North Berkeley BART housing discussion gets big turnout, civil discussion

Hundreds of people came to a meeting March 15 to hear about possible development at the North Berkeley Bart station. Photo: Janis Mara

A meeting about possible housing development at North Berkeley BART proceeded in an atmosphere of civility Thursday evening, with disagreements expressed respectfully for the most part.

With presentations by City Councilwoman Linda Maio, Mayor Jesse Arreguín, BART Director Rebecca Saltzman and Val Menotti, BART’s chief planning and development officer, and an impressive turnout of more than 300 people, the event at Berkeley Adult School rolled along smoothly with only a few hoots and hisses and very little rhetoric.

The event was strictly informational, giving neighbors a chance to weigh in on the issue and get answers to questions.

The topic is a contentious one in Berkeley and tempers often flare. Moreover, misinformation that circulated over the last few weeks via social media, a website and community posters whipped up a frenzy of worry for people living near the station that a high-rise, high-rent apartment tower was proposed for the parking lot.


In truth, there is no current plan or proposal for housing construction at North Berkeley BART, according to  Maio, who represents the area, Arreguín and Saltzman.

A “thank you” cake was at the meeting to thank City Councilwoman Linda Maio for her 25 years of service. She announced this week that she won’t seek re-election in November. Photo: Janis Mara

All that seemed forgotten during the meeting, perhaps aided by the presence of a sheet cake festooned with balloons and the words, “Thanks, Linda,” in appreciation of Maio’s more than 25 years representing the neighborhood and the district. She announced this week that she won’t seek re-election in November.

Arreguín got perhaps the biggest hand of the evening when, after an appeal from a resident against a housing-related bill in the state legislature, he said, “I am opposed to both those bills.”

The bills in question, AB 2923 and SB 827, would override the city’s ability to set height limits for housing, the mayor told the group.

The former was introduced by Assemblymen David Chiu of San Francisco and Timothy Grayson of Concord and would give BART, rather than cities, the right to approve affordable housing projects on BART parcels. The bill also requires the BART board to develop guidelines for development in the next two years.

The other bill, SB 827, introduced by State Senator Scott Weiner of San Francisco, would allow for the construction of apartment buildings, regardless of local zoning,  within a half-mile of BART and within a quarter-mile of major bus stops, including Muni and AC Transit. The bill would also block cities from mandating parking requirements.

In addition to the social media misinformation, the two bills had contributed to neighbors’ worries about what would happen to the neighborhood.

Opposition to the bills was a common theme among the more than 75 people who took the microphone to express their opinions. Some thanked the mayor after he took his stand against the bills about halfway through the meeting.

“I live a block and a half from the BART station,” Kristin Leimkuhler said. “At times, I can feel the trains rumble under my house. These state bills would take local control out of the process.”

Other common themes from the people who spoke were thank-yous to the presenters for opening a dialogue and a seemingly universal agreement that a parking lot is not the best use of the land.

If development were to take place at the station, it would be on a parking lot. There are two lots at the station and Maio clarified that the lot under discussion fronts Sacramento Street.

“For each of these developments we worked very closely with the cities where the stations are located,” said BART President Rebecca Saltzman. “Is their priority affordable housing? Is open space a priority? That’s something we would be looking to do.”

Another common theme was an endorsement of affordable housing.

More than 10 speakers called for affordable housing at the station. Other speakers eschewed the term, suggesting other phrases such as “subsidized housing,” be used. They also appeared to be in favor.

BART’s goal is for 35% of housing at all of its stations be affordable, with a minimum of 20% affordable at any one station, according to Abby Thorne-Lyman, a BART program manager. This means some stations will have a higher percentage than 35%.

Referring to BART’s nearly 20 such projects either completed or underway, Saltzman, who serves as president of the BART Board,  said, “For each of these developments we worked very closely with the cities where the stations are located. Is their priority affordable housing? Is open space a priority? That’s something we would be looking to do” should the agency and the city pursue the idea of housing at North Berkeley BART.

Residential housing on or near BART station sites is also referred to as “transit-oriented development.”

In a PowerPoint presentation, Menotti defined the term as “a compact development that takes advantage of major investments in a rail station.”

Menotti said the agency has completed 11 such projects, providing 1,975 housing units, 31% of which are affordable. Also, seven projects are under construction, providing 1,872 housing units, 15% of which are affordable. Six more have been approved or are being negotiated.

There are transit-oriented developments at stations including Richmond, Hayward, Pleasant Hill, Coliseum and MacArthur.

During the comment period, some speakers cited the underlying reason for the proposed housing and the two controversial bills: A housing crisis that has sent rents and property costs skyrocketing, forcing low-income people to live in far-flung Bay Area cities and commute miles to work.

The state is about 100,000 housing units short of what it needed just to keep up with population growth, potentially leaving more than 300,000 Californians without the housing they require, according to the state Department of Finance

It’s bad enough on the state level, but in the Bay Area, the situation is even worse, according to the San Francisco Planning Urban Research Association. As of early 2o16, the Bay Area economy had added 480,000 private-sector jobs over the previous five years, but only 50,000 housing units.

In the San Francisco metro area, which includes Berkeley, the median rent now requires almost half of the median income – 42% – according to real estate site Zillow. From 1985 to 2000, the median rent required 31% of the median income.

Mortgage payments require a larger share of income than they did before 2000; the share is 41% today, compared to 38% historically. This means homeowners spend an additional $2,189 per year on home payments.

One speaker at the meeting warned that unless additional housing is built, Berkeley would be “Palo Alto-ized,” becoming what she described as an enclave for rich white people. The median price of a home in Palo Alto is $3 million; the median price in Berkeley is around $1 million.

Members of the audience interrupted and shouted at the woman in one of the rare incidents of incivility at the meeting. Arreguín intervened and the woman was able to continue speaking.

A newly formed group, Friends of North Berkeley BART, sent out guidelines in advance of the meeting to its members, including, “Our strongest lines of speaking will be questions relating to the technical and procedural, less emotional.”

Members were urged to “establish a friendly and welcoming atmosphere” and encourage other attendees to join the group.

Guidelines included, “There may be heart-wrenching tales about displacement and housing anxiety: try not to react. If you get stuck say: ‘We all agree we want appropriate housing development.’”

The group’s efforts appeared to be successful, with more than one speaker remarking on the “calm” atmosphere.

One reality that received little to no attention at the meeting: The wheels of bureaucracy grind slowly.

“We’re not building tomorrow,” Saltzman acknowledged in an interview.

As just one example, BART’s Fruitvale transit-oriented development started in 1994, and Phase I of the development was completed ten years later, in 2004. The agency just broke ground on Phase II.

If a decision were to be made to build on the North Berkeley BART parking lot, the first step would be for the city to change the zoning, Saltzman said. This is a public process that likely would take a couple of years, the director said.

The next step would be for BART and the city to put out a request for proposals and then go through the process of selecting a developer and seeking approval of the developer, Saltzman said. Next, the design of the project takes place – the most time-consuming step, which can take up to five to seven years. The director said the final step is getting approval from the City Council, design review and the BART board.

During the meeting, Maio noted that if AB 2923 and SB 827 pass, they would determine what happens at the site. She also told the audience the site – the BART parking lot – is not currently zoned.

She said everything will happen openly in public, and the night’s meeting was a “very first step” to look at the lay of the land on the station.

“Then we have a decision to make as a city as to how we wish to proceed and that will happen in public open discussions like this one,” Maio said.