Strolling out of the North Berkeley BART station one might be forgiven for thinking they had taken the wrong train. Despite standing well within city limits, there are no buildings taller than three stories, and no commercial buildings within a two-block radius of the station, only a giant parking lot. Homes that would happily sit in Glen Rock or Orinda watch over a vast expanse of asphalt waste.
By the Ashby BART station, in contrast, there are coffee shops, food stores, tattoo parlors, bars, takeout: all the makings of a vibrant neighborhood. But no people: the sea of single-family homes makes one suspect they really live in Long Island. Where are the apartments for young families, where one parent can step on the 7:00 BART for the city while the other prepares to walk the stroller to the grocery store? In a city covered with bike paths and pedestrian friendly streets, why does every house have a driveway for two cars? In a community that prizes itself on economic diversity, why do we have unfunded mandates increasing the cost of housing far beyond what workers can afford?
Thousands of people flood into the Bay Area every year to work to get their families a better life. They come because of a rich and vibrant cultural scene, a booming economy, and natural amenities beyond those of any other city in the US. But when they arrive they have a choice: pay ridiculous sums of money to live a transit-oriented lifestyle in Berkeley, or move to Lafayette and clog the highways even more. Those on lower incomes don’t get the choice to get ahead: they stay in declining cities where at least the rent isn’t too bad.
Banning housing won’t stop development but will move it over the hills where increased energy and resource consumption will worsen the environmental problems we face, while restrictive zoning ordinances will worsen our economic segregation. Berkeley can and should take the lead in promoting transit-oriented development and urbanization if we want to preserve diverse, green communities.
This means approving a master plan, and letting it, not endless hearings, drive development. It means up-zoning neighborhoods from R-1 to R-2 or R-3, and further increasing density around transit stations, as well as eliminating wasteful parking requirements. It means recognizing that when you buy a house you buy a house, not the right to stop development of your neighbor’s land. It means maximizing the number of affordable units, not the percentage of affordable units built. And lastly, it means working with BART to close the parking lots and replace them with residential buildings sized appropriately for being close to major transit corridors.
This will change the way neighborhoods look: instead of barren wastes of asphalt, we’ll have apartments where all kinds of people can live and work. Instead of mostly detached single-family homes, we will have townhouses and multi-unit apartment buildings filled with people who couldn’t afford Berkeley before.
The alternative is a gradual hollowing out, as young workers are unable to purchase houses, and each rent-controlled apartment decontrolling becomes snapped up by the highest bidder. That’s the result of our decades of opposition to new housing and density, and the result is even longer commutes, unaffordable housing, and a city whose demographics are appropriate for Florida. The sprawl extending even further eastwards is a consequence of decisions cities on the bay have made about transit and housing, even if these consequences don’t show up in a CEQA evaluation.
The growth in the Bay Area isn’t going to stop. The rewards to workers for having many employers in their industry together, and the rewards for employers for having an ample talent pool to recruit from, ensure that regional specialization happens. What guns are to Springfield, Massachusetts, silicon and computers are to the Bay Area. High prices and taxes might reduce the rate, but they will harm low-income residents more. The only solution is to plan for more growth, and that means more housing, and more building.
We’re a city. Get used to it.
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