Hosted by Berkeley City Council over Zoom, the first of three sessions aiming to “re-imagine” the Ashby and North Berkeley BART stations in a community-lead effort was held Monday.
Specifically, the city plans to transform existing swaths of parking lots at the two stations into a mixture of housing, open spaces and other community amenities.
“We only have once in a lifetime to do this right,” said BART Board of Directors President Lateefah Simon about the planned development of the two stations at the meeting.
The move to develop BART parking lots stems from AB 2923, which was passed in 2018. The bill creates new zoning standards for housing density, parking and other requirements on BART-owned properties that are at least 75% within half a mile of a current or planned station. The law helped codify efforts by BART’s Transit-Oriented Development Program aimed at reducing emissions, increasing ridership and providing affordable housing.
Affected cities and counties have until July 2022 to rezone BART stations that do not comply with these standards. Last year, however, the City Council agreed to rezone both Ashby and North Berkeley BART stations by June 2021, according to a memorandum of understanding between the city and BART.
“We’re transitioning away from hypotheticals and having reality-based conversations about trade-offs and priorities,” said Lars Skjerping, deputy chief of staff to Mayor Jesse Arreguín.
After a presentation outlining some basic information about the project, community members were divided up into small groups on Zoom to further discuss the project.
While not opposed to new housing, many older participants shared concerns over new development and its possible impact on the community.
“Tall buildings should be downtown,” said South Berkeley resident Carole Marasovic at the meeting.
New housing in the location of the North Berkeley BART station should not be high-density because it is “out of line” with the character of the single- and two-story houses in the area, Marasovic continued.
Community member and landscape designer Bernardo Lopez added that it would be “silly” to do away with parking lots while also trying to build high-density housing. He also agreed with Marasovic, saying it does not make sense to put a large building in a residential area.
Proponents of high-density, taller buildings at the meeting tended to be younger.
Lindsay Brothers, another meeting attendee, said she grew up in the Bay Area and described the ability to live next to a BART station as a “dream.” Not only would living near a BART station be convenient for her commute, but Brothers said society will need to increasingly rely on public transportation to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate climate change.
“Local decisions have global impacts,” said campus senior Samuel Taplin, who is also the ASUC local affairs deputy director, at the meeting.
Taplin favors the development of high-density buildings around transit hubs like the Ashby and North Berkeley BART stations. He envisions a new development with plenty of sustainable transportation options, such as bike parking and frequent bus routes.
While the group had several disagreements, many of the participants generally agreed that new housing should be affordable, aim to decrease carbon emissions and serve to bolster diversity and inclusion.
Blaine Merker is a member of the BART Community Advisory Group, or CAG, which was created by the City Council specifically for this project. He said his role as a CAG member is to help foster civil conversations.
Merker believes the city is undergoing some “soul searching” right now and remains optimistic about the future success of the project. The tone of the debate has shifted, according to Merker, from people either supporting or opposing the project to a more informed conversation about what is the best course of action.
“This is a tremendous opportunity for Berkeley to create a blueprint that other Bay Area cities can follow to welcome density that is also welcome by the community,” Merker said. “Building more housing, welcoming more density doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. It doesn’t have to be a situation where making room for more people makes the neighborhood less desirable. It makes it more desirable.”