Berkeley Greenlights BART Housing in Principle, But the Devil Is In the Details.

Some observers are prioritizing maximum housing density, but other residents near the Ashby station are pushing for 100 percent affordability.

Berkeley community organizations are getting ready to push their competing priorities in the next stage of planning for housing near the Ashby and North Berkeley BART stations. Last month, in a rare unanimous vote, the city council approved a Memorandum of Understanding with BART to go ahead with the process. But the memorandum is just a plan to make a plan. It includes no specifics: how many units of housing, how many will be affordable and to whom, how tall the buildings will be, what they will look like, and what happens with riders who now park on the lots that will be repurposed for housing.

Just about everyone involved agrees that they want housing at the BART stations, and that as much as possible should be “affordable,” although that can mean a range of things. All agree that “transit-oriented development” is a key strategy for tackling both the housing crisis and climate change. But different groups have very different visions.

Leading the campaign to approve the agreement was a coalition of pro-development organizations including North Berkeley Now, South Berkeley Now, and Berkeley Neighbors for Housing and Climate Action. Libby Lee-Egan of North Berkeley Now said her group knocked on a lot of doors in the neighborhood around the station and polled its members. “The consensus was that density was the most important goal,” Lee-Egan said. “We want as many homes there as possible.”

For the Friends of Adeline, the hope is that 100 percent of the housing built at Ashby BART be affordable to low-income people, and that it be built with “community-driven, nonprofit development,” according to their letter to the city council. Meanwhile members of the North Berkeley Neighborhood Alliance are concerned about the possibility of high-rise buildings and want to make sure development there will harmonize with the neighborhood.

Lee-Egan of North Berkeley Now said she’s lived in the neighborhood near the BART station about six years and “always felt the surface parking lot was underutilized.” She said her group emphasizes density because “it’s a more efficient way to build more housing. And a ton of people could just hop on BART and get to work.”

Besides, she said, in the neighborhood surrounding the North Berkeley BART station, “there are hardly any places to get groceries on the way home. You’re not going to get cool retail there unless more people can walk to it.”

Darrell Owens said, “I grew up three blocks from North Berkeley BART and I’ve seen the gentrification and displacement.” The neighborhood “used to be affordable, mostly African American like myself.” Now the people who once lived there have moved out to Vallejo, Antioch, Stockton. Owens said North Berkeley Now wants “first and foremost to maximize the number of affordable units” built at the station, “not the percentage.”

Owens is a policy analyst for California YIMBY, a statewide organization funded mainly by high-tech and real estate businesses, which argues that building as much housing as possible will lower costs by increasing the supply to match the demand. But he said, “my job has nothing to do with my activism.”

Lee-Egan agrees that her group wants “as many units to be as deeply affordable as possible.” But she cautioned that making the housing 100 percent affordable, as some advocate, “would be really expensive — the project could get bogged down trying to get the financing together.” And Rashi Kesarwani, who represents North Berkeley on the city council, noted in a recent newsletter that “market-rate units are an important part of the equation because — all other things being equal — they cross-subsidize the creation of a greater number of below-market-rate units than would otherwise be created by available affordable housing funds alone.” That’s because Berkeley’s inclusionary zoning law requires market-rate developers to include at least 20 percent affordable units or pay a fee to support affordable housing elsewhere.

At the other end of town, South Berkeley residents in the Friends of Adeline group want nothing less than 100 percent of the housing built at Ashby station to be affordable for low-income people. In a letter to the city council, the group said, “This will obviously require a different approach than what is currently used to develop housing.” The letter calls for “community-driven, nonprofit development… utilizing alternative funding sources/investors.”

Building on BART-owned land is a unique opportunity, said Friends of Adeline member Margy Wilkinson. “If we expect to achieve the city’s and BART’s goal of significant low-income housing in areas surrounding the BART stations, the only way possible is to build on public land that has no cost.”

Affordable housing requires subsidies, and public funding is very limited. But Ben Bartlett, who represents South Berkeley on the city council, pointed out that in Berkeley, “we are blessed with some public financing resources we created ourselves.” Ballot measures passed in the last three years set up two ways to fund affordable housing: a $135 million bond fund and an increased transfer tax on the most-expensive one-third of real estate sales. In addition, the city increased the gross-receipts tax on owners of five or more housing units to fund services, including housing, for people who are now homeless. According to a draft affordable-housing framework prepared for the city council, these city dollars could leverage up to five times as much in federal and state subsidies.

