Planning Commission on BART housing: 7 stories is not enough

The EIR comment period runs through Dec. 1. Learn how to weigh in.

A view from above of the North Berkeley BART station. Image: COB/BART

For some, it may have been a letdown, for others, a relief: This week’s Planning Commission meeting did not, in fact, include a vote on long-term plans to one day replace the North Berkeley and Ashby BART parking lots with high-reaching apartment buildings.

Read more on BART housing plans in past Berkeleyside coverage

Confusion persisted throughout the night as commissioners repeatedly tried to clarify the purpose of Wednesday’s meeting.

“I thought we were taking action,” Commissioner Jeff Vincent told his colleagues on the dais several hours into the meeting. Commissioner Alfred Twu pointed out that the meeting agenda had included language about making a recommendation to the City Council.

“I think the notice was misleading,” Chair Robb Kapla said. Principal city planner Alisa Shen assured those in attendance: “There are many more steps to come.”

Significant near-term milestones for BART’s housing plans include the critique of the draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR), with comments accepted through Dec. 1; the year’s final Community Advisory Group meeting Dec. 6; and subsequent consideration by the Berkeley City Council, slated for spring 2022, of proposed city zoning changes and other key documents. Only then will interested developers start putting more concrete proposals on the table, a process that will trigger another round of robust review.

Don’t miss detailed meeting highlights from Berkeleyside’s live coverage

Despite the advisory nature of the meeting, or perhaps because the public was also confused about what might take place, many community members joined Wednesday night’s Zoom session to make their voices heard. The vociferous response was no surprise, however. The projects have been the subject of extensive community input for years.

On Wednesday, there were two clear camps among the callers: Those pushing for a higher percentage of affordable units in, primarily, somewhat shorter projects overseen by nonprofit developers and those asserting that the best way to get the highest number of affordable units is to build taller buildings. Many of the callers identified themselves as neighbors of the North Berkeley BART station.

Read the draft EIR and learn how to give feedback before the Dec. 1 deadline

For some, “no more than seven stories” was the rallying cry: “Taller than that is just too big for this neighborhood to accommodate,” one person told the commission. The smallest project envisioned in the draft EIR, which considers the “estimated maximum buildout,” is 7 stories with a height of 80 feet on each site and up to 2,400 units across both projects.

Others said their dreams are much bigger. They aligned themselves with the 12-story “Increased Height Alternative” — option 3 in the draft EIR — which could have up to 3,600 units across both projects: “I think that seven stories is a very disappointing number,” said a caller in favor of more housing at the stations.

After public comment, once the subject returned to the Planning Commission for input, the idea of larger projects, up to 9 stories if not taller, seemed to garner substantial support.

Members of the Berkeley Planning Commission and city staff, Nov. 3, 2021. Credit: Berkeleyside

“I really want to see us going higher, and going higher on both sites,” said Commissioner Barnali Ghosh. That would benefit the city in multiple ways, she said, bringing in more neighbors and more transit users, which would in turn boost Berkeley’s economy.

Ghosh and other commissioners expressed support for larger units that would be attractive to families, better public transit options, significant attention to well-considered open space and taller projects to allow for more flexibility in project designs.

“We have to start making sacrifices here. But I also don’t think of density as a sacrifice.”

Ghosh went on to say that she found it “kind of shocking” to hear community members use existing neighborhood heights to justify shorter buildings on the BART sites, particularly in the context of increasingly erratic weather patterns and the growing number of climate refugees Berkeley is likely to see: “We have to start making sacrifices here. But I also don’t think of density as a sacrifice.”

Planner Shen said staff had suggested a 7-story building height, in part, because of the likelihood that developers would use the state density bonus law to add multiple stories to their projects in exchange for including a percentage of affordable units on site. She also noted that 12-story buildings can be difficult to finance.

The “estimated maximum buildout” at both stations currently envisions no BART rider parking on site. The document, still in draft form, looks primarily at environmental impacts and possible mitigations to address them. Credit: City of Berkeley

Commissioners pointed out that construction technology and state regulations are changing — to allow wood where steel was once required, for example — and said the city should take that into consideration in the EIR. They reminded staff to take a long view and avoid language that might be overly “constrictive.”

“The zoning that is allowed in Berkeley today is less than it was in the 1970s.”

Former Berkeley Councilmember Laurie Capitelli was a substitute planning commissioner Wednesday night. He brought the city’s history into the discussion and described how Berkeley had reduced density and adopted “virtually citywide downzoning” when residents approved the Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance decades ago.

“We’re in the pickle we’re in because of our zoning,” Capitelli said. “We as a community downzoned twice in the 1970s. The zoning that is allowed in Berkeley today is less than it was in the 1970s.”

Commissioner Christina Oatfield appeared to be the most circumspect on the issue of height and focused her comments primarily on the percentage of affordable units to be included in the BART projects. She said draft language in the “joint vision” document outlining project priorities for the city and BART references a 35% affordability target.

Oatfield said 35% was “not sufficient” and indicated she would be unlikely to vote in favor of the current proposals: “The work is not done yet.”

35% affordable BART housing units is the minimum

Staff assured commissioners Wednesday that 35% is only a “floor” — and that the affordability target will likely be higher, particularly if the city puts a bond measure on the November 2022 ballot to help finance the community’s vision.

In April, the Berkeley City Council earmarked $53 million to ensure that at least 35% of the BART housing units qualify as affordable. The council vote established that one goal of the bond would be to fund up to 100% affordable housing “at either or both BART sites.”

On Wednesday, Shen reminded the commission it would cost more than $300 million to build 100% below-market-rate units at both sites, according to a consultant’s analysis.

While much of the discussion focused on the overall zoning “envelopes” that will determine maximum project size and density at both sites, Shen said each station development will have its own “objective design standards”: The starting point is the same, due to equity considerations, she said, but the projects may well look different in the end.

In closing remarks, Chair Kapla said his goal is to get “a lot of affordable units” rather than get hung up on a percentage or ratio. To that end, he asked staff about the possibility of adding language to the documents regarding a goal for the total number of affordable units in the projects.

Kapla and others indicated they are more likely to support more housing units and less parking at BART, particularly as the city hopes to reduce the community’s reliance on cars as part of its ambitious climate action goals.

“I’d rather build homes for people,” Kapla said, “than for cars that are used for 45 minutes a day.”

Ghosh used the final moments of the discussion to thank the community for turning out. She said she had tallied up the voices on both sides: “The majority of folks wanted us to go higher.”

See Wednesday night’s presentation and staff report. All project materials are posted on the city website for BART housing plans, along with information on how to get on the email list for updates and how to submit comments on the EIR.

Emilie Raguso is Berkeleyside’s senior editor of news. Email: emilie@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: emraguso. Phone: 510-459-8325.