Construction of student housing on a long-vacant lot at Telegraph Avenue and Haste Street. Photo: Brandon Yung

A “concrete jungle” was how one commenter described the future of Southside Berkeley. A Cal student appealed for more places to live closer to campus. One official said a solution to a lack of housing must be dramatic — like allowing buildings up to 50 stories high.

These were some of the comments Berkeley planning commissioners heard Wednesday as they discussed making zoning changes to increase housing in the neighborhood just south of the UC Berkeley campus. The hearing was designed to set the parameters for an EIR process that will eventually land in front of the Berkeley City Council about a year from now.

“When it comes to housing, this problem has had 40 years to be created,” said Rob Wrenn, a planning commissioner. “UC is trying to do their share and the market is as well.”

The city’s Planning Commission is exploring how to expand building standards — such as increased height and footprint limits — to help cure a dearth of student housing in the city. Commissioners gave staff the green light to prepare a revised Southside zoning study that, if implemented, might permit as many as three high-rise residential buildings up to 12 stories, encourage denser building closer to campus and eliminate parking requirements.

The planning department’s proposed study of the zoning code deals heavily in the ministerial world of building setbacks and floor-area-ratios. The proposed study would examine the impact of the addition of nearly 1,300 housing units in a 28-block area south of UC Berkeley’s campus, for a total of around 3,900 units in the neighborhood.

Plans for densifying the Southside were prompted by six referrals from council dating back to 2016 that focus primarily on housing production. Each referral was spearheaded by former District 7 Councilman Kriss Worthington. Much of the current proposal, including allowing some high-rise buildings, traces back to the More Student Housing Now resolution, passed in January 2018, advocated for by the namesake student organization.

Southside is generally defined as the area bounded by Bancroft Way and UC Berkeley to the north, Dwight Way to the south, Prospect Street to the east and Fulton Street to the west.

The discussion brought both longtime South Berkeley residents and UC Berkeley students to the meeting.

New construction next to an older building along Telegraph Avenue in Southside Berkeley. Photo: Brandon Yung

In a letter submitted to the commission, the Southside Neighborhood Consortium expressed concern that upzoning the area would be a giveaway to developers as it would increase property values without requiring sufficient community benefits. The residents suggested that the city should instead establish a particular number of units as a goal. In order to build, a developer would apply for an allocation from that pool. Dense housing, they added, should be more concentrated next to campus.

Commissioner Mary Kay Lacey voiced support for the community group’s “unit pool” model, saying it would achieve a higher level of community benefits from developers while giving the city more oversight on vertical growth.

For campus freshman Davina Srioudom, the tight housing market was an impetus to attend the meeting.

“In my second semester, I am starting the search for housing and I am already noticing how competitive it is and there are so many tradeoffs with distance and price,” said Srioudom. “I went to an open house last week and it was so crowded. You are put on a waitlist for housing.”

Srioudom, who is looking to rent in the Southside, mentioned that her sister pays $400 for a shared bedroom at UC Irvine.

Commissioner Shane Krpata, who sits on the Southside Plan subcommittee with Lacey and Planning Commission Chair Robb Kapla, suggested that city staff consider studying high-rise buildings up to 50 stories.

“I definitely have aspirations,” said Krpata. “My most far-fetched one is I would like to see the first skyscraper in the East Bay built in the southside, perhaps the first in Berkeley. We don’t have jurisdiction over this but, if campus could build a megastructure with housing, lecture halls, that is an idea,” Krpata said.

“Will that happen?” he asked. “Probably not.”

Many steps remain before the changes to the current Southside Plan make their way to the Berkeley City Council for final approval. It’s as much as a year away. After Wednesday’s meeting, staff will prepare an initial draft environmental impact report, or DEIR, as mandated by the California Environmental Quality Act. Once that report is approved, it would act as an upper bound for zoning changes that the commission will consider. Berkeley could not build anything denser or with higher heights than what is adopted in the new plan.

Kapla explained that the process is like setting dials so they can be adjusted later on.

“A good way to kind of think about what last night was all about was determining what dials we have and where they are going. A question is how many knobs we will have on the amp and whether they will go to 10 or 11,” Kapla said after the meeting. “You have to account for the highest possible development in order to use that dial all the way up to its highest knob.”

With a hypothetical upper bound set by the EIR, negotiations about zoning changes would occur further down the policy pipeline. Even after the Planning Commission lands on its recommendation for updated zoning regulations, final discretion will lie with the City Council.

In the changes proposed by staff, denser zoning districts would expand down to Dwight Way on either side of Telegraph. Zoning designations east of College Avenue would stay the same to allow for the possibility of an evacuation should there be fire in the hills.

