Opinion: Berkeley needs to zone for 12 stories at BART 

It’s not enough to do the bare minimum required by state law. Berkeley needs bold action on housing and climate.

Fifty years ago, entire city blocks full of homes were torn down and paved over to make way for parking lots at the Ashby and North Berkeley BART stations. Today, with an extreme shortage of housing — especially affordable housing — these parking lots still remain an anachronistic legacy when the overwhelming majority of passengers at these stations walk, bike, or get dropped off

On June 2, Berkeley City Council will have the opportunity to decide on the next 50 years for these stations. Under state law AB 2923, these stations must be re-zoned for housing. However, the Council has a choice: they can restrict the number of new homes to the bare minimum required under this state law, or take the responsible step of planning for the long-term future of these sites and our community. 

As representatives of Berkeley Neighbors for Housing and Climate Action, North Berkeley Now!, and South Berkeley Now!, we believe the Berkeley City Council should take the action recommended by the Planning Commission: zone for 12 stories at Ashby and North Berkeley BART. 

As found in the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR), 12 stories are the environmentally superior choice. The bare minimum option – seven stories – simply does not offer enough opportunities for families, seniors, students, and working adults to live close to BART in all-electric, zero-emission homes. 

The environmentally superior choice is also the superior choice for affordable housing. Today, too many low-income families face long, polluting commutes because of the housing shortage. These families cannot afford to live close to BART, are unlikely to own an electric vehicle, and are more likely to be in-person essential workers. 

Building housing on top of BART is the best way to reduce these commutes and help families get out of their cars. By allowing for additional height, we also guarantee additional homes that are affordable to low-income families. When zoned for up to 12 stories, these two BART stations can accommodate a combined 1,200 more homes than would be allowed under the seven-story option — including over 400 homes affordable to low-income families. That’s hundreds of fewer cars on the road (if not more) and 400 more families that can find a place in our community when they otherwise couldn’t afford it. Limiting the height to seven stories would mean continuing to exclude these families from our community. 

Increasing the height will also increase the amount of green open space. Under the proposed zoning, developers must provide 75 square feet of open space for every unit. Twelve hundred more units mean 90,000 additional square feet of open space — more than two additional acres. A 12-story building is also required to have a smaller footprint (25% less) than a seven-story building, guaranteeing more ground-level area for park space, greenery, and plazas for resident and community needs like the Ashby Flea Market. Zoning for 12 stories doesn’t mean filling every available inch with buildings — it means more housing on a smaller footprint, creating more architectural variety and open space for the community.

More homes also mean more revenue for the city’s tax base, improving services and reducing the burden of bonds on existing homeowners. As the City Council considers new taxes for road repairs, affordable housing, and climate adaptation, we should be looking to maximize the potential revenue and minimize the cost to existing households by increasing the available tax base. New car-free households at BART are the best way to grow our tax base without increasing the burden on our roads and other infrastructure.

Berkeley is required to plan for 8,934 new homes over the next decade – including over 4,000 homes affordable to lower-income households. If Council adopts the recommended 12 stories, this will allow the two BART sites to meet 40% of our target. Limiting the height to seven stories will require the city to plan for those homes to be built elsewhere in the neighborhoods. While we support more housing city-wide, the BART stations are uniquely positioned to create new pedestrian and transit-friendly communities, minimizing the environmental footprint of new residents and reducing impacts on the broader community. Meeting our housing obligations in other neighborhoods is more likely to exacerbate emissions, traffic, and parking concerns for residents already dealing with many of these challenges.

Opponents have issued a host of arguments against the increased height. They assert that taller buildings would be: worse for addressing climate change (false: the Draft Environmental Impact Report says 12 stories is better for addressing climate change); worse for affordable housing (false: the Joint Vision and Priorities Document requires taller buildings to provide more units of affordable housing); and that Berkeley doesn’t need more market-rate housing (false: the Regional Housing Needs Allocation requires us to plan for over 3,600 units of market-rate housing by 2031). 

Berkeley faces a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to plan for the long-term future of our city. Over the next 50 years, the world and climate will change dramatically. We need to ensure our BART stations are prepared to meet the needs of the next 50 years, not the last 50 years. The choice City Council makes on June 2 is not a choice about what our community will experience today, but about what kind of future we will create for our children and grandchildren. When they grow up and ask, “What did you do to fight climate change? And how am I supposed to stay in this community?” What will we tell them?

Ben Gould (lives in District 4), Theo Posselt (District 6) and Oren Cheyette (District 5) serve on the steering committee of the Berkeley Neighbors for Housing and Climate Action (BNHCA, www.bnhca.org), a citywide group of Berkeley neighbors who support transit-oriented, walkable homes at all income levels.
Libby Lee-Egan (District 1) and Eric Johnson (District 5) serve on the steering committee of North Berkeley Now! (NBNow, www.northberkeleynow.org), a group of neighbors working toward a North Berkeley that is welcoming to new neighbors of all kinds.
Teresa Clarke (District 3), Deborah Matthews serves (District 3) and Ariella Granett (District 3) serve on the steering committee of South Berkeley Now! (SBN, www.southberkeleynow.org), a group of neighbors who are advocating for housing, equity, diversity, and investment in South Berkeley.