A young Asian-American man speaks at a podium. To his right are two young children and a woman. Behind them is a crowd.
A three-generation family was among the many members of the public who implored the Berkeley City Council to, in this case, develop big at North Berkeley BART, or push for a smaller project. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

“An opportunity to dream big.” “Once-in-a-lifetime.” “A clean slate.”

The dozens of people who crammed into the Longfellow Middle School auditorium Thursday evening repeatedly said the mandate to develop on the North Berkeley BART parking lot was a rare opportunity. But what it was an opportunity for, exactly, depended on each passionate speaker’s particular vision for housing, green space, shops and parking at the site.

Those specifics won’t be hashed out for some time. But at a special meeting Thursday, the Berkeley City Council took another step toward making any development a reality.

The council unanimously voted for the city to devise a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with BART that will outline the planning process. The council also adopted a set of general goals for the project and directed the Planning Commission to study zoning options for the site, bounded by Sacramento, Delaware, Acton and Virginia streets.

Berkeley does not have much wiggle room when it comes to zoning and timelines. A new law, Assembly Bill 2923, gives BART the right to develop its property and locks in zoning standards, based on preexisting BART and Metropolitan Transportation Commission guidelines. Berkeley has to zone the site to comply with the law.

Characterized as an “urban neighborhood/city center” station, North Berkeley must be zoned to permit a minimum height of seven stories and a minimum density of 75 units per acre, plus a maximum of one parking space for every two units. That doesn’t mean the actual project has to be seven stories tall — but Berkeley must adopt new zoning by July 2022 giving BART the option to build that big. BART will solidify its own zoning standards sooner, within the next year or so.

For the officials excited about station development, the urgency is welcome. Berkeley had already begun exploring development before the new law, under former Councilwoman Linda Maio’s leadership.

“We are facing a cataclysmic climate crisis,” said Mayor Jesse Arreguín. “We need to build housing close to transit stations.”

There are about five developable acres at the eight-acre station, according to the city. All initial concepts have a bike and pedestrian path going through the center, over the BART tunnel, connecting the Ohlone Greenway.

New state law allows BART to develop housing at its stations. Photo: Lance Knobel

Thursday, consultant Opticos Design presented three potential combinations of housing, parking and building types at the station — and estimates for how many affordable units each theoretical complex could support. The number of housing units in the scenarios range from around 450 to 750, with parking ranging from 225 spaces to 460. All incorporate hundreds of bike parking spots.

The scenarios include between 65 and 201 affordable units, or 11% to 26% affordability. BART has a goal of 20% affordable units at each station, or 30% systemwide.

These scenarios are just “big picture” concepts, Daniel Parolek, principal at Opticos, tried to reassure the audience. He said the firm used input from previous public and neighborhood meetings to draw up the initial designs.

Each layout is “smaller at the edges, and taller at the core, or center, of the project,” Parolek said. “This was a concept we kept hearing over and over.” Each option has a number of smaller buildings, with walkways in between, instead of one or two large complexes.

Arreguín and Councilwoman Rashi Kesarwani, who represents the station area, have asked the state to clarify how stringent the AB 2923 zoning guidelines are.

In a letter to Assemblyman David Chiu, author of AB 2923, those officials asked if zoning for shorter heights than required could suffice if the project exceeds the density minimum. All the Opticos scenarios have more than 75 units per acre, even though many of the buildings are shorter than seven stories.

“It is our strong belief that local jurisdictions and BART should be granted some flexibility in adhering to these development standards,” wrote Arreguín and Kesarwani, who also authored Thursday’s council item. Because Berkeley is the first city to go through the development process, its work could inform BART’s own zoning decisions and behavior.

Aerial renderings of three developments at the North Berkeley BART station
Opticos Design devised three concepts for development at the station. Photo: Opticos/City of Berkeley

Councilman Rigel Robinson encouraged Berkeley and BART to go above and beyond what’s required.

“I would like to see an affordable housing project that perhaps could make the Campanile the second most distinctive feature of the Berkeley skyline,” he said. “Frankly, with the numbers we’re working with right now, I don’t think any of them are really sufficient to meet the needs of the housing crisis. I think anything short of 1,000 units at this location is an insufficient use of this precious, precious land.”

He also proposed including “zero” parking spaces for residents of a complex on top of a BART station.

Parking has been a major sticking point for neighbors of the station, who are worried about spillover into city streets if BART eliminates anywhere close to the existing, and often occupied, 650 spaces at the station.

Councilwoman Susan Wengraf said many of her constituents in the Berkeley hills have no choice but to drive to and park at the station.

“The people I represent don’t really have access to good or reliable public transit,” she said, asking her colleagues to commit to working with AC Transit to improve bus service if the station is developed.

“It’s not just about saying no to cars,” agreed Councilwoman Sophie Hahn. “A lot of people have to pick up groceries, drop off kids, or drive elderly people.” Several speakers and officials said BART should provide better transportation to the station to mitigate the impact of the development. In fact, the agency is required to come up with an access plan.

Much of the council discussion dealt with last-minute edits — and then edits to those edits — to the city’s high-level goals.

The approved version says Berkeley will comply with AB 2923 and aims to “maximize the number of affordable below-market-rate units that are available to low-income households of diverse types and sizes.” Officials have talked about subsidizing those units with revenue from Measure O or other sources.

“We seek a development that considers the character and context of the neighborhood and steps down in height around the perimeter of the station,” Arreguín and Kesarwani wrote in the document, based on public input.

A number of additions from Hahn, including access for people with disabilities, were included. Wengraf added a goal of developing live/work units for artists.

rows and rows of people sitting in an auditorium
The Longfellow auditorium was packed Thursday evening for a meeting about North Berkeley BART development. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The document also promises a community advisory committee for the zoning decision. The BART MOU will likely come back for council approval in the fall.

Community members already turned out in droves Thursday.

One woman came with her son and his kids. She said she immigrated from Thailand in the 1980s and was able to raise four kids in Berkeley — two of whom can no longer afford to live in the area.

Build housing at the station “and keep families together,” she told the council.

Many implored Berkeley to push for more affordability.

“Putting in hundreds and hundreds of luxury units isn’t going to benefit working people,” said one speaker. “‘Trickle-down’ was a lie under Reagan and it’s a lie under Trump.”

Opticos “presents no scenarios where even half the units would be affordable,” noted Planning Commissioner Rob Wrenn.

There was thunderous applause from the neighborhood group in the audience whenever a member objected to the classification of the station as “urban.”

“We don’t want downtown San Francisco dropped in the middle of our neighborhood,” one said.

BART meanwhile is working on a 10-year plan for development. The mayor said he expects — and seemed to hope that — both North Berkeley and Ashby will be placed in the 0-5 year priority category.

BART representatives were at Thursday’s meeting but listened quietly from the audience.

Director Rebecca Saltzman addressed the audience briefly to promise them she cares about what happens to the station: “The first apartment I ever rented was in North Berkeley.”

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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,...