berkeley planning commission zoom screenshot
The Berkeley Planning Commission and city staff during their virtual meeting on Sept. 16, 2020. Credit: Berkeley Planning Commission

The Adeline Corridor Specific Plan will move forward to the City Council with a goal of 100% affordable housing after fierce debate — and five years of legwork — surrounding housing possibilities at Ashby BART in South Berkeley.

Extensive public comment from residents of the historically Black neighborhood, local housing advocates, business improvement districts and displaced residents carried the discussion over two meetings, one on Sept. 16 and another Wednesday night.

The majority of speakers were in favor of affordable housing and a “right to return” for Black families pushed out of the area by gentrification and redlining, and the disastrous impact of Ashby BART’s construction on this community in the late 1960’s — both of which are addressed in the plan.

The main disagreement came down to whether 100% affordable housing would be financially unrealistic and result in no housing at all, as suggested by South Berkeley Now, which favored high density and a number of total overall units over percentage. The original draft plan aimed for 50% affordable housing, in line with BART’s memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the city last December.

construction at the Adeline Corridor
Adeline Street between Ashby Avenue and Derby Street in South Berkeley. Aug. 24, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos Credit: Pete Rosos

Friends of Adeline and Healthy Black Families supported the commission’s choice and maintained throughout the discussion that 100% affordable housing was the only way forward based on years of discussion with residents pushed out of South Berkeley. Commissioner Chris Schildt, who was also in the Adeline Plan subcommittee , supported this perspective and pushed for 100% affordable housing throughout.

The staff recommendation ultimately adopted by the Planning Commission agreed to “strive for a goal of 100% affordable deed-restricted affordable housing, prioritizing extremely low and very low [income] affordable housing,” but did not include a specific number. This will be determined through meetings of the Community Advisory Group (CAG), which is one of the processes agreed upon in the MOU.

The CAG held its first meeting in June and is in the first stages of discussion, meaning the plan is far from having a developer, a design, or beginning construction.

COVID-19 could impact the feasibility of affordable housing projects

Through 2040, the Adeline Corridor Specific Plan has room for 1,450 residential units and 65,000 square feet of commercial space. This is not a development cap, but a “reasonably foreseeable maximum development” plan, Principal Planner Alisa Shen said. About half of the proposed units, whatever the number is determined to be, fall on BART property.

Several people who opposed 100% affordable housing were concerned it would violate the 50% affordable housing MOU and force BART to build 100% affordable units. Mayor Jesse Arreguín and Councilmember Ben Bartlett, who oversees the Adeline Corridor, also sent a letter to the planning commission asking them to be cautious with any language that could violate the MOU.

Commissioners maintained that the final recommendation was just a goal, however, and Chair Robb Kapla said ongoing discussions would make sure the planning commission wouldn’t be agreeing to 100% affordable housing if the number of units was meaningless.

South Berkeley Now additionally argued the plan amounted to illegal downzoning under state Sen. Nancy Skinner’s SB 330, but Shen said it was cleared by the city attorney and actually amounts to a “modest upzoning” in the proposed tier system.

This system has four subareas, South Shattuck, North Adeline, Ashby and South Adeline, and sets density, height, floor area ratio, lot coverage, setback and open space requirements for each neighborhood. Shen said during the Sept. 16 meeting that the new density standard (120 units/acre for Tier 1) results in more affordable units because the existing zoning has no set numeric standard for maximum density.

tier requirements Adeline Plan
Tier requirements vary for different areas in the Adeline Corridor Specific Plan. This one refers to the “South Shattuck” subarea. Photo: Staff Report Credit: Berkeley Staff Report
Tier requirements vary for different areas in the Adeline Corridor Specific Plan. This one refers to the “South Shattuck” subarea. Photo: Staff Report Credit: Berkeley Staff Report

Advocates with South Berkeley Now were not convinced by this argument, partly due to the feasibility of the other tiers, which allow for more density. They said market-rate housing is required to subsidize affordable housing, and 100% affordable housing is an obstacle if extensive public subsidies aren’t in place.

Rick Jacobus, an affordable housing consultant for the city with Street Level, said to the planning commission on Sept. 16 that “we have to make policy now a little bit in the dark” as markets are upturned by the COVID-19 pandemic. While increasing density boosts the value of the project, he said, it also makes it more expensive. Paired with rising construction costs, he said developers’ willingness to pursue the more affordable tiers could be unpredictable.

During their meeting on Wednesday, the planning commission also approved a set of “companion recommendations.” They include the City Council setting aside at least $50 million in Measure O and Housing Trust funds for affordable housing.

The CAG will be reviewing a financial feasibility study for the project and has its next meeting on Oct. 14.

Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...