Opinion: Zoning for high-rise in North Berkeley BART is a mistake

We implore the City Council to adopt the staff recommended zoning and move toward building an affordable, green project that enhances the city.

On April 6, by a one-vote majority, Berkeley’s Planning Commission voted to recommend a 12-story maximum height for housing to be constructed at North Berkeley BART. I’ve been deeply involved in BART’s transit-oriented development effort at North Berkeley for the past four years, and I think this decision is a grave mistake.

High-rise construction is not green. It’s disruptive and expensive. It’d be faster and significantly cheaper per unit to build mid-rise wood-frame apartments and would enable the city to devote more of our money to affordable housing, which is what we really need. There are plenty of vacant market-rate apartments available for those who can afford the rent, and plenty more are coming. Berkeley already exceeds state-defined goals for market-rate housing, but not for affordable homes. Construction of high-rise steel and concrete produces far more greenhouse gasses than wood-based approaches. (See the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report for a good summary.)

It overrides years of work by the staff and public for a 7-story maximum. The relevant law (AB 2923) requires a seven-story minimum, which the city staff incorporated into the zoning. The law does not require a higher minimum height. We think the City Council should respect the process and work done by the staff in drafting the zoning. I and the 300-plus households who belong to the North Berkeley Neighborhood Alliance urge the council to adopt the zoning that the city staff proposed. The only buildings that are 12 or more stories tall are in downtown Berkeley.

The city is at a disadvantage under the law: After the site is zoned, a developer can build anything that complies with the zoning, and the city has no right to contest a design that it considers problematic because AB 2923 gives the developer a vested right to build before any designs are approved, something never done before. Developers have another advantage: The city will be contributing millions of our tax dollars to build affordable housing, which is great, but the developer can apply our money toward a density bonus, which enables it to build six stories higher — a total of 18 stories — without approval from the city. This is simply immoral: The density bonus is supposed to provide an incentive for developers to use their own money to create affordable housing. They should not be permitted to gain this advantage without paying for it.

The impact of building at the scale narrowly recommended by the Planning Commission is profound and highly negative. How about a green-built, contextual, mostly or entirely affordable project proposed by the Berkeley design firm Opticos in 2017, shown below.

This rendering of affordable housing at the North Berkeley BART station was proposed by the Berkeley design firm Opticos. Credit: Opticos

In closing, we implore the City Council to do what is best for its current and future residents and the Earth: Adopt the staff recommended zoning and move toward building an affordable, green project that enhances the city, not a walled-in island of empty market-rate rentals. In addition, the council should revise the Joint Vision and Priorities document to prioritize affordable housing rather than the rapid production of unneeded market-rate rentals.


Update: Two renderings in this opinion piece were removed.

Tony Corman is a member of the North Berkeley Neighborhood Alliance steering committee.