bikes and pedestrians in roadway in front of tall buildings
Students cross the street at College and Durant avenues during lunch hour in the Southside neighborhood on Sept. 5, 2023. The city could raise the height limit for buildings in the Southside neighborhood to 12 stories to encourage more student housing. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Update, Sept. 7: The Berkeley Planning Commission has signed off on a proposal to allow taller and denser housing in the Southside neighborhood.

After hearing from dozens of speakers — including students in support of the plan who shared their stories of being squeezed by high rents, and neighborhood groups that charged the rezoning is too generous to developers — commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday night to recommend the City Council approve the proposal.

The commission also pledged to write a letter to the council that would encourage members to consider wage standards for construction workers on larger projects, note prior calls for rezoning efforts to include community benefits provisions, and ask for more clarity about UC Berkeley’s practice of master leasing privately built housing.

Original story, Sept. 5: A push to rewrite zoning rules to allow more housing in practically all of Berkeley will focus this fall on the city’s densest neighborhood.

The Berkeley Planning Commission is taking up a set of zoning changes for the Southside neighborhood on Wednesday that would raise height limits and loosen certain development regulations in the student-centric district near UC Berkeley. If the rules are adopted by the City Council later this year, developers could build up to 12-story apartment buildings along the north end of Telegraph Avenue and several surrounding blocks.

Supporters say the years-in-the-making changes — which affect the area bound by Bancroft Way to the north, Fulton Street to the west, Dwight Way to the south and Piedmont Avenue to the east — will help spur more construction and ease a student housing crunch that exerts pressure throughout Berkeley.

“Without ample units near campus, students end up competing with longtime residents for apartments elsewhere in the city,” Southside Councilmember Rigel Robinson said. “By urgently building new housing that is walking distance from campus, we can curb the gentrifying effect of the growth of the campus community.”

According to the 2020 census more than 11,000 people lived in the census tract that covers most of the Southside neighborhood, where UC Berkeley’s nine-story dorm complexes are now the tallest structures.

The Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on the proposed zoning changes during its meeting at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the North Berkeley Senior Center.

The new regulations would set an 85-foot height limit for buildings along Telegraph Avenue north of Parker Street, as well as Bancroft Way between College Avenue and Fulton Street, and several blocks of Durant Avenue, Channing Way and Haste Street, among others. That means someone could build a 12-story building along those blocks, thanks to a provision of state housing law known as the “density bonus,” which lets developers exceed local zoning limits by 50% if they include a share of affordable units in the project.

Other blocks would see height limits increased by 10 to 20 feet, though caps would remain the same in a handful of Southside blocks that lie within Berkeley’s Hillside Overlay District.

Planning staff are also proposing to loosen mandates for apartment buildings to include open space, by lowering the amount of space projects would have to include and making it easier for developers to meet the requirement. Under the proposed rules, amenities such as fitness centers and multi-purpose rooms, as well as “pedestrian amenity space” at street level outside of a building, could count toward meeting the open space requirement.

An off-campus student housing building under construction at 2302 Bowditch St. in the Southside neighborhood. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

The Southside process is one of several rezoning efforts Berkeley planning staff are developing at the direction of the City Council, which has cast a number of votes in recent years to call for changes to the zoning code.

While actions such as Berkeley’s move to abolish single family zoning in 2021 drew regional and even national attention, they only launched processes to draft new land use rules. Over the coming years, those zoning changes will come back before the City Council one by one for final approval — and could become the latest fronts in Berkeley’s long-running debates over housing and development.

After taking up the Southside zoning rules this fall, the City Council is expected to decide next year on the results of Berkeley’s effort to eliminate single-family zoning, with new development rules that would affect residential neighborhoods throughout the city.

Further in the future, the council is set to rezone certain major streets to allow for greater density, with an emphasis on those in wealthier neighborhoods. And councilmembers have also indicated an interest in one day changing height caps and other development limits downtown.

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,...