The zoning changes will build on the current Southside Plan, concentrating density near campus with a transitioning edge along Dwight Way. The original plan was approved in 2011 after taking more than a decade to finalize.

Even with staff’s proposed zoning changes, the hypothetical 1,293 new units would be built on just a select few lots — about 64, said Aaron Welch, a city consultant. Because most parcels in the Southside are either historical resources, UC-owned, or rent-controlled, rezoning would likely not prompt broad development in the area. Most changes, Welch anticipates, would first happen on either parking lots or parcels with one-story commercial buildings.

“The hope is by actually pushing housing closer to campus in a more intense configuration, you are limiting spillover effects,” said David Shiver, a member of the Southside Neighborhood Consortium.

Shiver added that, besides a general concern about the plan’s impacts on traffic and parking, a “spillover” effect he hopes the plan will address is the displacement of nonstudents. One family Shiver knew was evicted to make way for students, whose total rents were more lucrative than that of the young family’s, he said. With more housing near campus, Shiver added, such pressures would hopefully be alleviated.

Shiver said the neighborhood group was formed as the city grappled with how to approach mini-dorms not so long ago. In 2013, he said, local lawmakers came up with a new ordinance to govern them due to concerns about how large numbers of students were cramming into large houses that were located more deeply in residential areas. A well-planned Southside, Shiver contends, would better meet the needs of both students and longtime residents.

“It’s a symbiotic relationship,” said Shiver. “Berkeley needs the university and the university needs Berkeley and most campuses provide more on-campus housing. So, as residents, we want UC to provide more on-site housing. Realistically, they won’t be able to have everything, so you need a local municipality to zone for that.”

The EIR process comes in the midst of changes in how Berkeley is approaching transportation in the densest parts of the city.

While a significant reduction in parking will be considered in the new Southside EIR, the Planning Commission is also working on getting rid of parking requirements for new buildings across the city. The idea is that providing less parking encourages people to use alternative modes of transit. Councilman Rigel Robinson, who represents the Southside, has also been pushing to make a portion of Telegraph Avenue car-free.

Student housing open houses kick-off

The changes to Southside zoning also come as the campus sets out to break ground on major student housing projects. A study conducted by UC Berkeley in the fall of 2017 found that only 35% of undergraduate students live in university-owned housing, the lowest of any UC campus. In an attempt to alleviate the deficit, Chancellor Carol Christ has outlined a goal to build 7,500 beds for students, doubling the campus housing stock.

Despite joint efforts to address the student housing crisis between the city and campus, contentions over the fast pace of student population growth since 2005 prompted the city of Berkeley to file a lawsuit against UC in 2019, halting a housing project north of campus on Hearst Avenue.

One of the highest-profile sites on the list for new UC housing is People’s Park, where the university wants to build units for 800-1,000 students as well as partnering with an affordable housing group to build 125 units of supportive housing for homeless youth and others. There would also be a display of the park’s history to illustrate the counter-cultural 1969 riots between protestors and law enforcement.

Long considered undevelopable because of its significant place in Berkeley’s past, the idea of building housing at People’s Park has grown more politically palatable in recent years. On Feb. 3, three Berkeley officials, Mayor Jesse Arreguín and City Council members Robinson and Lori Droste, had an editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle calling for the park’s development.

A number of people who use the park on a daily basis, such as the People’s Park Defense Union, in addition to historians like Tom Dalzell, who wrote a book on the 5oth anniversary of the 1969 demonstrations, have opposed the development.

UC Berkeley is hosting three open houses, including one Monday, Feb. 10, from 4-8 p.m. in the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union Ballroom, to discuss the idea. There are no official architectural plans yet, but the university aims to have some housing built by 2024.

The park lies near the center of the Southside neighborhood, adjacent to multiple lots that consultant Welch’s survey found could be redeveloped under the proposed zoning changes.

“As we move forward with implementing the chancellor’s housing initiative and the Peoples Park housing project, we look forward to working collaboratively with the city and the community on housing projects that improve the student experience on the Southside,” Dan Mogulof, a campus spokesman, said Thursday.

Update 2/11: The story was corrected after publication after Matthai Chakko, a city spokesman, said the use of the word “plan” suggested the commission had a predetermined vision for the Southside. The word “study” was substituted instead to show that zoning changes will be made only after research is done and the EIR is approved. 

Freelancer Brandon Yung likes to say he receives his education from Berkeley — the city as much as the university. As a former lead city government reporter for the Daily Californian, Brandon has reported...