North Berkeley Neighbors
Want Good Planning
at BART Site

Becky O'Malley
Friday March 16, 2018 - 04:34:00 PM

The last remaining vestige of local control over what happens in California cities is local control over land use. That’s why it’s not surprising that an overflow crowd on a rainy night turned out for a meeting at Berkeley Adult School to take their first look at possible plans to build something on the large flat parking lot that surrounds the North Berkeley BART station. Exactly what plans might exist, and who is making them, was murky at the start of the meeting and remained murky after PowerPoint talks by Berkeley Councilmember Linda Maio and a BART employee whose name I missed, prefaced by remarks from Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin.

The Mayor got right to the point: if two bills now in the hopper in Sacramento were to pass, almost anything might happen on that site, with little or nothing Berkeley could do to stop it.

The audience, most of whom identified themselves as neighbors, made a long string of modest, genteel comments pointing to what an obvious Kumbaya solution for development of the site should be. Almost all agreed that leaving it as just a parking lot was not aesthetically or politically appealing.

The shared vision seemed to be this: Genuine no-kidding 100% low-income housing (with no weasel words about being “affordable” if family income were close to $100k.) Occupants diverse, ethnically and otherwise. Height in scale with surrounding homes: maybe 3-4 stories, but no more. Parking preserved, though not necessarily visible, to avoid flooding nearby streets with cars and to protect BART users who need to drive to the station. Some open space, perhaps a bike/pedestrian trail through the middle. 

There was no enthusiasm for more of the expensive luxury apartments now being built all over Berkeley, usually euphemized as “market rate” in an overheated market. No one that I remember, except the BART people, spoke in favor of the currently trendy strategy of providing “affordable” housing by requiring a smaller percentage of less expensive units to accompany fancy high-priced apartments. The BARTers mentioned figures ranging from 20% to 35%. Some local speakers thought 50% affordable would be okay, though most seemed to prefer 100% low or very low income—they made the point that the much-touted “housing crisis” was in the low income market. 

But hanging over the rosy scenario which neighbors endorsed was the elephant in the room: the specter of a clutch of preemptive bills now pending in Sacramento which aim to deprive cities like Berkeley of the power to plan their own local environment. That would SB827 and several of its evil twins, including SB828. These bills, promulgated by San Francisco’s Senator Scott Wiener and our very own Nancy Skinner (who was elected to represent Berkeley but speaks these days for her developer patrons), would pre-empt local zoning power even for charter cities like Berkeley. 

Here’s some of what former Los Angeles Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky says about 827: 

“SB 827 is not a housing bill; it’s a real-estate bill. It is intended to monetize real estate. This bill is not about YIMBYs vs. NIMBYs; it’s about WIMBYS: Wall Street in My Backyard. With one stroke of the pen, the State Legislature could totally transform the economics of real-estate development… Under SB 827, a developer would have the right to build, at minimum: 1) an eight-story-high apartment building within a quarter-mile of a major transit stop or transit corridor, or 2) a building of four to five stories within a half-mile of a major transit stop or a transit corridor.” 

(You can read his whole excellent analysis here.

Wiener and Skinner are currently attempting to sucker agencies into believing that with a few tweaks, just a couple of little amendments, 827 and its lookalikes will be just fine. The BART board last week went on record last week as swallowing that proposition hook-line-and-sinker, more fools they. 

No wonder the good burghers of North Berkeley were worried enough to come out to a meeting on a rainy night. 

827 has no room, with or without amendments, to create the kind of nuanced urban infill that last night’s comments welcomed, especially if orchestrated by the BART Board of Directors, who are having enough trouble these days carrying out their own core mission of providing working transit. 827 is a meat-axe, a one-tool-fits-all solution for a unique situation where the scalpel of local planning should be sensitively employed by cities who know what they’re doing. 

One speaker last night, somewhat older than the row of hooting young YIMBY men who sat in front of me, recalled the time when demolition-fueled Urban Renewal was touted by planners as the “progressive” way of dealing with cities, and that didn’t turn out too well. The rude boys who catcalled from time to time weren’t born then, of course. 

And while we’re on the subject of planners, it’s past time to revisit Berkeley’s downtown area plan. I’ve now attended three meetings of a City Council sub-committee which was supposed to come up with a workable definition of what kind of “significant community benefits” would justify permitting a developer to claim one of the five buildings which would be allowed to exceed the general height limit for the Downtown Area. 

Two of the five are already spoken for. The first one, the Harold Way project on Shattuck which would demolish Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas, was approved by the Bates Council as it slithered out the door, but now the applicant developer is trying to peddle the entitlements to another builder and to welch on rebuilding the theaters in the current building as promised. The second is a hotel on the Bank of America site. 

Neither one would do anything any time soon to deal with the Bay’s genuine housing crisis, the lack of homes for low-income and no-income people. Both would simply add to Berkeley’s over-supply of hot-market-rate bedroom housing for the privileged employees of over-funded San Francisco startups. Supposed “community benefits” from these two have proved to be insignificant at best, and community detriments are likely to be their final result. 

There's no good reason to think that the next three would turn out any better. One is now in the pipeline, 2190 Shattuck, and the council should simply turn down the request for extra height unless a whole lot of low-income units are added to the mix. 

Many of the city’s identified opportunity sites for building downtown and elsewhere are being swallowed up by ugly boxes made out of ticky-tacky which will add thousands of short-term service-demanding residents to the city’s unfunded infrastructure burden. Putting more of these on the North Berkeley BART site would be a travesty. 

It’s time to revisit Berkeley’s 2012 Downtown Area Plan, which, after 6 years, like many planners’ pipe dreams hasn’t worked out quite as planned. A mid-course correction which is responsive to today’s situation, and especially the threat to local control which 827 and its ilk represent, is past due. Do we really need five extra-tall buildings there or anywhere in town, at any price? 

The YIMBY tweet reprinted in the Planet which showed a 35 story building on the BART site has been repudiated by one of their apparent leaders as just a joke, an “amusement”. Sounds just like Sarah H.S. trying to walk back an excrescence from the Tweeter-in-Chief, doesn’t it? Count on it, if 827 passes some YIMBY will seriously suggest that the site would be ideal for something like San Francisco’s new Phallus Building. Watch for it.