North Berkeley BART today. AB 2923 requires new zoning standards for the parking lots that surround the station. Photo: Lance Knobel

A new state law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown has added impetus to the city’s work with residents and BART to address development at the North Berkeley BART station.

AB 2923 requires BART to adopt new zoning standards for its parking lots and requires cities to update their own zoning to meet BART’s affordability and zoning standards. The governor signed the bill Sept. 30.

While it’s not mandated in the legislation, it is expected that BART will create the new zoning in concert with the cities where stations are located, working with mayors and other city officials. Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín and Councilwoman Linda Maio, who represents the district where the North Berkeley BART station is located, are working with the agency.

Neighbors of the North Berkeley BART station were already concerned about the possibility of development at the station, and Maio held a meeting in March attended by about 200 people to address their concerns.

Arreguín sought to reassure neighbors at a visioning session for the North Berkeley BART parking lot Oct. 13 held by Maio. BART Director Rebecca Saltzman also attended the meeting and was on hand for the March meeting as well.

“I want to thank BART Director Saltzman, because BART is not coming in saying, ‘We are going to do this, we don’t care what the city thinks.’ They want to hear community input,” the mayor said at the session, which was held at the North Berkeley Senior Center. About 150 to 200 people attended.

“We want to ensure for everyone, particularly with the adoption of AB 2923, that the community and the city working in collaboration with BART are helping define the vision for the future of this particular location,” Arreguín said.

The mayor told attendees there is not yet a specific plan for the station.

Arreguín urged attendees to weigh in, saying, “We want to make sure the community input, the community vision is ultimately what will shape what happens in the future.”

Community members submitted comments and proposals for designs for development at the station, which were displayed at the meeting.

The meeting was planned before AB 2923 passed, but the new legislation gave more urgency to the issue.

Trying to respond to housing crisis

The legislation was posited as a solution to traffic congestion and the local and state-wide housing crisis by co-sponsors David Chiu, D-San Francisco, and Tim Grayson, D-Concord.

The housing crisis has sent rents and property costs skyrocketing, forcing low-income people to live in far-flung Bay Area cities and commute miles to work.

The state falls about 100,000 housing units short per year of what is needed just to keep up with population growth, potentially leaving more than 300,000 Californians without the housing they require, according to the state Department of Finance

In the Bay Area, as of early 2016, the economy had added 480,000 private-sector jobs over the previous five years, but only 50,000 housing units.

In the San Francisco metro area, which includes Berkeley, the median rent now requires 42% of the median income, according to real estate site Zillow. From 1985 to 2000, the median rent required 31% of the median income.

Mortgage payments require a larger share of income than they did before 2000; the share is 41% today, compared to 38% historically.

“We can no longer afford to say no to building housing, especially around transit hubs,” according to Chiu.

BART Director Nick Josefowitz said that AB 2923 makes it possible for the agency to build as many as 20,000 housing units on property adjacent to stations.

According to Josefowitz, “These new homes will be affordable to working families and seniors, and because of their proximity to our regional transit system, they will reduce congestion.”

Not all BART directors championed the bill. BART Directors Tom Blalock, Debora Allen and John McPartland urged senators to vote against 2923, according to California Senate records.

Many East Bay mayors, Arreguín among them, opposed the bill because it gives BART authority over local land use. Now that the bill has passed, the mayor said he is working closely with BART to do everything possible to incorporate community input into the end result.

BART has to adopt zoning standards for each of its stations by 2020. It is the city’s responsibility to update their zoning to reflect these standards by 2022.

“There is no zoning for this location. The city will have to adopt zoning. That will be done per the planning commission and through a community process,” Arreguín said at the visioning meeting.

Chiu and Grayson’s bill includes provisions for speeding up approval of projects. If projects meet certain standards, including meeting requirements related to union labor, affordability and height limits, they will move through the approval process more quickly.

The bill also limits building heights to one story higher than structures within a half-mile of the station, a key concern of the community. Parking is another concern, and a neighbor raised the issue at the October meeting.

“We haven’t made any decision on parking,” Saltzman said. “What we have done at other stations: At some stations, we replaced all the parking, at some stations, we replaced some of the parking. At Lake Merritt, we are looking at replacing none of the parking.”

Open call for proposals: ‘Nothing was excluded’

Maio and Arreguín took questions before the general session began, and one attendee asked whether the presentations that came in “were solicited by the city, paid for by the city?”

Maio responded, “No one has been paid. We put a public call out for people who wanted to present or send ideas in. Nothing was excluded. We accepted everything that came in.”

Residents submitted about 20 presentations, and the bulk of the meeting was taken up with the attendees visiting the various displays and querying the people who created them.

The various proposals were displayed on poster boards throughout the senior center and included a wide variety of ideas (above: a video by Christine Schwartz of the various proposals).

A common theme was affordable housing. Most included provisions for such housing at the station. At the March meeting held by Maio, more than 10 speakers had called for affordable housing at the station.

AB 2923 specifies that at least one-third of the housing developed at BART stations would be affordable to low- and moderate-income families.

The Delaware East Neighbors group, a group of people who live near the BART station, submitted a number of recommendations.

“We really emphasized the importance of an uninterrupted flow for the Ohlone Greenway,” said Kristin Leimkuhler of the group. The East Neighbors group proposed relocating vehicle routes so they wouldn’t intersect with bike or pedestrian paths.

The group’s suggestions include two separate housing developments, one at the corner of Sacramento and Virginia and the other at the corner of Acton and Delaware. “There’s a need for stepped-down rooflines to blend with surrounding residential homes,” Leimkuhler said.

The Delaware East Neighbors group also recommended 400 underground parking spaces and 50 spaces for a waiting zone. Parking, also a big issue at the March meeting, was an element of most of the proposals, whether underground or at a parking structure.

Many of the proposals suggested smaller buildings at the outside edges of the parking lot, with taller buildings toward the middle. Alfred Twu, a designer with an architecture degree from UC Berkeley and a City Council candidate for District 8, included this suggestion in his proposal.

“I was looking at what a higher-density project on the location would look like,” Twu said. “What I designed at the perimeter, except on Sacramento Street, would be two- or three-story buildings.”

The second ring would be mid-rise buildings, from about four to seven stories, and the taller buildings would be in the very center where the shadows they cast wouldn’t extend beyond the edges of the site, Twu said.

Alicia Klein, associate director of housing development for Resources for Community Development, a nonprofit that creates and preserves affordable housing, made a presentation reinforcing the idea of such housing. Her agency didn’t have a specific proposal for a building.

Klein, who lives in the neighborhood near Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, said the development “should include a component that is 100% affordable housing for low-income families and individuals.”

She noted that there is an affordable housing development just blocks from the station, at University and Sacramento.

Klein said there are two options for affordable housing. In the first, a small percentage of market-rate housing is set aside for affordable homes, which only makes a handful of such homes available and often sunsets after a given period, Klein said.

The other involves dedicating a building to low-income residents run by a nonprofit. With this option, the affordable housing is permanent, she said.

“There are many examples of (the latter) in Berkeley. This way we can house our preschool teachers, receptionists, disabled folks, retirees, health aides, retail workers, security guards, so we can keep our neighborhood more economically diverse and vibrant going forward,” Klein said.

In an interview after the meeting, BART Director Saltzman described the various designs as “fantastic.” She noted that her agency will have many more public meetings for residents to weigh in before any decisions are made.

Watch video from the meeting on Facebook.

Janis Mara has worked at the Oakland Tribune, the Marin Independent Journal, the Contra Costa Times, Adweek and Inman News, an Emeryville-based national real estate trade publication, winning California...