From 7 stories to 12: Commission backs taller height limit for BART housing

The City Council is set to vote on the controversial zoning change, which one commissioner called a “fireball,” later this spring.

Members of the Planning Commission endorsed zoning changes that would allow for 12-story housing developments at the North Berkeley BART station. Credit: Zac Farber

A divided Planning Commission voted late Wednesday night to endorse zoning rules that set a 12-story height limit for new housing developments atop parking lots at the North Berkeley and Ashby BART stations.

The 5-4 vote was a victory for advocates who contend one of the best ways for Berkeley to respond to both the housing crisis and the threat of climate change is to turn those parking lots into dense new transit-oriented developments, where residents will be less likely to get around by car. The rules endorsed by the commission would have a combined zoned capacity — the maximum number of housing units that could be built at the stations — of 3,600 homes, up from a previous recommendation of 2,400.

“In 10 years, we’ll be kicking ourselves if we squander the opportunity to house as many people as possible by BART,” North Berkeley resident Sarah Bell told the commission in one of more than 50 public comments Wednesday.

Planning Commission Chair Elisa Mikiten, who voted against the 12-story height limit, cautioned that the provision will be a “fireball” for the City Council, which has the final say on the zoning rules.

City staff recommended Berkeley limit projects at the stations to no more than seven stories — the lowest height cap allowed under a 2018 state law that slashed local authority to block or restrict development on BART property. One faction of public speakers and Planning Commission members backed that limit Wednesday night.

Mikiten and others noted developers can exceed local zoning caps by up to 50% if they include enough affordable apartments in their buildings under California’s “density bonus” law. So, for example, if the city zones the stations for 12-story buildings, a developer who agrees to set aside at least 24% of their project’s units for renters who are considered low-income would be allowed to build a structure that stands up to 18 stories — as tall as the new hotel that opened in downtown Berkeley earlier this year.

“I think that’s a completely different conversation than the community has had” about development at the sites, Mikiten said. “To some degree zoning is a covenant, and we are breaking it.”

What kind of project is right for lots?

Other speakers echoed the view that high-rises would be far out of scale with housing that surrounds the Ashby and North Berkeley stations today, which is mainly single-family homes and smaller apartments.

“I support reasonable development,” said Leslie Valas, one of the public commenters who opposed the higher limit. “I don’t want a 12-story building in the middle of North Berkeley,”

Backers of a higher cap responded that developers may not necessarily build to the maximum allowed by zoning or the density bonus law, and instead argued the higher limits would give projects more flexibility to include a range of building types and designs. They also pointed to the city’s environmental review of the zoning changes, which called a 12-story limit the “environmentally superior alternative” because it would allow more people to live within steps of public transit.

“The context that we’re in today is one of a housing supply crisis and an environmental, climate change crisis,” Planning Commissioner Savlan Hauser said. “Frankly, the single-family home next to a regional transit system … is the housing type that is out of context — not the 12- or greater-story building.”

The City Council will discuss the zoning provisions at a work session on April 19, and is expected to vote on the rules May 31.

There are not yet any specific project proposals on the table for the two stations’ parking lots, which for years have been the subject of one of Berkeley’s most intense housing debates. Once the zoning updates and other planning work are complete, projects are expected to go through Berkeley’s approval process in 2023 and 2024, according to estimates shared by staff, with construction potentially starting in 2025.

BART has been ramping up its efforts throughout the Bay Area to spur construction of dense new housing developments on the parking lots that surround many of its stations. The projects can be a source of revenue for the transit system on two fronts: developers pay to lease BART’s property, and research shows residents who move into their buildings are much more likely than those who live farther away to be frequent riders.

Transit system staff last month announced their recommendation that developers substantially scale back the amount of commuter parking offered at both stations when they build over the lots, calling for no more than 200 spots at North Berkeley, which now has 700, and 85 at Ashby, which has 535.

Debate centers on affordable housing, height

In separate votes Wednesday night, the Planning Commission unanimously endorsed a set of other items relating to development at the stations, including the environmental review for new zoning regulations and a “Joint Vision and Priorities” document. That document, which will be incorporated into BART’s process for selecting developers to build on the sites, covers a range of local desires for the project — including that at least 35% of its units be affordable. The City Council voted last year to set aside $53 million in housing funds to ensure that target is hit.

Still, it was the question of height limits that dominated the discussion.

Several speakers, many of them neighbors of the North Berkeley station, argued that a taller development, which could require more expensive construction methods, would not make a dent in the city’s dire shortage of affordable housing. They instead argued for a smaller project with a higher percentage of affordable units.

“It doesn’t matter how many stories, it does not solve the affordability issue,” Scott Selmanoff, who lives across the street from the station lot, told the commission. “I don’t see how you’re going to build your way out of that, and I’m shocked that people want to build 12 stories [or] 20 stories.”

Supporters of a higher height limit said their strategy will create more affordable housing. Even if the percentage of below-market-rate units in a development is lower, they contend, the ultimate number of affordable apartments could be higher if they’re part of a bigger project.

“Why would we limit ourselves?” Commissioner Barnali Ghosh said. “For me, height is secondary – the primary goal is, how do we maximize affordability? How do we maximize [the number of] affordable apartments? If we have to go taller to do that, I don’t have a problem with that.”

Nico Savidge is Berkeleyside's senior reporter covering city hall. Email: nico@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: NSavidge.