Who Berkeley residents vote onto the Berkeley City Council this November could dramatically alter how the city looks in the future. The Berkeley City Council currently stands divided, with pro-development council members claiming the majority of votes, but that could all change once ballots are cast this fall. While some on the council favor more aggressive development as a way to abate the housing affordability crisis, others take issue with the rampant building that tends to favor affluent residents while displacing those without large incomes.
The makeup of the council, whose members have the final say in approving building permits, will determine which direction the city will head in 2017 and beyond.
A proposed development at 2902 Adeline St. exemplifies the heated debate playing out in virtually all Bay Area neighborhoods where rents are soaring and new buildings are proliferating.
On Aug. 12, The East Bay Community Law Center issued a list of demands to the San Francisco-based development firm Realtex which aim to minimize the negative impact the building at 2902 Adeline will have on the surrounding community. Foremost on the list are requests for 40% affordable housing, a .85-to-one parking-to-unit ratio, and a lower four-story building height, all of which alter the proposed plans and aim to create a building that fits with the needs and character of the existing neighborhood.
The site in contention sits at the corner of Adeline and Russell streets and includes three adjacent parcels, including AW Pottery and a former single-family home.
These demands counter the developer’s initial proposal for the site which includes ten use-permits, meaning requested changes to the existing neighborhood building codes. These use-permits ask that the site be built without setbacks from the sidewalk, that it include less than half as many parking spaces as housing units, and be built to a height of six stories, two stories above the neighborhood limit, among other changes. Realtex plans on setting aside 12% of units for affordable housing and at community meetings has projected its market rate units will list at around $2,800 a month for a studio apartment and up to $3,400 for a two-bedroom.
Chris Schildt of Friends of Adeline (FOA), a neighborhood group trying to shape the proposal at 2902 Adeline, hopes these demands spark a dialogue between those who live in the community and those seeking to invest in it. Opening that discussion “involves recognizing that the area is engulfed in a housing crisis and that, while more low-income housing is needed in the area, development must also work with the existing community to create a project that is beneficial to both sides,” said Schildt. Schildt and other members of FOA are fighting the stereotype that neighbors and developers must clash every time a development is proposed in a battle of NIMBYism vs. greed. Instead, Schildt says, FOA would like to set a new precedent for development in Berkeley. If developers can expect a decent return on their investment and neighbors can get a project that benefits that community and support the area’s diversity, then a compromise can be made, said Schildt.
Despite this push from FOA, Realtex sees the site, a mere two blocks from the Ashby BART station and conveniently located near several AC Transit bus lines, as a way to transform the neighborhood into a transit-oriented community. A less than one-to-two ratio of parking to housing means the development could be part of a less car-centric plan for Berkeley’s future.
Many residents, however, wonder whether people living in the building once it is completed will still use cars despite the lack of off-street spaces. This could exacerbate parking troubles in an area already stressed from Berkeley Bowl and Ashby BART spillover.
Eileen Joyce, a longtime resident of the Harriet Tubman Terrace apartments across the street from 2902 Adeline, says that seniors and the disabled who rely on close spaces for mobility will especially be impacted by the lack of parking.
“That’s what people don’t realize when you’re disabled. Your car is just everything to you. It’s not a reasonable walk to park two blocks away,” she said. According to Joyce, Harriet Tubman Terrace was also built under the impression that residents would forgo cars for public transportation. Unfortunately, that plan never came to fruition and many senior residents continue to use cars, one of the reasons parking in the neighborhood is already burdened with undue stress, said Joyce.
While it is true that the entire Bay Area is suffering from a shortage in the housing supply and more housing needs to be built, it is not always a simple supply and demand situation when you look at things on a micro scale, according to Schildt. She and FOA point to recent research from the UC Berkeley Urban Displacement Project which shows that high-rent development in an area with relatively low housing costs can actually spur landlords to bump rents up to match the price of new development. Instead of overall rents decreasing due to an increase in supply, as would be expected, the housing increase worsens the problem of rising costs on a micro level, according to the study. In addition, the same study out of UC Berkeley placed South Berkeley, the neighborhood surrounding 2902 Adeline as an area at high risk for displacement in the near future.
While a small case of neighborhood tension stemming from the housing affordability crisis, the debate over 2902 Adeline epitomizes the problems with and highlights the ideological divide between those who welcome change and those who stand against the rocky inequities associated with revitalizing old neighborhoods.
This ideological divide is visible on the current Berkeley City Council where six members tend to favor development while the other three tend to treat overzealous building with more caution. As a result of the majority pro-development wing, new buildings have proliferated in recent days in the city, especially in areas close to BART and freeways.
Frustrating to members of FOA too is the apparent coziness and blatant fluidity the City Council and government have with the real-estate industry. Laurie Capitelli, a current city council member in the midst of a mayoral race this November, is a real-estate agent whose campaign has received 30% of its donations from developers. Former City Planning Manager Mark Rhoades left city government in 2012 to found his own private consulting company developing Berkeley properties into transit-oriented housing. The makeup of the council after this election could dramatically shift the way in which development in Berkeley proceeds in the future at projects like 2902 Adeline.
Realtex could not be reached for a comment on this article.
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