Too often, our housing debates are understood as a zero-sum game between “YIMBY” (Yes In My Backyard) versus “NIMBY” (Not In My Backyard) sentiments. The truth is that we all want what’s best for our neighborhood and our community, and we have a multitude of opinions on how best to reach this goal.

As your elected representative, my responsibility is to listen to you and navigate a path forward that balances your varied perspectives with state law, city regulations and BART requirements. 

To date, our public process has yielded consensus outcomes that comply with state law:

  • In 2021, a “Community Advisory Group” representing a diverse cross-section of our community recommended zoning the Ashby and North Berkeley stations for seven stories — the minimum requirement under state law. The City Council followed the community’s recommendation and unanimously voted for a consensus design of seven stories.  
  • Now, a highly-qualified developer team has proposed a preliminary design concept for community input that adheres to a maximum average height of seven stories in the center, inclusive of a state density bonus, and three to four stories at the perimeter along Delaware, Acton, and Virginia. (A high-density massing diagram that is circulating online is not from the developer and does not represent their proposal.)

How did we get here?

In September 2018, a state bill known as AB 2923 was signed into law, requiring cities to zone BART stations for homes. This law established the requirement to zone the North Berkeley station for a seven-story development. 

The state law also grants all BART developments a “streamlined ministerial approval process,” meaning that a developer can seek a building permit “by-right,” without any review by the City Council. There is no way for Berkeley to avoid or opt out of the development power afforded to BART in state law.

Recognizing the limitations and frustrations of a by-right approval for our community, I was able to negotiate an “objective design standards” process so we would have an opportunity to give input to the developer team on the design of the North Berkeley station. BART agreed to this request, securing $650,000 from the Federal Transit Administration to fund our design process for North Berkeley and Ashby stations.

What’s next?

The objective design standards process for North Berkeley station continues this week with a second community meeting in-person Wednesday or on Zoom on Thursday. 

However, there are limits to what can be done; we’re not free to design whatever we want. BART has agreed to enforce our design so long as it’s not less than 90% of the residential square footage associated with a seven-story development, pursuant to a Memorandum of Agreement adopted in June 2022. This means that we may not have much flexibility to design for something significantly less than the developer’s design concept. But the developer’s proposal also means that fears of a state density bonus project rising to 12 stories are unwarranted. BART will enforce a design that’s generally seven stories, with room for a stepped-down perimeter around the edges of the site. 

I encourage you to attend the meetings this week and engage with the developer team in good faith, so that we can all look forward to a design that works for our community. Let’s seize this opportunity to create a transit village that includes affordable homes, greenery, and neighborhood-serving space all while being sensitive to the existing neighborhood.

Rashi Kesarwani is the city of Berkeley’s District 1 council member.