Barlett said he’s “open to” the goal of 100 percent affordable housing at Ashby BART, a goal that’s also been endorsed by Mayor Jesse Arreguin. Igor Tregub, immediate past chair of the Berkeley Housing Commission and member of the rent board, said achieving that goal would be challenging, but pointed to the recent success in creating a new 100 percent affordable housing development on Berkeley Way between Shattuck and Milvia, in a space that’s now a parking lot. That development is designed to be affordable to people making below 30 percent of the “area median income” — for example, a little less than $30,000 for a two-person household. Rebecca Saltzman, who represents North Berkeley on the BART board, noted that another 100-percent-affordable development was just completed near the San Leandro BART station.

Bartlett asserted that there’s no need for the city to do anything to support the development of market-rate housing. Berkeley is now building 160 percent of the amount of market-rate housing called for in the regional housing plan. “We’re surrounded with market rate,” he said, pointing to recent housing construction on Shattuck Avenue and elsewhere in South Berkeley. ‘That’s only going to increase when Ashby BART is a super-attractive 21st century transit village. Land values are going to go through the roof.”

Of course, that could cause even more displacement of low-income residents, many of whom have already been driven out by rising housing costs. South Berkeley resident Gene Turitz said, “Displacement of lower-income and Black people started with building the BART station,” when many homes were razed in the 1960s to clear the land. He and other Friends of Adeline members want the plan for housing at Ashby to include a “right of return” — granting priority for the low-income housing to people who were displaced from the neighborhood. He said Portland and Seattle already have such programs.

Some neighbors of the North Berkeley BART station have a different concern about how housing development relates to their neighborhood. The North Berkeley Neighborhood Alliance is focused on preventing “a ten-story tower that’s out of character with the neighborhood” of one- and two-story homes, said an active member who asked not to be named because their group has been subject to “age-shaming” and vilified as rich boomers. “The conversation has been painful,” the member said.

Development at North Berkeley should be “contextual and harmonize with the rest of the neighborhood,” this resident argued — and also affordable. In the memorandum of understanding, the city and BART agreed to “exploring” ways to design development at North Berkeley BART “in the context of the built-form characteristics of the surrounding neighborhood.” Many see a potential solution in a design concept that calls for taller buildings in the center of the area with heights “stepped down” near the periphery. Saltzman says BART has used such designs at other BART stations, including Coliseum in Oakland.

But some North Berkeley neighbors still worry about a provision in the state law governing these projects, which forbids cities from zoning BART land with height limits under seven stories. Kesarwani pointed out that doesn’t mean the buildings have to be seven stories tall. BART could choose a developer proposal for lower buildings.

Those acres of parking spaces at North Berkeley BART present another problem: How are people who now park in them going to get to the station when they’re eliminated? City Councilmember Kate Harrison has been particularly outspoken on this issue. She points out that many people who catch BART at North Berkeley live in the hills, where bus service is thin. BART has committed to funding an “access study” of non-parking-lot alternatives, including improved pedestrian and bike access and support for various forms of ride sharing. But Harrison said some kind of bus or shuttle system will be needed to ensure access for everyone.

The big question is who would pay for and operate it. Harrison pointed to the Emery-Go-Round, a shuttle service operating from MacArthur BART. But that’s funded by merchants to increase customer access to their businesses. She also said some cities contract with private services to provide shuttles, and/or charge riders a fee.

“My view is that BART is responsible for getting customers to the station,” she said, so BART should help fund a solution. But Saltzman acknowledged that it’s very unlikely that BART will start operating such shuttles.

According to the memorandum of understanding, by December 2020 the city will try to come up with a plan for finding the money to make at least 35 percent of the units affordable to low-income people. By June 2121 the city will make zoning regulations for the areas at the two stations.

BART and the city both say they want lots of “community engagement” in making decisions about this housing program. City officials will soon appoint a Community Advisory Group to lead the process. The city and BART have committed to issuing a joint “vision and priorities” statement and a “request for proposals,” which will describe the projects to potential developers.

As owner of the land, BART has the power to select a developer, but the whole project depends on the ability of BART and the city to work collaboratively. The city has leverage because “BART is very interested in having city partners support [transit-oriented development] projects,” said Saltzman. BART wants its partnership with Berkeley to set a good example for other cities, she said.

In addition to the Community Engagement Group, Kesarwani said, BART and the city will hold a public event called a charette, in which everybody interested in the project will try to come up with a consensus design.

Will the city and its residents really have a strong role in designing the projects and selecting developers? “You better believe it,” Bartlett said. 

Some observers are prioritizing maximum housing density, but other residents near the Ashby station are pushing for 100 percent affordability.


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