A small, plain and industrial-looking building surrounded by barbed-wire fences occupies the foreground. Beyond it is the three-story building at the northwest corner of the intersection of Adeline Street and Ashby Avenue.
BART plans to upgrade and expand this facility, called a traction power substation, at the Ashby station. The new substation would be 15 feet tall and 180 feet long, and occupy a prominent place in the planned new housing development at the South Berkeley transit stop. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

City officials have described the effort to build housing at the Ashby BART station as a step to repair the harm caused to South Berkeley when blocks of homes and businesses were cleared to build the mass transit system.

But residents and community groups say BART is poised to undermine that goal with its plan to put a bulky piece of electrical infrastructure in a prominent spot at the station.

“It’s a violation of the community’s trust,” Ayanna Davis, the deputy executive director of the South Berkeley nonprofit Healthy Black Families, said during a special City Council meeting Tuesday night where BART officials were grilled about the plan. “We feel like this is a disrespect to the Adeline Corridor community.”

Meanwhile, long-running negotiations continue between the city and BART over a community benefits package that would be tied to the plans for hundreds of new homes atop the Ashby station’s parking lot. The project has now fallen more than a year behind a similar effort underway at the North Berkeley station, though Mayor Jesse Arreguín said the two sides hope to reach an agreement later this year.

The latest source of tension between BART and South Berkeley residents centers on the transit system’s plan to expand a facility known as a traction power substation, which today occupies a small space in the north corner of the parking lot where housing will be built.

The substation takes in electricity from the PG&E grid and converts it into the power that makes BART trains move. There are dozens of the facilities at stations throughout the BART system, and the agency is upgrading them over the coming years as part of a multi-billion dollar project to increase its capacity and run more trains.

BART’s designs call for a new substation at the Ashby stop that would be 180 feet long and 15 feet tall. The facility would sit in the parking lot below Adeline Street, occupying nearly all of the space between the station concourse and the busy intersection of Adeline and Ashby Avenue.

Pedestrians on that portion of the Adeline Street sidewalk, which project boosters had hoped to line with businesses and housing to create a more attractive space, would instead walk past a 10-foot sound wall.

A graphic shows a satellite view of the Ashby BART station, including the proposed location of an expanded traction power substation.
A BART graphic shows where the transit system wants to build a new power facility at the Ashby station. The facility would occupy much of the space between the station concourse and the busy intersection of Adeline Street and Ashby Avenue. Credit: BART

“The area that this expanded power station will occupy is envisioned by the community to be a vibrant business incubator space that addresses historic harm to an area that was a center of Black businesses in the city,” Wilhelmenia Wilson, Healthy Black Families’ executive director, told BART officials. “At its current position in your plans, this substation is a disruption of that vision.”

Wilson joined with other members of the public and several council members to argue that BART should consider putting the new substation in a less-prominent spot on the Ashby property, moving it to another parcel of BART-owned land or building it below ground, which the system does with some substations in San Francisco.

But while BART officials pledged to provide the council and public with more information about the project, they made no commitment to move the substation.

BART engineers consider the location near Adeline the best place for the facility, said Deb Castles, the agency’s principal property development officer. Substations are only built underground in rare instances when an above-ground option isn’t feasible, Castles said, since doing so makes it harder for maintenance staff or emergency crews to access the critical equipment.

A person walks past a concrete wall along Adline Street, near the entrance to the Ashby BART station.
City officials and residents had hoped the plan to build housing atop the Ashby BART station parking lot would liven up Adeline Street with new businesses and homes. But BART’s plans for a new power station mean this portion of the street will instead get a 10-foot sound wall. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

BART plans to decorate the wall along Adeline Street with art to make it “something that attracts people and becomes a place-making opportunity,” she said.

The agency has already spent $3 million to design the expanded substation, which is being built independent of the housing development.

“All of us wish that our infrastructure could be prettier,” said BART Director Lateefah Simon, who represents the Ashby station area, “but we need our power to run our train service.”

Negotiations continue, could wrap up in fall

Arreguín, who is leading Berkeley’s negotiations with BART over community benefits from the project, said in an interview last week that he considers the power station a settled issue given BART’s infrastructure needs. Berkeley’s negotiations with BART — the result of a unique arrangement in which the city holds the option to purchase the rights to the air above the Ashby station because voters taxed themselves to put the transit system underground — revolve around other topics.

The city has pushed for BART to provide a range of benefits in exchange for waiving its air rights option and letting the development proceed, including funding for South Berkeley community organizations and a higher share of affordable housing.

But the struggling transit system, which was plunged into a financial crisis when COVID-19 upended commute patterns, views developments like the one at the Ashby station as a desperately needed revenue source. Officials have warned BART’s nine-member governing board, which along with the Berkeley City Council must approve the air rights agreement, could balk at concessions that make the project less lucrative.

“There’s only so much we can do as we’re facing this fiscal cliff,” Simon said. “We have to figure out a way to ensure that there is some revenue in this deal or frankly, my friends, I’m not going to be able to move this project through my board.”

City and BART officials say they have worked out a “draft community benefits framework” that calls for creating a new home for the Ashby Flea Market in a plaza planned for a redesigned stretch of Adeline Street near the station, as well as providing some of the building’s commercial space to community groups at below-market rate rents. The BART board has not yet weighed in on that framework.

Arreguín said negotiators hope to bring a complete agreement to the City Council and BART board for final approval this fall.

“There is still much work to do, but we intend to get it done and we intend to get it done quickly,” Arreguín said Tuesday. “It’s essential that whatever project is advanced at Ashby is economically feasible; we want to see the housing built in the near term, and it has to address BART’s financial and operational needs as well.”

The lengthy negotiations between BART and the city — which Arreguín once estimated would be complete in the fall of 2022 — have frustrated advocates pushing for new housing at the station. Several were incensed to hear Arreguín say he believes the project’s new homes could open “in the next eight to 10 years.”

Speaking on behalf of East Bay for Everyone, East Bay YIMBY and the Greenbelt Alliance, housing activist Sarah Bell called for the city to drop its effort to extract concessions from BART. And while Bell said BART should look into other locations for the power station, she added that the process shouldn’t hold up housing at the site.

“We absolutely need to do right by South Berkeley — without jeopardizing or delaying the rest of the project,” Bell said. “We stand to gain far more from an imperfect project than from no project at all.”

Nico Savidge joined Berkeleyside in 2021 as a senior reporter covering city hall. Born and raised in Berkeley, he got his start in journalism at Youth Radio as a high-schooler in the mid-2000s. Since then,...