaning they come from low-income backgrounds) according to information from UC Berkeley.

“Transfer students have a difficult time finding places to live close to campus and transitioning into the campus community,” said Gibson. “Our goal for Anchor House is not just to house students, but to do so in a way that helps this population, in particular, thrive socially, culturally, and academically at Berkeley.”

Excess revenues will create student scholarships

In addition to building 772 beds, Anchor House will have about 15,000 square feet of retail and commercial space. The goal is to use the net revenue from rents to create scholarships for students to help with their housing costs, which run about $14,221 a year. Project documents state that rents should spin-off about $2.5 million a year which will create about 100 two-year scholarships for Pell grant-eligible transfer students “into perpetuity,” said Gibson. The students would be named the Helen Diller Scholars.

Construction will involve loss of rent-controlled units

The project, as originally conceived in late 2018, was to be called the Gateway Student Housing Project and was to be built on five parcels owned by the Regents. The original concept did not include the land right next door at 1921 Walnut St. But the longtime owner sold the property, which has eight rent-controlled units, to UC Berkeley in 2020. For many months, UC Berkeley claimed it didn’t know if it wanted to tear down the property but in January it informed tenants that the building would be coming down. The university pledged not to evict anyone until after the state of emergency is over. Current California law does not allow evictions until Sept. 30. Berkeley also has a ban on evictions until the state of emergency is lifted.

The university hired a relocation team to help the tenants move and find similar two-bedroom accommodations nearby. Cal said it would pay for relocation expenses as well as rental assistance ranging from $50,000 to “six figures.” UC Berkeley, however, will not construct another rent-controlled apartment complex for the tenants, which it would have to do if it followed city of Berkeley law.

John Selawasky of the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board and Berkeley Tenants Union addresses those gathered at a protest against the UC Berkeley acquisition of 1921 Walnut St. (in the background) on June 29. 2020. Credit: Frances Dinkelspiel

When the university announced it was buying the property in June 2020, there were 12 people living there. Now there are six. But they do not want to leave and have held demonstrations in front of the complex and in downtown Oakland in front of the office of the UC president. Tenants in the building have also complained that university officials have refused to talk to them directly about the loss of their homes. Dan Mogulof, a university spokesman, has said in the past that no Cal official has experience with tenant relocation and that is why the university is asking tenants to talk to the relocation company.

1921 Walnut St. is our home and we do not want to be displaced,” a group of those living at 1921 Walnut St. wrote in an open letter posted on their website. “All combined we have lived at 1921 Walnut St for over 68 years. We are descendants of historic Berkeley figures, we are children of refugees and first-generation college grads (UCB grad!), we are single moms, we are immigrants, we are working-class people looking for the California dream, we are families – we represent the diversity of Berkeley and we are an integral part of the Berkeley community.”

Cal has also said that using the parcel that holds 1921 Walnut St. will allow the building to house 75 more students a year. Given the 100-year life expectancy of the building, that will give 7,500 students a place to live, according to Cal.

Numerous groups have come out against the demolition of 1921 Walnut St., pointing out that it will remove much-needed affordable housing. Mayor Jesse Arreguín opposes it (although he is in favor of the university’s plan to build 1,000 student beds at People’s Park). The City Council and the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board are also opposed to the building’s destruction as is BAHA and the Associated Students of the University of California. Many opponents are urging UC Berkeley to return to its original plan which would allow 1921 Walnut St. to remain.

“Berkeley’s need for affordable and rent-controlled housing has never been more apparent,” John Selawsky, a Berkeley Rent Stabilization Commissioner wrote in a recent op-ed for Berkeleyside. “For a public entity to permanently remove affordable resident housing for the sake of profit and short-term gains is not only a terrible precedent but a slap in the face of the values and needs of our community.”

While not commenting on the relocation of tenants, the Downtown Business Association has expressed its support for the project.

“This project will significantly contribute to the ongoing revitalization and cultural vitality of Downtown Berkeley,” John Caner, the CEO of the DBA wrote to UC Berkeley. “Historically the Oxford Street Downtown/Campus border been in a sorry state, not worthy of a great University and amazing City. Anchor House is a wonderful and worthy addition to this key border that started with the opening of the new BAMPFA in 2016.”

Two other historic structures will be razed

UC Berkeley Garage on Oxford St. is slated to be torn down and replaced with the Anchor House. Photo: Pete Rosos

In addition to the destruction of 1921 Walnut St., which was built in 1909 by William B. Heywood, 1925 Walnut. St, a traditional brown shingle home owned by UC Berkeley, will be torn down. The university garage on Oxford Street, designed as the Richfield Oil Service by the architect Walter Ratcliffe in 1930, will also be demolished.

