City and BART officials have pledged to build hundreds of homes at the Ashby station. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/Catchlight Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

Berkeley and BART officials have reached a tentative deal on a community benefits package tied to plans to build hundreds of homes atop the Ashby station’s parking lot, according to Mayor Jesse Arreguín, ending negotiations that have tied up the redevelopment for much of the year.

Meanwhile, BART officials last week unveiled a revised plan for a new power facility at the station, which they hope will quell criticism from community groups that the bulky piece of electrical infrastructure would be a blight on the area.

But those changes didn’t go as far as critics of the power station had hoped to make the facility less conspicuous.

And it remains to be seen what the Berkeley City Council and BART Board of Directors will make of the community benefits their representatives hammered out in negotiations.

“We’ve reached agreement on key terms,” said Arreguín, who led negotiations for the city and declined to provide details about the deal ahead of meetings this week where both governing boards are slated to discuss it. “We have draft terms that I think meet both the city and BART’s needs.”

The negotiations resulted from a unique arrangement in which Berkeley held an option to buy the “air rights” over the Ashby station because residents taxed themselves over half a century ago to build the city’s portion of the BART system underground.

That claim gave Berkeley leverage that cities typically don’t have to seek benefits from BART as the transit agency builds housing on properties it owns throughout the Bay Area. Arreguín has said the city pushed BART to provide funding for South Berkeley community groups, a new space for the Berkeley Flea Market and a greater share of affordable units in the project, among other concessions, in exchange for waiving the air rights claim.

But there were pitfalls to the negotiations. The concessions Berkeley wanted would make the development less lucrative for BART, which is desperate for new revenue streams to fund train service after the pandemic upended commute patterns. And housing advocacy groups chafed at how long it took the city and BART to negotiate — the Ashby project has fallen more than a year behind a similar development at the North Berkeley station — and warned that the project and its hundreds of promised homes were at risk if Berkeley pushed for benefits that made it too expensive to build.

The City Council gave feedback on the benefits package in a closed-session meeting Monday. The BART board will take it up Thursday, also in a closed session.

City and BART leaders hope both boards will vote to approve the agreement in January, allowing BART to solicit for developers next summer.

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, occupying a prominent place in the planned new housing development at the South Berkeley transit stop. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Design tweaks lessen impact of power station, BART says

Several South Berkeley organizations have criticized BART’s plans to expand a facility known as a traction power substation that now sits within the Ashby station’s parking lot.

The facilities convert power from Pacific Gas & Electric Company into the electricity that runs BART trains. Dozens of them are spread throughout the system, and the transit agency plans to upgrade them as part of a multi-billion-dollar effort to increase service in the future.

While they are a critical piece of infrastructure for BART, the industrial power stations aren’t exactly eye-catching. And the equipment must be surrounded by an open space that maintenance and emergency crews can use as a staging area.

BART plans to build a $30 million to $35 million expanded station next to the current facility, which sits in the north corner of the parking lot near the busy intersection of Ashby Avenue and Adeline Street.

Critics say that plan will dash their hopes of lining Adeline with shops, housing and community space that could repair the damage BART caused when blocks of homes and businesses were cleared to build the station. They have called for BART to put the power station elsewhere — underground, for instance, or in another part of the Ashby property.

But at a community meeting to discuss the power station plan last week, Javed Khan, BART’s group manager for power and mechanical engineering, said those ideas wouldn’t work. An underground facility would cost at least 40% more to build and maintain. Khan said there is no other feasible site at the station.

A screenshot of a slideshow shows two diagrams, one from April and the other from November, that depict plans for a power station. The April diagram depicts housing farther from Adeline Street.
A slide presented by BART at a community forum last week shows how its plans for a power facility at the Ashby station have changed. By moving part of a planned staging area, transit officials say they will be able to bring new housing closer to Adeline Street. Credit: BART

Khan and other BART officials unveiled updated plans at last week’s meeting for the power station that calls for moving part of its planned staging area from the station parking lot to a new plaza that will be built along Adeline Street as part of the redevelopment. Doing so would clear space to put a building at the corner of Adeline and Ashby and bring other buildings closer to Adeline Street.

That change didn’t satisfy several residents and advocates who attended the virtual forum.

“Once again, BART appears to be choosing to follow the part that is [in its] best interest,” public speaker Peace Esonwune told BART officials, “while disregarding the will of the South Berkeley residents whose lives, neighborhoods and properties will be adversely affected by the current TPSS design.”

It does not seem likely that the substation plan will be changed further, however. Arreguín said the design is “not perfect” but should not threaten the broader station project. And BART officials say they have settled on a plan that best addresses residents’ concerns and infrastructure needs.

“We’re considering this a final design,” Khan said.

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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,...