Berkeley City Council voted June 2 to adopt buildings up to seven stories to be built on the Ashby and North Berkeley BART stations. Other decisions by the city and BART will affect this site and the plans, but this vote signaled a clear victory for neighborhood organizations advocating racial and economic equity and for environmentalists who say that we can make room for new neighbors and maintain enough space for climate resilience.

Vice Mayor Kate Harrison framed the conversation accurately when she cautioned against a “false dichotomy” between suburban sprawl and high-rise towers. In Berkeley, the debate should focus on how to build new housing that protects and promotes climate resilience while advancing racial and economic equity. Berkeley can have a substantial amount of new housing. But, Berkeley’s environment, sustainability and affordability should not be victims of too much density.

The environmental aspect of this vote is important because there are clear lines about how much density is too much. The City Council realized that high rises are not environmentally superior to buildings seven stories or less. 

The United Nation’s climate task force, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, establishes this view. The IPCC says: “Attaining ‘net zero energy use” is easiest in buildings with a large roof area (to host Photo Voltaic arrays) in relation to the building’s energy demand, so a requirement that buildings be NZEB (Net Zero Energy Building) will place a limit on the achievable height and therefore on urban density. In Abu Dhabi, for example, NZEB is possible in office buildings of up to five stories if internal heat gains and lighting and HVAC loads are aggressively reduced.” 

A 2021 study found that amid the new wave of market-rate “transit-oriented developments” residents of those developments continue to own and use automobiles despite the proximity of mass public transit. Affluent people don’t reform their lifestyle because they live close to BART. This essentially passive approach to climate change doesn’t work if the residents continue to drive the same number of miles.

However, the June 2 vote does not end the climate resilience vs. hyper-density debate. Critical policy decisions remain on the table. The first is whether a nonprofit developer builds the BART projects or if a private for-profit developer builds them. The city wields significant power in this decision, and city residents spoke loud and clear that they want a maximum number of affordable units. Nonprofit developers who specialize in affordable housing, build structures with fewer stories, which keep the per square foot costs lower, with lower environmental impacts, and those developers have produced more affordable units than market-rate developers.  

The second front in Berkeley’s sustainability battle has emerged at the Planning Commission over efforts to re-write the zoning code. Rules proposed by city planners to increase density fail to protect Berkeley’s solar power generation capacity. Currently, there are over 3,000 solar arrays in Berkeley, which generate a significant percentage of the town’s electricity. The proposed “one size fits all” rules give zero priority to climate resilience or solar access. Solar panels are the quickest, cheapest, and more direct means to combat climate change by powering our homes, and charging electric vehicles. This vital tool also builds local resilience in the face of increased power blackouts statewide due to “Red-Flag warnings,” increased temperatures causing blackouts on hot days, and lowered hydro-power capacity because drought has drained many of the state’s reservoirs.  

Climate chaos is upon us. Berkeley should not sacrifice its ability to create clean, renewable power with rooftop solar because city planners fail to require thoughtful design that protects solar access.  

But, climate resilience in Berkeley faces significant challenges. At the June 1 Planning Commission meeting, the city’s staff proposed that 35-foot-tall structures built only 4 feet from a property line should not require the upper stories to be “set back” in order to avoid shadows on neighboring properties and solar panels. Members of the public pushed back, saying that the staff’s report unrealistically minimized the impact of these proposed rules on the productivity of neighboring solar panels.   

The city’s planning department also confirmed that these new zoning rules will allow four new apartments, plus an ADU (accessory dwelling unit) for a total of five units on a single property, regardless of lot size, except in the hillside “fire zones.” Consequently, if a builder submits plans for five new units, with one unit labeled “affordable,” the builder could then receive a state “housing density bonus” in height.  City planners acknowledge that these new rules would then allow construction of a 52-foot tall structure, 4 feet from a property line, even on a narrow, 35-foot-wide lot in the Berkeley flatlands. Such a structure would cancel out the productivity of neighboring solar panels, particularly if built to the west or south of the array.  

Hopefully, the City Council will start to include the existential imperative of climate resilience in all of our planning decisions. We should not repeat the mid-20th century mistakes of building gargantuan projects that are environmentally unsupportable. Smart design for our existing urban environment provides a path forward. New neighbors need not mean zero resilience.

Correction: The correct link to a study about the behavior of people with cars who live near transit-oriented developments was added.

Todd Darling, who lives in Berkeley and works as a filmmaker, is a member of the Berkeley Solar Rights Committee.