The city is pushing back against UC Berkeley’s expansion

In 2005, UC Berkeley did a formal report that projected how it would grow through 2020. That long-range development plan projected there would be 33,450 students at Cal by 2020. The city of Berkeley pushed back against the plan but accepted it after Cal agreed to pay $1.5 million annually, adjusted for inflation, for its uses of city services including fire, police and emergency response. (The university currently pays $1.8 million annually).

But the Regents ordered UC Berkeley to increase its student body. Instead of preparing a new long-range plan, UC Berkeley added the projected growth into a draft environmental review it was preparing for a new building for the Goldman School of Public Policy and a new housing complex with 150 units for professors and graduate students. The numbers shocked Berkeley officials: Cal projected it would increase its student population by 33.7% by 2022-23 to 44,735 students. This figure does not include professors, staff or visitors.

In June 2019, the city of Berkeley filed a lawsuit protesting the university’s attempt to slip that 33.7% student enrollment increase into an environmental impact report. An Alameda County Superior Court judge is expected to rule on the case any day now.

The tension between town and gown has only increased since then. UC Berkeley released another long-range development plan in April and a draft environmental impact report in May that projected the number of people on campus in the next 15 to 16 years will rise about 22%, to about 67,200 a day. Cal said it wants to build 11,500 beds for students (Anchor House is one of those projects. Housing at People’s Park is another), 3,000 parking spaces and millions of square feet of new classroom, lab, office and other spaces.

In response, the city of Berkeley issued a scathing 75-page response stating that the reports were so flawed and inadequate that both should be revised. At a minimum, Berkeley wants Cal to pay more for the city services it uses. Berkeley contends the actual cost is around $21 million annually, not the $1.8 million Cal now pays. Cal offered to pay an additional $529,000 in 2019-2020 (a 30%-plus increase to match the increase in students) but the city did not accept it.

The Berkeley City Council has met in a closed session to discuss how to respond to Cal’s current plans for the future.

UC Berkeley has responded to the comments submitted in connection with the LRDP and draft EIR and will release the final EIR today, said Gibson. The Regents will also vote on those documents at their July meeting.

Concern about the politics of the Helen Diller Foundation

Safier’s father, Sanford Diller, died in 2018, but before his death, he directed the foundation to make a number of donations to extreme causes on the right, including $100,000 to Judicial Watch, $150,000 to the Tea Party Patriots Foundation and $175,000 to the anti-leftist, anti-Democrat David Horowitz Freedom Center, according to Inside Philanthropy.

In addition, the Helen Diller Family Foundation worked with the nonprofit association Central Fund of Israel to donate $100,000 to Canary Mission, a website founded in 2015 to combat anti-Semitism on campuses. Canary Mission lists names, photos and short descriptions of students and professors who advocate for a boycott and sanctions against Israel. A number of Cal students and one lecturer, Hatem Bazian, were listed, according to the Daily Cal.

The Forward, a Jewish newspaper, broke the news in 2018 that the Diller Foundation in 2016 contributed to Canary Mission as well as to Regavim, a right-wing Israeli nonprofit that gives funds to Jewish settlers who sue Palestinians to try to take over their homes. Right after the Forward broke the news, the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, where the Helen Diller Family Foundation resides, released a press release stating that it would not make any more donations to those organizations.

By that time, Sanford Diller had died and Safier had distanced herself from his politics. Safier told Inside Philanthropy that the foundation had made $1 billion in gifts and that donations to the right-wing causes were only a small fraction of them.

“It was motivated by concern about anti-Semitism … their tactics are not OK,” she told the paper. “We are absolutely staying away. I know politics are part of life, but I’m staying away.”

Safier’s assurances have not assuaged members of Law Students for Justice in Palestine at Berkeley Law. In an editorial published in the Daily Cal on April 13, the group called on UC Berkeley to reject the $10 million gift made to the law school and strip the Helen Diller name from what was originally called the Berkeley Institute of Jewish Law and Israel Studies. It did not mention the $300 million gift for Anchor House.

“This institute, housed at the law school, now gives the highest and most visible recognition to a group that champions Islamophobic hatred, misogyny and the suppression of political speech, with a fortune built from harmful real estate tactics in the Bay Area,” the editorial states.

Safier is a Republican who regularly donates to Republican Party causes. Prometheus has also donated close to $3 million in recent years to defeat two pro-rent control measures on the California ballot.