In the coming months, plans to build new housing at two Berkeley BART stations will begin to solidify and discussions around height, parking and affordability levels are likely to heat up.
Read more on Berkeleyside about housing plans at Berkeley BART stations
Meetings about the project have been going on for years, and actual project designs are not expected until 2022. Construction is even further off.
But what’s happening now is important because it will define the parameters for large new apartment buildings that are slated to replace what are now parking lots at the North Berkeley and Ashby BART stations.
The Planning Commission is charged with recommending language to the Berkeley City Council to set out “the envelope and limits” of what can be built: “It is not the actual project,” principal planner Alisa Shen told officials Wednesday.
The 2018 directive from the state to build housing at Bay Area BART stations in an effort to address the ongoing housing crisis means that local discretion will be more restricted than is typically the case for Berkeley, with a streamlined timeline for review.
To date, the city has been working with BART and a Community Advisory Group to establish language and standards that ensure Berkeley can shape the project in response to local context to the greatest extent possible under the law.
Regulations require the city to allow projects with a density of at least 75 units per acre and a height of seven stories or more, among other characteristics. That does not mean developers will submit projects that max out that scale, but the city’s zoning language must allow for it.
Wednesday’s meeting drew high interest from the community, with nearly two hours of comment from the public and commissioners following a detailed presentation from Shen.
For those who have been following the project, common themes have emerged. They recurred this week.
The strongest community position Wednesday, in terms of number of voices and a unified front, was from those asking the city to maximize density and build as many units as possible, including in North Berkeley. They cited the ongoing housing and climate crises as mandates for the call.
There were also a number of neighbors, particularly around the North Berkeley station, who have pushed for a smaller project that is more sensitive to the existing context of single-family homes.
“We don’t need sky-high buildings, we need reasonable developments,” said Meryl Siegal from North Berkeley. “We want to see the sky. Everyone should be able to enjoy where they live and not be crammed.”
Other local residents in that camp said they were concerned about the possible destruction of the neighborhood should BART build too big.
But others said North Berkeley suffers from a lack of diversity — racial and economic — due to a history of redlining and other racist practices.
One North Berkeley man called the neighborhood “a living testament to white supremacy,” adding: “I would like to see that destroyed.”
Parking and station access continue to be a controversial subject. Many neighbors have said surrounding streets will be flooded with BART users if enough parking isn’t built.
But others have said that building parking has been found to encourage driving, which the city should not be doing if it hopes to achieve its climate action goals.
One commissioner said BART has found that the parking issue may not be as big of a problem as people think in Berkeley, and that many people who drive to the stations actually live within walking distance. That analysis is underway.
There appears to be agreement from all sides that transit access to the stations should be improved with a solution such as better shuttle service, and that BART must make it easier and safer for pedestrians and cyclists to get to BART.
There also appears to be growing support for a “road diet,” particularly near Ashby BART, to narrow the streets. This would limit vehicle access while creating more space for alternative modes of transportation, supporters say.
Affordable housing at both stations continues to be of broad concern. The city has said it will cost $53 million — from city coffers alone, not including other subsidies — to achieve 35% affordable housing at both stations, and more than $300 million for 100% affordable housing. There has been discussion of a new bond measure to help foot the bill.
Local resident Janis Ching, who lives near Ashby BART, said the city must take the subject seriously and take action if it hopes to meet its commitments. She pointed out that the Adeline Corridor plan has a goal of 50% affordable housing in the area: “I don’t understand how we’re going to get there if we build only 35%” on public land, she said.
Others noted that, while they support affordable housing, setting the bar too high may keep the projects from getting built for years. One speaker from South Berkeley said the idea of 100% affordable housing is a fantasy: “Let’s stop playing games,” he said. “I want real units on the ground to house people in the next few years.”
Planning commissioners made brief comments about the presentation but, for the most part, said they would have a meatier discussion when the zoning standards return.
Staff said a date for that discussion has not been set, but that it is expected to take place in October or November.
See project documents on the city website
At that time, the commission will hold a public hearing on the draft City-BART Joint Vision Priority document, proposed zoning and General Plan amendments and the Draft Environmental Impact Report.
“Staff will bring these comments forward to the City Council for consideration, along with an update to the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the City and BART that addresses the next steps in the overall planning process for the two BART sites,” according to the staff report.