Housing and retail could come to the North Berkeley BART station. Photo: Lance Knobel

At Tuesday’s City Council session on the future of the North Berkeley BART station, one thing seemed certain: housing will be developed on the lot.

What that housing will look like, how much of it will be affordable, and how many parking spaces will remain at the station proved to be more contentious questions.

The council “work session” drew a crowd, which at its height spilled out of the room and into the rainy courtyard. At the beginning of the discussion, council members stepped down from the dais, squeezing next to their constituents to get a look at illustrated proposals for the BART development. The drawings were submitted by members of the public and architecture firms, and ranged from more conventional complexes of many small apartment buildings to wild imaginings of  “hanging gardens,” a transit hub with self-driving shuttles, and 22-story towers.

Berkeley started pursuing housing on the eight-acre BART lot at the end of 2017, under then-Councilwoman Linda Maio, who is still facilitating the project in her retirement. But a new sense of inevitability and urgency came with the September 2018 passage of Assembly Bill 2923. The law codifies BART’s authority to build on its properties and set its own development standards.

“Nothing like this bill has existed for any transit agency ever,” said BART’s Abigail Thorne-Lyman on Tuesday.

The agency is rushing to meet the state’s 2020 deadline for solidifying zoning standards. Cities like Berkeley will have until 2022 to adopt that zoning.

AB2923 locks BART into minimum standards outlined in the agency’s 2017 Transit Oriented Development guidelines. Those guidelines, prompted by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s Plan Bay Area, classify the North Berkeley station as “urban.” That means the property must be rezoned to permit a minimum height of seven stories, and a minimum density of 75 housing units per acre. The maximum parking that the lot will be zoned for is one space for every two units. BART has a goal of at least 20% affordable units at any development, and 30% systemwide, staff said Tuesday.

Community members and architects showed off creative proposals for the development of the North Berkeley BART station. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The sort of construction enabled by those rules could bring about serious change at the North Berkeley BART station, currently a sprawling parking lot surrounded by mostly single-family houses.

The new law makes it clear that BART can build whatever it wants at its stations. But BART staffers assured the council they plan to work closely with the city.

Council members in turn gushed over the development coming to North Berkeley.

“Numerous studies tell us that denser, multi-unit housing closer to public transit is one of the most powerful ways the state of California can reduce its greenhouse gas emissions,” said Rashi Kesarwani, whose district includes the station. “It is incumbent upon us to act as if there truly is an emergency.”

Many of the neighbors who formed a long line along two full sides of the meeting room agreed.

Darrell Owens from the organization East Bay for Everyone said he grew up near the station.

“Unfortunately even though my neighborhood’s aesthetic has been preserved, much of the working class is gone,” he said, calling for more density.  

Several other neighbors shared concerns that the project would be mostly market-rate. They criticized BART for benefiting from leasing to corporate developers. There were proposals for affordable senior housing or units for Berkeley’s teacher workforce.

Many speakers rejected BART’s classification of their quiet neighborhood as urban, and pleaded for shorter heights around the outside of the new development to blend in better. (Even though the site will be rezoned to allow seven-story buildings or taller, the project could still be much shorter.)

The line for public comment stretched around the room Tuesday night. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The City Council, which will eventually propose a design to BART, seemed receptive to the idea of a sloped building or complex with more height at the center.

“I feel like the integrity of this neighborhood was damaged when the BART station was constructed. We have an incredible opportunity now to remedy that situation — I want to stress the importance of the design that we do,” said Councilwoman Susan Wengraf.

Many houses were razed during the construction of the BART station, which opened in 1973. Activists fought to underground tracks throughout the city.

Those same tracks impose limits on the construction capacity at the station, city planning staff noted Tuesday. Per BART’s rules, a significant area cutting across the lot could not support development, leaving three available acres to the west and one to the east, staff said.

The council and neighbors expressed interest in ground-floor retail along with the housing, many suggesting coffee shops or childcare.

How much parking should be kept at the station?

Development can’t go on top of the BART tracks. Photo: BART (via City of Berkeley) 

It could become a “village” like the one in Fruitvale, or the “fortress” some neighbors fear, but right now the North Berkeley BART station is a huge parking lot with the entrance drum in the middle.

Those parking spaces — around 650 at the lot in question and 100 nearby — do fill up, neighbors and BART staff said.

Many speakers supported slashing those spaces to make way for housing connected to public transit.

Neighbors complained of “daily near-accidents” and frequent collisions around the station. There is extra sensitivity around traffic safety during this dark and rainy month, when many traumatic crashes have occurred across Berkeley, including the one that sent School Board President Judy Appel and her wife to the hospital.

“I’ve never been almost hit by a pedestrian,” quipped one neighbor. He and others asked for a continuous bike and pedestrian path through the station, connecting the Ohlone Greenway.

That work is already underway, independent of whatever ends up getting built at the site, BART staff said after meeting.

Officials kick off a meeting on North Berkeley BART housing. From left: District 1 Councilwoman Rashi Kesarwani, Mayor Jesse Arreguín and BART Director Rebecca Saltzman. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Simply building over parking spaces won’t eliminate those cars or the drivers who use them, several people warned Tuesday. Seriously cutting down the supply of spaces could lead motorists to take up nearby street parking or, worse, drive all the way to work, they said. There was particular concern around seniors and people with disabilities who can’t walk or bike.

Wengraf, who represents the hills, said her constituents are very worried about the loss of parking.

“Unfortunately we are underserved by public transit in the hills,” she said. “Anybody who’s going to take a bus is going to go to the Downtown BART station. The reason they go to North Berkeley is because they have to drive. Anybody who has children who they have to pick up after work or other obligations — aging parents — they are car-dependent. That’s just the way it is.”

Councilwoman Kate Harrison sternly told BART staff she expects the agency to provide alternative transit to and from the North Berkeley station.

“You’re making the profit on this housing,” Harrison said. “We need this housing and we need to participate in providing the housing. What I’m interested in is the people who are not living there, that are basically your customers. How are you going to help us make sure we’re not going to create more of a climate problem with those people continuing right past and driving to San Francisco?”

“We have to” make sure the station’s accessible, responded BART Director Rebecca Saltzman. “I mean, we need BART riders, and if they can’t get to the station, we’re in trouble.”

Kesarwani and others called for a parking study to suss out the actual demand for spaces before the project is designed.

Mayor Jesse Arreguín wrapped up the meeting by asking city staff to come up with specific project proposals. The council could vote on one at a public hearing in April, he said. From there, city staff would draw up an agreement with BART and work on changing the zoning to the agency’s new standards. The lot is currently zoned as “unclassified.”

The city is meanwhile exploring the development of the Ashby BART station too. The circumstances there are different, as Berkeley owns the air rights at the site, and it’s occupied by the Berkeley Flea Market on weekends. Development proposals will be included in the Adeline Corridor plan.

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Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...