A housing advocacy group stirred up a social-media storm five years ago with its model of a 31-story apartment tower at the North Berkeley BART station. More recently, a neighborhood group that has pushed to limit development at the site mocked up a hulking set of 18-story housing blocks as it mobilized opposition to zoning rules that would have allowed high-rises there.
While those renderings generated plenty of conversation, neither represented an actual proposal for one of Berkeley’s most hotly debated housing sites.
A development team presented a colorful set of renderings Monday night depicting its vision for 750 homes, half of which are designated as affordable housing, atop what is now the North Berkeley BART station’s parking lot. The apartments would be spread across buildings that range from three to eight stories tall, and knitted together by more than 50,000 square feet of amenity-filled new outdoor space, including gardens, plazas and pedestrian and cyclist paths.
Approval process enters final stage
The images were released as the project enters some of the key final steps in Berkeley’s approval process.
City officials are set to adopt design standards for housing at the station this fall, a draft of which includes provisions requiring the development team to concentrate the tallest buildings in the complex toward the center of the site or along Sacramento Street, where they would be farther from existing single-family homes. The standards also require the project to step down buildings’ height along the site’s edges, with setbacks of five to 10 feet from the property line, and new wider sidewalks along Virginia, Acton and Delaware streets.
The design standards will go before Berkeley’s Planning Commission in October, then to the City Council for final approval in December.
From there, the development team — made up of the for-profit developer AvalonBay and nonprofit builders BRIDGE Housing Corporation, East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation and Insight Housing, formerly known as the Berkeley Food and Housing Project — would submit the project for city approval.
But the plans won’t go through the typical process for approving housing in Berkeley.
Instead they’ll be fast-tracked as a result of state housing laws, which give city planning staff 180 days to review the project and ensure it complies with design standards and zoning rules. There won’t be public hearings about the plan before the Design Review Committee or Zoning Adjustments Board, and planning staff’s decision can’t be appealed to the City Council. The council will have authority over whether to provide funding it has previously committed for affordable housing at the station, but won’t have a say in approving the project as a whole.
The development team plans to seek city approval for its plans early next year, and break ground in 2025, Jonathan Stern of BRIDGE Housing wrote in an email.
Ambitious design softens some, but not all, opposition
About 200 people attended the meeting Monday night to get their first look at plans for the project.
The renderings depicted in essence a new four-block neighborhood and park, with touches like front porches and stoops on some ground floors that face existing houses, and dramatic flourishes like a walkway and apartments forming a bridge between two buildings over a new pedestrian path through the station site. A redesigned car access road and upgraded Ohlone Greenway would span the complex as well.
There would be 310 parking spaces for residents in a five-story garage that drivers would enter from Delaware Street. That parking would be separate from BART’s plans for up to 200 parking spaces for riders at the station, down from 700 commuter spots now.
Landscape architect Sarah Kuehl described the design’s 55,000 square feet of open space as “a new front porch for North Berkeley,” with shaded walkways, ping pong tables and outdoor seating that could form gathering places for current and future residents.
“It’s more than homes,” Kuehl told the audience.
Even some of the project’s most vocal critics said the vision for the site that planners sketched out assuaged some of their fears about the development.
“The project — if they build what they showed us — would probably be OK,” said Tony Corman, a musician who lives near the station and who opposed preliminary design plans released by the development team. Corman is a member of the North Berkeley Neighborhood Alliance, which has pushed for a smaller development with fewer homes at the site, though in an interview Tuesday he emphasized that he was speaking personally and not on behalf of the NBNA.
Another resident, who lives near the station and asked that her name not be used because she had organized in opposition to the project with many of her friends and neighbors, approached Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani after Monday’s meeting to say she felt relieved and happy with the design.
But there were still plenty of signs of how contentious the debate over the project has been.
Soon after the meeting began, another NBNA member, Vicki Sommer, seized the microphone and appeared to try to read a statement to the audience detailing “many issues” she had with the project, before Kesarwani took the microphone back and asked Sommer to return to her seat. Sommer did not respond to a message seeking comment; Corman said the NBNA did not ask or encourage her to interrupt the meeting.
Corman said he remains concerned that the plans in the developer’s renderings might not match what ultimately gets built. And the design hasn’t overcome the core of the opposition he and other nearby homeowners have to the project.
“I still think it’s just too darn tall,” Corman said.
On the other side of the debate, Libby Lee-Egan of North Berkeley Now! — a housing advocacy group that has long pushed for more homes at the station — said she was a fan of the development team’s plan as well.
“I didn’t know North Berkeley BART could be this nice,” Lee-Egan said in an interview.
But she also wished that the 750-unit proposal for the station site, which was zoned to allow far more homes even after the City Council set tighter zoning restrictions than her group had advocated for, would have been more ambitious.
“It feels like there could be more units,” Lee-Egan said. The design, she said, “was so great — why don’t we have more of it?”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the zoned capacity for the North Berkeley BART station site. The North Berkeley and Ashby stations have a combined zoned capacity of 3,600 units.