Balancing resident input, Berkeley wades into developing North Berkeley BART station

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A central topic in the debate over housing development in the city of Berkeley, the North Berkeley BART station is now on track to receive plans for multifamily housing that will replace the station’s 8-acre parking lot.

City Council members unanimously voted to set goals for future development and begin working on creating zoning codes that would allow construction around the North Berkeley BART station at Thursday’s special meeting, which was held at Longfellow Middle School to accommodate a large turnout. Along with approving a visioning document that sets the tone of the outreach and negotiating processes that are yet to come, the council also moved to instruct the city manager to work with BART to create a framework for development and to refer to the Planning Commission to study possible zoning scenarios for the site.

“We aren’t voting on a project or developer tonight, but beginning a process,” said Mayor Jesse Arreguín during the meeting. “(The objectives and goals document is) meant to be a discussion document and provide ideas for the city.”

The unanimous vote will begin a collaborative process for the city to help guide what is ultimately a project under BART’s purview.

Under California law AB 2923, passed in September 2018, BART was given the authority to set its own transit-oriented development guidelines on properties it owns around stations in the Bay Area. The law requires that development be dense, that 20 percent of units be affordable and that guidelines be implemented by 2020. According to Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani, whose district encompasses the rail station, it could be five years until ground is broken on a project at the site.

“I care so much about what happens in North Berkeley. It was almost 20 years ago during my sophomore year at UC Berkeley, and at the time, we thought it was really expensive at $1,350 a month for a one-bedroom. And now that sounds like a steal, unfortunately,” said BART board Vice President Rebecca Saltzman during the meeting. “We need to do something to address the housing crisis that we’re facing.”

The council voted in May 2018 to oppose AB 2923, which it saw as allowing BART to override local jurisdiction. However, Thursday’s meeting signaled a renewed effort to hear community input on how the site would be developed and to work with BART on creating a project that meets the criteria of various stakeholders.

That guidance will come from a wide variety of vocal stakeholders, many of whom have already made their voices heard in discussions over the station. Two predominant viewpoints were present at the council meeting. Green signs in the audience, held by members of the North Berkeley Neighborhood Alliance, read “NOT Urban City Center,” rejecting BART’s design guidelines for the lot, which sits in a neighborhood dominated by single-family homes. Other green signs called for a four-story maximum height for the development.

Others held blue signs that called for “More homes, less parking,” emphasizing the desire to make the development as dense as possible and favoring an outcome that would result in buildings with at least seven stories.

Berkeley city planning staff member Steven Buckley compared factors such as parking, commercial space, and residential and affordable units to dials that would have to be fine-tuned to reach a favorable balance. Whichever zoning outcome the city comes to an agreement with BART on, AB 2923 will require that North Berkeley BART have at least 600 units.

One commonality between the groups holding green and blue signs was a willingness to prioritize affordable housing. Many commenters emphasized the need for economic diversity as Berkeley experiences an exodus of low-income residents.

The North Berkeley BART project presents an opportunity to revisit the North Berkeley neighborhood’s history of opposition to change, according to UC Berkeley architecture associate professor Greg Castillo, who also attended the meeting. The project, he said, could also be an opportunity for the transit agency to amend its status as politically unpopular among residents who feel unheard in its decision process. Castillo said that when the BART system was implemented half a century ago, BART attempted to develop housing on what is now the Ohlone Greenway, posing a “major intervention into this bungalow suburban landscape.” He said neighbors received “some pretty amazing concessions” while successfully blocking the development.

“Now, it’s interesting that there is another battle over how dense this should be developed, and some feel a low level of suburban density would be appropriate,” Castillo said during the meeting. “If a portion of that site would be devoted to affordable housing or senior housing, it’s simply impossible for a neighborhood group to say no.”

Castillo says that although the North Berkeley Neighborhood Alliance is in favor of affordable housing, the number of below-market-rate and low-income units would be dependent on developing market-rate units to realize such a goal.

“There seems to be not a recognition that a number of low-cost housing is directly related to market-rate housing, and subsidized housing is inverse to the number of parking spaces,” Castillo said during the meeting.

The approved visioning document, while avoiding specifics on what the project would look like, outlined priorities the council would pursue — including affordability, accessibility and neighborhood compatibility. Still, language in the document — with some changes made after Arreguín and Kesarwani met with representatives with the North Berkeley Neighborhood Alliance along with implemented input from Councilmembers Sophie Hahn and Kate Harrison — alludes to conditions the city may be planning to negotiate with BART.

In a letter addressed to California state Assemblymember David Chiu signed by Arreguín and Kesarwani, the two expressed “a desire to meet or exceed the minimum density requirement … in a manner that provides for flexibility in the height of the approved development,” alluding to the seven-story guideline prescribed by BART’s designation for the station.

Councilmember Rigel Robinson, who represents District 7, was eager to support a pro-development position that challenges the neighborhood association’s concerns.

“I think anything short of a thousand units of housing is not sufficient,” Robinson said during the meeting. “What I’m looking at here are affordable housing units, not percentages. … I don’t think it’s wrong to build a downtown-scale project here in the middle of a housing crisis.”

The next stage of planning the station’s future will entail collaboration between the city and BART to explore project feasibility and solicit community engagement, including opportunities for community input.

Brandon Yung is the lead city government reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @brandonyung1.