Opinion: We can have a great neighborhood at the North Berkeley BART station. Use a charrette to design it

Berkeley should let the entire community develop a positive vision of what we want on the site.

North Berkeley BART parking lot. Photo: Charles Siegel

There was an immediate reaction after Mayor Jesse Arreguín tweeted, “Stay tuned for a town hall meeting with BART on development of the North Berkeley BART parking lot. I am committed to starting the process of building housing there.”

On NextDoor, some neighbors claimed that development on this parking lot would ruin their quality of life. One posted a picture of the high rise that will be built at the MacArthur BART station as a warning of what was coming to North Berkeley and added ominously that the MacArthur BART neighborhood opposed that high rise, but the YIMBYs came out in force and overpowered them. To top it off, a YIMBY group proposed building a 31-story high rise on this site.

Our usual development process breeds conflict. Someone proposes a project. Some members of the public oppose it, and others support it. And there is a battle between the two sides.

New Urbanist planners use charrettes to build consensus around development projects. Charrettes are intensive design workshops that bring in all stakeholders to develop a common vision of what they want for the site. They are visually oriented, based on drawings of possible designs rather than on abstractions such as height and FAR or floor area ratio. This visual approach helps to create consensus: residents might begin by saying that 200 units on the site would overwhelm their neighborhood, but after they have developed a visualization of what they themselves would want on the site, it might turn out to be dense enough for 250 units.

Le Plessis-Robinson Centre De Ville, Francois Spoerry, 2000. Photo: Charles Siegel

New Urbanists have designed many attractive neo-traditional neighborhoods. Le Plessis-Robinson is a neo-traditional development the outskirt of Paris, which I am using because I happen to have a picture of it that shows the sort of attractive neighborhoods that are still are being built today. You can see many attractive developments that New Urbanists have designed in the United States at the site of the Congress for the New Urbanism. 

Berkeley should begin the process of planning for North Berkeley BART by bringing in an experienced New Urbanist planning firm to run a charrette that will let the entire community develop a positive vision of what we want on the site.

A Word to the neighborhood

Neighborhood residents want to improve the quality of life, and so do I.

Some neighborhood residents have said that development on the BART parking lot would degrade their quality of life. I ask everyone to look at the two pictures above and to decide whether you have a higher quality of life with a massive parking lot in your neighborhood or with a development that adds a bit of Paris to your neighborhood. Of course, I have just used the Parisian picture as an example; in Berkeley, it might be better to design it as a bit of old North Beach or to use some other architectural style. It is up to the stakeholders to decide.

The development would have to include a parking structure that replaces BART’s surface parking, and it would have to use Residential Permit Parking as a mitigation that protects the neighborhood from spillover parking. With good design and careful planning, it could be an immense improvement in the neighborhood’s quality of life.

The quality of life in my neighborhood was improved when the Trader Joe’s building replaced the old Grand Auto strip mall at University Avenue and MLK Way. The strip mall was a blight on the neighborhood, and the Trader Joe’s building has made the neighborhood more attractive and more convenient. North Berkeley BART offers a bigger opportunity for improvement.

I also ask neighborhood residents to consider the larger environmental issues that are involved. To help us control global warming, California passed SB375, which encourages dense housing development around transit stations. If we do not build this housing, people will live in places where they drive longer distances and emit more carbon dioxide. Whether they move to suburbs of the Bay Area, or whether housing prices go up so much that they have to move out of this area, almost all of them will end up in locations where they emit more greenhouse gases than they would living in a transit-oriented development in California.

A word to the YIMBYs

YIMBYs want to build as much housing as possible to hold down housing prices, and so do I.

But they may be fighting battles in a way that make it harder for them to win the war. Calling for high rises on sites like the North Berkeley BART will just provoke more neighborhood opposition. Some North Berkeley residents are already opposing this project after seeing pictures of the high-rise approved at Macarthur BART. (But Arreguín told Berkeleyside that recent outreach to neighbors showed some support for development on the site.)

If a high rise is built here, it will provoke more opposition to smart growth in the future. For example, a walkable neighborhood should be developed on the vast parking lot of El Cerrito Plaza, right next to El Cerrito BART station.

One YIMBY group has proposed building housing, including a 31-story high rise, on about one-third of the site and using the rest for parking. You can see the proposal here. This proposal gives us the worst of both worlds: it is guaranteed to provoke massive neighborhood opposition, and it also provides less housing than we would get by building a traditional neighborhood on the entire site. It is also terrible urban design: the goal is to build walkable neighborhoods around transit, and people do not love to walk through surface parking lots.

I ask everyone to look at this proposal and at the picture of Le Plessis-Robinson and to ask himself or herself which would win more support for future transit-oriented development. Would people from El Cerrito would be more likely to support development at El Cerrito BART if they see monolithic high-rise built at North Berkeley BART lot or if they see a bit of Paris (or of old North Beach) built here?

I would like to see walkable neighborhoods developed around transit all over the Bay Area. If we build attractive, human-scale, traditional neighborhoods, there will be less opposition to transit-oriented development in the future so more housing will be built. If we build high rises right next to neighborhoods of single-family houses, there will be more opposition in the future, so less housing will be built in the long run.

A word about the future

Our housing crisis is becoming so severe that the state government is bound to do something about it. There have been several new state laws to make it easier to develop housing, and are even more radical proposals like SB 827 are in the offing. Changing demographics will increase the political pressure for more housing developments, as more and more new people move into the Bay Area and are affected by our astronomical housing prices.

Some anti-development advocates blame the problem on population growth or on Silicon Valley techies, but wishing is not going to make those things disappear. In reality, more new people will keep coming to the Bay Area, many of them will earn high salaries, and unless we do something about it, they will keep driving up housing prices and displacing existing residents.

We have two alternatives.

We can continue the current adversarial process of development. Support from YIMBYs will get some high-rise developments built, and opposition from neighborhoods will stop others. The Bay Area will become uglier, and people will continue to believe that new development is a threat to their quality of life.

Or we can begin working together to create a vision of attractive, human-scale transit-oriented development, making the Bay Area a model for development that improves the quality of life.

We in Berkeley can help the Bay Area move in the right direction by bringing in an experienced New Urbanist design firm to hold a charrette that creates a common vision for North Berkeley BART.

Charles Siegel is a long-term Berkeley resident, environmental activist, and urban design advocate.