A sign says "Ashby." In the background is a parking lot
Parking lots at the Ashby and North Berkeley BART stations could give way to housing development in the coming years. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Berkeley will pursue zoning changes and set aside money for housing developments on the Ashby and North Berkeley station lots.

The Berkeley City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with BART, spelling out the steps the city and transit agency will take in the coming months in pursuit of development.

BART’s board is set to vote on the MOU next.

Decisions about BART housing always draw a passionate crowd, and Tuesday’s meeting was no exception. The line of people waiting to speak about the issue snaked around the council meeting room. The majority waved blue signs reading “MOU Now!” Speakers shared pleas and concerns around affordability, access to the stations, and the preservation of the Berkeley Flea Market, currently located on the Ashby lot.

“This is the beginning of a process,” Mayor Jesse Arreguín tried to reassure the crowd. “This ensures Berkeley has a seat at the table.”

MOU lays out timeline for pre-development process

Berkeley leaders began talking about building housing at North Berkeley in 2017, while the Ashby lot has been under discussion, as part of the Adeline Corridor planning process, for longer.

Then, in 2018, Assembly Bill 2923 gave BART the authority to develop housing on its property. Cities must comply with predetermined zoning standards for those stations by the summer of 2022.

In May, the City Council voted to enter into an MOU with BART for North Berkeley. The document is not a required one, but officials hoped it would ensure that the agency prioritizes Berkeley in its 10-year development plan. And both groups wanted to determine the next steps in a process brand new to both parties.

The resulting agreement, approved Tuesday, tackles both North Berkeley and Ashby. It says Berkeley will make its zoning changes by summer 2021, a year ahead of the state deadline.

People, smiling, sit in a room and wave blue signs that say "MOU now!"
A lively pro-MOU crowd waves signs in support of the agreement Tuesday. Photo: Emilie Raguso

That process will be lengthy and costly and Berkeley will need to work within the strict limits set by AB 2923. The law locked in BART guidelines, which — controversially — designated both Berkeley stations as “urban neighborhood/city center” sites. That means they must be zoned to allow a minimum height of seven stories and a minimum density of 75 units per acre.

The rules only pertain to zoning — not specific projects. If Berkeley zones a site to permit seven stories, BART could still theoretically pick a building design that was only four or five stories. But Berkeley can’t require that BART build less than seven stories. Berkeley could also choose to exceed the minimum requirement, zoning a site to permit, say, up to 10 stories — again, allowing BART to choose to build anything between one and 10 stories.

While decisions about design will come much later in the process, most of the ideas floated so far for North Berkeley include taller buildings at the center of the lot, and shorter heights around the outskirts, to blend into the surrounding neighborhood. Ashby is a bit more complicated. While BART owns the land there, Berkeley can retain “air rights” over the main lot and could have more say over what’s built on it. The draft Adeline plan calls for hundreds of units there.

The MOU also says at least 35% of the units at each station will be reserved for low, very low or extremely low-income residents. The document commits the council to decide to “set aside” “sufficient” funds by the end of 2020 to help BART meet that mark. BART itself has a goal of at least 20% affordability at each station it develops, and 35% system-wide. The MOU references recent Berkeley tax measures as potential revenue sources for what could be tens of millions of dollars in city contributions.

The Tuesday vote also creates a “community advisory group” to provide input into the zoning process. The Adeline Corridor draft plan calls for such a group at Ashby, but the vote establishes one group to handle both stations, with members appointed by the council.

Councilman: ‘An apartment building’ doesn’t fix black community’s loss

Opening Tuesday’s discussion, Arreguín said development at Ashby would begin “healing the wounds” left by BART’s destruction of homes in the 1970s in order to construct the station. In the years since, the African American population that once thrived in the South Berkeley neighborhood has plummeted.

“I know that this council believes, like I do, that black lives matter,” added Councilwoman Rashi Kesarwani, whose district includes the North Berkeley station. “If we believe that’s true, we need to create homes so that black people can live in South Berkeley — and maybe even live in North Berkeley too,” she quipped.

Numerous speakers told the council to protect the Berkeley Flea Market as it pursues development at Ashby BART. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Councilman Ben Bartlett, who represents the Ashby area, warned against using black people as “symbolic playthings for your political positioning — we’re the people who built this country.” He said an apartment building doesn’t begin to make up for the “loss of houses, the loss of family, the loss of wealth, the loss of businesses, the loss of culture and the loss of power” wrought by BART.

But he said he was “excited” by the possibilities at the station nonetheless.

Councilwoman Kate Harrison had the harshest words for BART, although she ultimately voted for the MOU too.

Harrison questioned the “station access study” BART will conduct. AB 2923 requires BART to fund and carry out a study to identify modes of getting to BART and maintaining access where parking is removed.

Some members of the public said Tuesday that replacing the North Berkeley parking lot will be disastrous for many who live in hills and are poorly served by buses. They can’t use BART unless they can drive and leave their cars there, they said.

“We need access for these people,” Harrison said, calling on BART to commit to more than a study, and include Berkeley residents in the process. “We are not a transit agency, you are,” she said.

Others said it’s the city’s environmental duty to replace parking lots with dense transit-oriented housing.

Mayor: “I support 100% affordable housing at Ashby”

Some members of the public were also unimpressed with the 35%-plus affordability goal.

“If there’s any place that should be able to support 100% affordable housing, it’s public land,” one man said.

Berkeley’s own policy sets a goal of 50% affordability for Ashby BART. That language was added to the MOU before the vote.

“I will say, for the record, that I support 100% affordable housing at the Ashby station,” said Arreguín, drawing applause. “That is my preference.”

But, he said, “we have to recognize that’s going to require a significant public investment.”

Several others said BART and the city should embrace market-rate housing, in order to fund more affordable units at the sites.

I would much rather have both affordable and market-rate development to solve our housing shortage than absolutely no housing at all,” said one UC Berkeley student. She said her friends skip meals to afford rent.

BART had a couple of representatives in the room Tuesday evening, including Director Lateefah Simon, who represents area around the Ashby station. She raved about building “extremely needed housing,” saying she herself grew up in public housing and is now forced to live 20 minutes from a BART station because she can’t afford anything closer.

But she said her colleagues must handle the projects with care, as “harsh development has been violent to people of color.” And she called on the council to avoid letting the flea market — where her father sold incense for years — become a casualty of the process.

“That space,” she said, “is critical to the soul of Berkeley.”

Correction: This article previously quoted Ben Bartlett as saying, “We are the people who build this country.” He said “built,” not “build.”

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,...