Opinion: We live in North Berkeley and we want housing to be built at the North Berkeley BART station

The time has come to tear down the North Berkeley BART parking lot and put up a mixed-use neighborhood center that includes housing and is designed to be compatible with the character of the surrounding residential area.

In the 1960s, about 75 single-family houses within a four-square block area were razed to make way for the North Berkeley BART station and a parking lot for riders. In the immortal words of Joni Mitchell, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” We believe the time has come to tear down the parking lot and put up a version of paradise by building a mixed-use neighborhood center, which includes housing, on the BART parking lot.

We are residents of North Berkeley. We live in a neighborhood that provides us with a wealth of opportunities — from great public schools to jobs just a BART ride away, from culinary delights, like the Cheese Board and Acme Bread, to the beauty of our parks and open spaces. We are committed to preserving the charm and character of our neighborhood. But preservation alone isn’t working. The high cost of housing makes it difficult for people with moderate incomes — teachers, artists, first-responders, the workers who prepare and serve the food at our beloved restaurants, seniors on fixed incomes, and children who grew up here — to live in North Berkeley.

Berkeley has evolved from a quiet college town into a world-renowned city that’s an integral part of our regional economy. As the Bay Area has grown, our region has struggled with a broad assortment of land-use planning issues, ranging from environmental protection and climate change to housing affordability and homelessness. Meanwhile, the once modern North Berkeley BART station has become an artifact of the past.

We believe the time has come to recognize that a transformation of this BART property could enhance our community, advance environmental and climate change goals, and provide much-needed housing for people with moderate incomes. We can do this by building a vibrant, mixed-use neighborhood center on the North Berkeley BART parking lot: a center that provides open space and recreational opportunities, corner store-scale retail shops, and both market-rate housing and units that are affordable to low and moderate-income households — all designed to be compatible with the character of the surrounding residential neighborhood.

The recent passage of state legislation (Assembly Bill 2923) allows the city of Berkeley and BART to accomplish these goals. Under this law, by July 1, 2022, Berkeley can adopt zoning rules for the currently un-zoned BART-owned property at the North Berkeley station. BART can then solicit proposals from developers to work with the community to design and build a project that is consistent with the city’s zoning.

We recognize that the transformation we envision at North Berkeley BART will provide, at best, only a small fraction of the affordable housing needed in Berkeley. But the alternative — doing nothing —will only make the problem worse. The city may be able to increase the number of affordable units by taking advantage of another new law (Senate Bill 35), which expedites the approval of residential projects in which at least half of the housing is affordable.

We also acknowledge that neighborhood residents who love North Berkeley just the way it is now may not share our belief that new development can enhance and improve the quality of our community. But it’s helpful to recall that some buildings that are now valued elements in our neighborhood fabric faced bitter opposition when they were first proposed.

And it’s unlikely that the status quo will last very long because Assembly Bill 2923 — the same law that gives Berkeley an opportunity to set the zoning standards for BART’s North Berkeley property — mandates that BART take on this task if Berkeley fails to do so.

We expect that some BART riders and some neighbors will oppose any suggestion that parking at North Berkeley BART be reduced. But the rapid evolution of transportation innovations — such as ride-share services, autonomous vehicles and electric bikes and scooters, along with restored bus service — may provide attractive alternatives for many BART riders who now drive to and park at the North Berkeley station.

On Jan. 15, the Berkeley City Council will begin the process of planning the future of the North Berkeley BART station by holding a work session to review the proposals, ideas, and feedback already submitted regarding the station. The City Council will not take any official action on Jan. 15. But, as soon as it can, the Council should seize the opportunity we have described by allocating sufficient staff and fiscal resources so that Berkeley can work with BART to set zoning standards for BART’s property at the North Berkeley station.

By formulating zoning rules and design criteria in the manner we have described, the city can launch the transformation of BART’s North Berkeley station into a neighborhood center that fits into, and enhances, the surrounding community and provides much-needed housing.

We urge other Berkeley residents who share our goal of making North Berkeley even better than it is now to attend and participate in the City Council work session on Jan. 15. 

Carole Bennett-Simmons is a retired Berkeley teacher who has lived two blocks away from the North Berkeley BART station for 40 years. Nathan Landau lives directly across the street from the North Berkeley BART station. Larsen Plano is a clean-energy expert who lives in Westbrae and walks to the North Berkeley BART station on a daily basis. Will Travis is a retired executive director of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission and served as chair of Berkeley’s Downtown Plan Advisory Committee. Julia Zuckerman is a clean-energy advocate.