North Berkeley BART station. Friday, Aug. 6, 2021.
BART planners are soliciting input on a plan to help people navigate to the North Berkeley (above) and Ashby BART stations after they are developed into housing. Credit: Zac Farber

There’s still time to weigh in on a plan to improve bike, bus and walking access to the Ashby and North Berkeley BART stations once their parking lots are developed for housing and drive-to-the-train commutes become more difficult.

The transit agency has been gathering comments and polling residents since July 2 on its online open house website. It will be gleaning more opinions until Aug. 20 about the corridor access plan that includes the El Cerrito Plaza station.

BART and its partners will be developing 2,500 units of housing, including both market-rate and affordable units, on the three stations’ parking lots. It is what planners call transit-oriented development, or TOD, where residents live near transit opportunities that take them to work and school. BART planners say the housing development falls within the state and regional needs, within transportation and environmental goals, and will bring much needed housing stock to Berkeley.

“The region is in a housing crisis and BART has a lot of available land,” said Rachel Factor, BART’s principal planner. “It’s a great opportunity to try to add housing to alleviate some of the housing crisis. It’s not going to change the world, but it will make an impact in the Bay Area. The idea is to really provide housing where we can, which is closer to jobs, closer to the University and reduce emissions (from activities like driving).”

Factor said the lesson that planners learned from many open houses about BART development is that the majority of residents want to maximize housing in the areas around BART and increase the amount of affordable housing.

North Berkeley BART station. Friday, Aug. 6, 2021.
A bus stops outside the North Berkeley BART station on Friday. Credit: Zac Farber

Greg Magofña, 37, grew up in Alameda and has been living in Berkeley for about 20 years, since he started attending UC Berkeley. Watching the region change dramatically in that time — and price many residents out — is part of what led him to help found North Berkeley Now! and East Bay for Everyone, groups that lobby for a denser cityscape that’s more friendly to pedestrians and cyclists.

“I moved here because Berkeley is supposed to be a welcoming, accepting place to thrive, but now it’s only a place to thrive only if you have $1.5 million to spend on housing,” Magofña said. “We think these are big opportunities not only to build more housing so more people can live in our city, but also build affordable housing so our city can be more diverse, diverse as it was in the 70s.”

But with the housing taking up three BART parking lots, plenty of pushback has come from BART riders who rely on the low-cost parking lots to get to their jobs in San Francisco and elsewhere. That’s why BART is asking for input; planners realize that some BART riders will find the loss of parking near the stations challenging.

BART planners say they need to partially reinvent how riders get to the trains. They are taking input on all types of access opportunities, including biking, cargo biking, busing, walking, and maintaining driving options, around the stations. Factor said they are thinking about creative solutions, like adding bike parking, or even exploring parking space sharing at the new residential developments.

“If we had the money and the space to build everything for everybody, we would do it, but we don’t,” BART planner Factor said. “We fully understand there still will be a need for people to park and we’re sensitive to those needs.”

BART statistics show that 18% of riders who take BART from the Ashby station drive there and park, and 25% of riders who take BART from the North Berkeley station drive and park. Those are pre-COVID-19 figures, taken in 2015, and they are down from 2008 figures that found that 25% of Ashby riders and 41% of North Berkeley riders would drive and park.

New parking spaces cost roughly $70,000 to build, and because construction costs are increasing, those costs will increase as time goes by. The North Berkeley and Ashby BART stations currently have a combined 1,537 parking spaces. Input on the corridor access plan will be one measurement planners will use to determine how many parking spaces will be available in the area in the future.

Magofña said he’d love to see a new four-story parking structure built to accommodate drivers, but housing is way more important.

“It’s a weird message to send to people that my $40,000 piece of metal is more important than changing someone’s life,” Magofña said. “We’re trying to make the spaces, spaces of progressive values that actually help promote the things we want, the diversity of people, diversity of thought, diversity of backgrounds. But cars are not diversity. Empty cars sitting there do not enrich our community.”

Robert Brokl and Alfred Crofts live on the Berkeley border. While BART outreach planners talked to folks at a recent Saturday Downtown Berkeley Farmers Market, Brokl walked by and, with a loud voice directed at the planners, said he thought BART was in the market of providing public transportation, not housing.

“I think they really switched their focus and emphasis,” he said later. “The transportation system is really inadequate in terms of getting people to work. And it has pushed people into the suburbs.”

He said BART is building housing for the “bourgeois,” and no one is addressing the region’s growing unhoused population.

Development “has to be done in a very thoughtful way with a lot of buy-in,” Brokl said.

BART’s Factor said the corridor plan will also improve sidewalks, bike lanes, lighting and public spaces, among other upgrades. The corridor access plan is being funded by Caltrans and the Federal Transit Administration.

Credit: BART

Credit: BART

Credit: BART

Laura Casey is a freelance writer covering Berkeley and the East Bay. A lifelong journalist, she has written for a number of local publications. She is also a full-time investigator at an East Bay law...