With Thursday’s vote, 5,400 new residents — or perhaps thousands more — could one day call North Berkeley and Ashby BART home. Credit: Lance Knobel

Berkeley officials unanimously approved zoning guidelines early Friday morning for housing projects at two of the city’s BART stations, setting the height limit at seven stories and the unit count at 2,400.

See Berkeleyside’s full Twitter thread for more council highlights

The buildings, at the Ashby and North Berkeley stations, could ultimately rise up to 12 stories, with 3,600 units, if developers take advantage of a state law called the density bonus that allows for extra height when affordable housing is part of the equation. Construction could begin by 2025 and be complete by 2030.

“Seven stories is a huge win for housing in Berkeley,” said Mayor Jesse Arreguín shortly before the 12:25 a.m. vote. “I think we can do this in a way that’s thoughtful, that’s contextual and that reflects the city’s vision and priorities.”

Staff estimated that seven-story projects would bring more than 5,400 new residents to the city and result in 465 new jobs amid 125,000 square feet of commercial space, according to Thursday’s staff report. Twelve-story buildings could add 8,100 new residents, staff wrote, which would represent nearly half of the 18,000-person population increase Berkeley is projected to see by 2040.

Developer selection and actual project designs will come down the line.

Due to their scale and the massive transformation they will entail, community interest in the BART projects has been intense. Public comment during Thursday night’s special City Council meeting, which focused exclusively on BART, lasted for more than three hours. Hundreds of people attended the hybrid meeting via the online Zoom platform and in person.

The Berkeley City Council chambers on Thursday night, June 2, 2022. Credit: Citizen reporter

Many attendees urged officials to approve at least 12 stories, in line with a Planning Commission recommendation in April. They cited the urgent need for housing in California, the impending climate crisis, and the city’s legacy of restrictive housing covenants, which mostly limited African Americans and other minorities to homes in South and West Berkeley.

Many others said seven stories should be the maximum, and that higher would be “overwhelming” and out-of-scale with the neighborhood of mostly single-family homes. Supporters of this view included members of a group called Neighbors Not Towers who said they were part of a 1,400-person voting bloc in Berkeley.

“If you do not vote this way,” one member of the group told council, “you will lose our future votes and all of our future support going forward.”

Ultimately, council members said 12 stories had not been a truly viable option for the base project due to the scope of the Environmental Impact Report: The EIR had studied a maximum of 12 stories, or 3,600 units. It did not consider the potential impacts of a larger project, which could come about through a density bonus. As a result, council had been told “it would not be advisable” to go that route.

Berkeley BART housing: A once-in-a-generation opportunity

Discussions about the housing that might one day replace Berkeley’s BART parking lots date back to 2018. They have involved extensive input and efforts by countless city and BART staff, officials and community members.

Last year, the Berkeley City Council earmarked $53 million for the projects to ensure that at least 35% of their units are affordable. (The exact affordability thresholds have not been set.)

Some hope that percentage will go even higher: Many Ashby neighbors, in particular, have lobbied for a 100% affordable project at that station in line with the Adeline Corridor plan.

Mayor Arreguín called the BART projects a “once-in-a-generation opportunity.” Between the number of units planned and the projects’ commitment to affordability, they should make a significant impact on Berkeley’s housing needs.

Project agreements will give the community more control

Council had four related items up for consideration Thursday night. In addition to the zoning guidelines, which were the most contentious of the bunch, officials also voted to certify an analysis of potential environmental impacts, and adopt both the official agreement between BART and the city as well as the Joint Vision and Priorities document.

Together, the materials “provide transparency for the City, BART, the community and future developer teams regarding the next steps of the process and roles regarding developer selection, affordable housing phasing and funding, [objective design standards], minimum project requirements, cooperation regarding seeking grants and resolving issues such as managing parking around the stations,” according to Thursday night’s staff report.

They also represent years of community engagement work and are the culmination of those efforts, staff wrote.

Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani said the objective design standards, which officials will be working to develop over the next 18 months or so, will be a critical piece of the puzzle in terms of ensuring that residents continue to be able to shape the projects.

“That is a really important mechanism for our community to have a very strong voice,” she said. “That was a key piece of negotiation that we had with BART.”

The Joint Vision and Priorities document is also important, she said, because it lets developers know what the city wants and provides the criteria for developer selection.

“This is not just a lofty set of goals that will be set aside,” Kesarwani said. “It will be baked into the process going forward.”

Councilmember Lori Droste said she saw the new Berkeley zoning guidelines as a win for everyone.

“I think we’re really getting something that the advocates in our community on either side can be proud of,” she said.

“We are going to build paradise on a parking lot,” said Councilmember Rigel Robinson, “and I am so excited for that future.”

When BART came, it cut through South Berkeley “like a knife”

Get updates from the city about BART housing plans. See past Berkeleyside coverage.

Officials and staff made it clear Thursday night that, while the votes represented a major milestone, there are still years of work and community input to come.

“There are many more steps still to be taken,” Paul Buddenhagen from the Berkeley city manager’s office said early in the evening.

“I look forward to coming back before the City Council with decision points on affordable housing, Objective Design Standards, and more as we all focus on building new housing at a variety of income levels,” he said, “to address the city’s housing crisis, stem the displacement of residents — especially of the African American community in Berkeley — and support more equitable access to housing for lower-income families and individuals.”

Displacement, particularly of Black Berkeleyans, was a powerful and recurring theme Thursday night in both council and community remarks.

Scholar Paul Lee, a Friends of Adeline member and Black Berkeley native, recalled to officials during public comment how BART construction in the 1960s had resulted in the demolition of the once-vibrant South Berkeley Square.

It “was the northern end of South Berkeley’s vital business and entertainment district, but it also included homes and apartments. The construction of the BART station not only wiped out this still-robust square, whose businesses spoke to ‘Black’ people’s needs, desires and dreams, but it also disrupted for nearly five years the businesses south of it,” Lee told officials.

He also described how activist Mable “Mama” Howard, who is Black, had worked to limit the impacts of BART construction on the city by pushing to bury the train tracks underground. But damage would still be done.

“Even underground, those tracks cut through South Berkeley’s chief artery like a knife slicing through a jugular vein,” he said. “Many of our businesses and entertainment venues bled out west, to Sacramento Street, or south, to East Oakland. Tragically, most couldn’t survive this violent dislocation and soon died.”

Mable Howard and her daughter, Mildred in 1985. Courtesy: Pam Uzzell

Internationally acclaimed artist Mildred Howard, daughter of Mable, also addressed officials Thursday night. She urged them to think hard about displacement. Before BART, she said, the Berkeley population was more than 20% Black. Now, it’s closer to 7%.

“You go into South Berkeley now and you don’t see Black people at all. Where are they?” Howard said. “I’m a college graduate. I have a master’s degree in art and I can’t afford to live in Berkeley.”

Howard was forced out of Berkeley in 2017 when her rent doubled. Her family had moved to South Berkeley in 1947.

South Berkeley Councilmember Ben Bartlett said the new housing projects at BART would begin to address some of those historic wrongs.

“Fifty years ago, this neighborhood was stolen from the people,” he said. “This community was left with a deep scar. Now, we take the first step toward healing.”

Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...