How Not to Plan for Housing at North Berkeley BART

Zelda Bronstein
Tuesday May 15, 2018 - 10:26:00 AM

Here we go again. The city council is poised to initiate another major planning process that sidelines the people whose lives will be most affected by the project at hand. Worse yet, it’s doing this with only the vaguest notion of a project.

I’m referring to Item 28 on the council’s Action Calendar for today,May 15: “Visioning Event to Present and Share Ideas on Creating Housing at the North Berkeley BART Station Parking Lots.” Councilmember Maio and Mayor Arreguin are recommending that their colleagues ask the City Manager to provide a meeting and room and “props” for an exhibition of “sketches of what appropriate housing on the site could look like. Interested persons could submit their sketches, presented on easels or on the walls, for the public to review and ask questions of presenters.” The stated goal would be to enable the “lay public” to contemplate “the possibilities” for housing on the BART property, as imagined by “design professionals or others who wish to participate.” 

This proposal is better than the first edition of Item 28, in which the designs for housing at North Berkeley BART “would be based solely on current BART guidelines, absent the City’s participation.” North Berkeley residents objected, arguing that instead of deferring to BART, the city ought to meet with people who live near the station and/or those who use it to travel and, via substantial discussion, identify their needs. 

Maio and Arreguin got half the message: they cut out the transit agency, though nothing in current Item 28 would prevent BART from presenting at the proposed event. That was a step in the right direction. BART should be responding to Berkeley, not the other way around. 

But they ignored the request for a meaningful discussion with the north Berkeley community. Nothing substantial can come out of the “science fair” format outlined in Item 28. Designs need to be grounded in specific goals. “Housing at the North Berkeley BART station” is vague. 

For starters, how much housing are we talking about? 

On May 2 BART broke ground on a 24-story tower at the MacArthur station. Berkeley’s BART, Director Rebecca Saltzman celebrated the occasion with this tweet: 

“A few years go this was a huge sunken parking lot at MacArthur BART. Now there’s an affordable housing development, three housing developments under construction & the final project, a 24 story tower, broke ground today. This is the kind of change we need throughout the BART system.” 

Yes to affordability: any housing built at the site should be affordable. But “affordable” is a slippery concept. Affordable to whom? 

No to a 24-story tower, a well as to the minimum-seven story structure that the transit agency has designated for North Berkeley BART. Whatever gets built here should fit into the surrounding neighborhood of modest single-family homes. 

And what about parking? People who can’t walk or bike to the station but use it to access BART need a place to park. More than three hundred people are on a waiting list to reserve a parking space at North Berkeley BART. Others, like me—I live midway between the North Berkeley and El Cerrito stations—park in the neighborhood during the day and walk to the station. But when I’m going to be coming home at night, I park in the parking lot. 

We need new affordable housing. We also need to support the use of public transit; BART patronage is falling. Making it harder to access the station will cause ridership to decline even more. 

These are just the obvious issues raised by the prospect of development at North Berkeley BART. There may be others. In any case, it’s clear that development at the station should balance the complex needs of those who have the greatest stake—the members of the north Berkeley community. 

Accordingly, tonight the council should direct the City Manager to initiate an in-depth conversation with north Berkeley residents about appropriate development at North Berkeley BART.