A jogger stride past the parking lot of the North Berkeley BART station
The plan to build housing on what is now a parking lot at the North Berkeley BART station has been one of the city’s most contentious development fights. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/Catchlight

After more than five years of planning and dozens of city meetings, the process of opening the door to a dense new housing development at the North Berkeley BART station is nearly complete.

Now, one of the final decisions Berkeley leaders could have to make about the project is whether to set looser design rules for the buildings that have been proposed at what is now the station’s parking lot.

The Berkeley Planning Commission on Wednesday endorsed a request from the project’s development team to relax several regulations, known as objective design standards, that the builders said could make it more difficult to turn their plans for 750 new homes at the site, half of which would be affordable, into a reality. Many of the station’s neighbors, who argue the development made up of three- to eight-story apartment buildings is too large for the area of mainly single-family homes, opposed loosening the standards.

“I think we should skip some of the attention to the minute details of how [the buildings] are designed,” Planning Commissioner Emily Marthinsen said, “and encourage art or some kind of materiality that gives these things some kind of character.”

The City Council will have the final say on the design standards, and is expected to take them up before the end of the year.

Once the rules are in place, the city’s role in shaping the project could be over.

North Berkeley Housing Partners — the name of the development team that consists of nonprofit builders BRIDGE Housing Corporation, East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation and Insight Housing, as well as for-profit developer AvalonBay — plans to submit its proposal to the city for approval early next year. The group hopes to break ground on the project in 2025.

Under state laws for affordable developments and projects on BART property, Berkeley planning staff will only review the group’s proposal to ensure it complies with zoning and design standards and automatically approve it if it does. The project won’t have to go through further city committees or public hearings.

Objective design standards, as their name implies, are quantitative rules meant to shape the appearance of new development. These standards represent a choice for city officials: They can set regulations that are more restrictive, with requirements for design touches that reduce the visual impact of new development but often cut the number of homes they contain, or more permissive, allowing greater latitude to developers and their architects.

In a letter to the Planning Commission last week, North Berkeley Housing Partners requested several changes to the draft set of standards developed by city planning staff, which the group wrote “errs on the side of being overly prescriptive.” The group asked the city to:

  • Reduce the required setback for most of the site, set by city staff at 8 to 10 feet, depending on the size of the building, to no more than 5 feet.
  • Change requirements for “massing breaks” in the facades of buildings so that facades of less than 200 feet, rather than 150 feet, would not be required to include larger breaks that cut into the size of the building. Several of the buildings proposed for the station have facades that are between 150 and 200 feet wide.
  • Eliminate what the group called “overly prescriptive” language for utility, trash and loading areas.
  • Loosen regulations for exterior building materials.

Without those changes, the group said, Berkeley’s development standards could drive up the cost of the project and make it more challenging to build. Insight Housing Director of Real Estate Development Ed Parillon told the Planning Commission on Wednesday that the changes the group is requesting would ensure “we have the flexibility that we need as we uncover unknowns in the future.”

“It’s not really about what we already know about the site,” Parillon said. “It’s about what we might run into as we get further into the process of entitlement and financing and construction.”

Both sides of the long-running debate over the future of the station mobilized supporters over the standards ahead of Wednesday’s meeting; groups that support the development called for the commission to adopt the requested changes to the design standards, while those who oppose it said the rules should remain as they are, or be tightened.

“I think it’s too dense of a development for our neighborhood,” critic Chris Kroll told the Planning Commission. Echoing language in dozens of emails from those who called on the city to keep requirements for breaks in the development’s facades, Kroll added, “We don’t want fortresses facing residential streets.”

In an email, project supporter Jordan Burns encouraged the Planning Commission to modify the standards, writing, “It is time to prioritize building new homes and giving more people access to public transit over the aesthetic concerns of a few rich neighbors with too much time on their hands.”

At Wednesday’s meeting, commissioners said they worried requirements to break up the building’s massing would force the developer to cut square footage or even entire bedrooms from planned units, and backed less-prescriptive standards that would give the project’s designers the flexibility they requested.

“I think requirements should be as simple as possible,” Commissioner Deb Sanderson said.

The commission voted 8-1 to recommend the City Council approve the design standards with the changes North Berkeley Housing Partners requested. Members also recommended adding a regulation from Commissioner Alfred Twu that would allow the project to forgo requirements for massing breaks and varied exterior building materials if the facades include artwork or “ornament.”

Commissioner Elisa Mikiten, who ran unsuccessfully for the City Council last year with the backing of station neighbors who want tighter limits on development at the site, cast the lone vote against the revised design standards. Mikiten had proposed a different change to the standards that would have kept its ground-level setback rules the same but allowed the developer to add space in upper stories. She said the changes requested by North Berkeley Housing Partners could result in a less visually interesting project with reduced space for landscaping features.

“I feel that’s the one thing we have that serves the surrounding neighborhood, and what you’re codifying here is a flatter building,” Mikiten said. “I think we have lost a real design feature here.”

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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,...