An aerial view of the Ashby BART station and surrounding area. Image: City of Berkeley/BART

Berkeley’s efforts to help lead the charge to build hundreds of new apartments at the Ashby and North Berkeley BART stations have landed the city at the top of the transit agency’s list for short-term development plans.

A draft BART work plan from August puts both stations into the next round of development underway between now and 2025. There will still be extensive public input and many details to work out, but officials lauded the achievement Monday night at the first large-scale community workshop in 2020 about BART’s development plans in Berkeley.

In 2018, the state gave BART the authority under Assembly Bill 2923 to develop housing on its property as part of efforts to address California’s housing crisis. In recent years in Berkeley, hundreds of community members around the North Berkeley and Ashby BART stations have been engaged in extensive discussions about the future of their neighborhoods, laying the groundwork for what could come next. City officials and staff have also been working closely with BART to help clarify what the planning process might look like around the region and answer questions other cities have been asking.

More than 200 people attended Monday night’s Zoom call to weigh in on issues such as how much affordable housing should be built at each station and what sort of amenities people would like to see.

Mayor: “It’s critical that we think big”

In his opening remarks, Mayor Jesse Arreguín said both projects will help the city “meet a set of urgent needs” to build more housing and address historic injustices in Berkeley related to gentrification and displacement.

“This is the time when it’s critical that we think big,” he said. “Tonight is about digging deeper: How are we going to take this vision and passion and make this a reality?”

After brief introductions from local officials, including council members Ben Bartlett and Rashi Kesarwani, consultant Karen Murray from urban design firm Van Meter Williams Pollack briefly described several broad concepts under consideration at the North Berkeley and Ashby stations.

Berkeley BART concepts: The top row shows three concepts under consideration at the North Berkeley station and the bottom row shows the concepts under consideration at Ashby. Image: COB/BART

Berkeley will have to consider the tradeoffs, Murray said, between more extensive development with a higher price tag and more moderate plans that might cost less and move faster.

At Ashby, she said, the flea market “is present” in all three scenarios, though its ultimate location has not been determined. The project team is looking at how the city might reconfigure Adeline Street, including a possible “road diet” and changes to how traffic flows through the area.

Murray also said a parking lot east of the Ed Roberts campus is slated to see development as part of what officials are considering.

At the North Berkeley station, she said, the goal will be to connect the site to the nearby greenway, limit non-residential uses, and “step down” any buildings for a smoother transition to the surrounding neighborhood of mostly single-family homes. One of the concepts removes vehicles and parking from the site to a large extent.

Meetings on financial feasibility set for October

For both stations, yellow boxes in the concept drawings illustrate where development might happen. There were no real specifics available Monday about any of the concepts, but members of the project team said much more analysis and information will be provided at later meetings.

After Murray spoke, community members split into breakout groups to discuss aspects of the plans and share their priorities. At the end of the night, members of the project team quickly shared some of the themes that emerged and pledged to take all the feedback into account.

City officials said they look forward to hearing more from the community as the process continues. The next public meetings are slated to take place in October and December (see page 38). Their focus will be several financial feasibility studies, which will be important material for anyone following the BART planning process to digest.

Kesarwani, who represents the neighborhood around the North Berkeley station, pledged to ensure the designs for both stations make them “safe and accessible for everyone.”

“We will do this by listening to the range of perspectives in our community so that we can reach a consensus together,” she said.

Bartlett, who represents South Berkeley, pointed out that projects like this will increase equity on many levels and help drive economic recovery at a critical time.

“We’re facing the most severe economic recession and depression since the 1930s,” he said.

North Berkeley BART station. Image: COB/BART

BART directors Lateefah Simon and Rebecca Saltzman also attended Monday’s meeting, along with other staff from the transit agency. Saltzman pointed out that the BART Board of Directors voted just last week to adopt the principles that will guide development at all of its stations.

Those principles include working in partnership with local communities and incorporating local design standards into the plans.

Displacement concerns helped BART prioritize Berkeley

The principles also appear in BART’s draft work plan, which Saltzman and others referenced Monday night. She said BART intends to choose developers for all of the near-term stations — both Berkeley stations, Rockridge, MacArthur and El Cerrito — within the next five years.

According to the draft document, BART will select developers for one or two of those stations each year.

BART came up with the near-term group, according to the work plan, by looking at “areas experiencing displacement and high-opportunity communities at the core of the system” in an effort to prioritize housing for lower-income residents and “advance racial and economic equity.”

According to the work plan, Ashby and North Berkeley ranked high on BART’s assessment of market readiness for residential development. Ashby also ranked high in the “local support” category. North Berkeley did not appear on that particular list.

On Monday night, Saltzman also pointed out that BART had applied for — and recently won — a $2.7 million planning grant to help address concerns around affordable housing, station design and access and parking.

“These grants are going to help us as we move forward to solidify these projects,” Saltzman said.

On Tuesday, Saltzman credited Berkeley staff and officials for working so closely in partnership with BART to shape the planning process.

In December, Berkeley officials unanimously approved an agreement with BART about development plans, putting it ahead of the pack as far as local cities hoping to see development first. The BART board approved that agreement earlier this year.

Saltzman also noted that all the emails the BART board received last week prior to its vote on development principles came from people in Berkeley who support housing at one or both local stations. No one from any other city wrote to weigh in, she said, a sign of Berkeley’s deep engagement already in the planning process.

Simon, the BART board president, said Monday night that she was confident the community members who have been advocating for a “more equitable Berkeley” would have a voice in shaping what ultimately gets built in the city.

And, while both projects may not ultimately have 100% affordable housing — as some have said they want to see — Simon pledged to “get as far as we can” with that goal.

“We only have once in a lifetime to do this right,” she said.

Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist...