City of Berkeley begins preparing North Berkeley, Ashby BART stations for housing

Vanessa Lim/Staff

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The city of Berkeley is formally committing to work with BART to prepare the North Berkeley and Ashby BART stations for housing development, a topic that has moved to the forefront of housing discourse in the city.

Berkeley City Council members ushered in a formal process with a unanimous vote to approve a memorandum of understanding, or MOU, with the transit agency at their regular Tuesday meeting. The MOU sets a timeline in motion that will rezone the two stations by 2021.

“There was a time not so long ago that talking about building housing on North Berkeley BART was not an acceptable idea,” said Councilmember Susan Wengraf at the meeting. “So we’ve really come a long way and the support I’ve heard tonight was impressive.”

Plans for development at the two sites were set in motion by a state law mandating that BART create housing across its stations. AB 2923, signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in September 2018, will turn acres of parking lots around the Ashby and North Berkeley BART stations into apartment buildings with a mix of affordable units.

Discussion of the two stations’ futures brought concerns specific to each one. Councilmembers and BART signaled a commitment to allocating a space for the Berkeley Flea Market to continue operations at the site of the Ashby BART station.

In North Berkeley, resident concerns over loss of parking space, neighborhood densification and accessibility to the station were pitted against calls to maximize housing on the site and transition away from nonautomobile modes of transit.

“We have been told it has been very expensive and very difficult to build affordable housing projects on this scale… Many people say 100% of zero units is still zero,” said Jeff Hobson, co-founder of North Berkeley Now!, a proponent group for the MOU. “We want lots of places for people to live. We want to maximize housing.”

In May, City Council held a special meeting to showcase potential ideas for the North Berkeley station. AB 2923 mandates thresholds for the station to meet, including guidelines for density and a deadline for the city to finish zoning the site by July 2022.

The MOU was described by Councilmember Rigel Robinson as a “process about a process.” By embarking on the MOU with BART, the city looks to beat the zoning deadline by more than a year.

The move also creates a community advisory group of up to 15 people that will help shape zoning at both stations. Representing both stations’ districts and the larger city, the advisory group will be appointed by Councilmembers Rashi Kesarwani and Ben Bartlett, who represent the areas that encompass the North Berkeley and Ashby stations, respectively, and Mayor Jesse Arreguín.

Considerations of gentrification and the role that BART has played in dividing communities of color in Berkeley came to a head when discussing what future development at the Ashby BART station would look like.

“The flea market is and has always been … critical to the soul of Berkeley,” said Lateefah Simon, District 7 BART board director, at the meeting. “There are concerns about how we do this, how we act as an institution, as BART … I have read 3,000 comments over the last year. Historically, we understand harsh development has been violent to low-income communities and communities of color.”

Arreguín added he would advocate that housing by the Ashby station be built with 100% below-market-rate units, leveraging outside funding sources to do so. At both stations, the MOU commits to make at least 35% of units subsidized.

With the MOU approved, Arreguín, Kesarwani and Bartlett, with input from the other six council members, will appoint the 15-person body to begin the process, including representatives from various city commissions and the Berkeley Flea Market. The MOU gives the city until June 2021 to have a zoning plan ready with approval from the city Planning Commission.

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