Not enough or too much? Neighbors react to 20-year South Berkeley plan

In the foreground, a sign on a table says "Please sign our petition to build housing on Ashby BART parking lots." Four people stand behind the table peering at the materials.
At a community meeting on the Adeline corridor plan, a group called “South Berkeley Now!” collected signatures in support of a housing development at Ashby BART. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The principal planner for the Adeline corridor project glanced out at a full room of South Berkeley residents.

How many of you, she asked, have never been to a meeting about this corridor?

Three hands, out of about 75, flew up.

For the dozens of people who’ve been coming to meeting after meeting for the past five years, submitting their comments and designs, Wednesday was a momentous day.  The first gathering dedicated to the actual draft Adeline Corridor Specific Plan, released in full this month, took place at the South Berkeley Senior Center.


The 203-page document, and separate environmental impact report, lay out a proposal for 20 years of housing construction, BART station development, street redesign, economic growth and cultural programming along the 1.3-mile stretch of Adeline and Shattuck dubbed the “Adeline corridor.” Following additional meetings and a public feedback period, the draft will undergo more edits and eventually come before the Berkeley City Council for a vote. Even if it’s passed, the city would have to come up with funding for the individual elements of the plan.

If the level of sustained engagement among neighbors since Berkeley first received a Metropolitan Transportation Commission grant to devise the plan is any indication, people care a lot about what happens in South Berkeley.

Timothy Burroughs, Berkeley’s planning director, told attendees Wednesday that he was “nervous” to finally reveal five years of work to them.

“Our goal from the beginning was to develop a plan that reflects the values and the goals we heard from the community,” he said. High on the priority list for residents was affordable housing and the preservation of cultural institutions like the flea market, he said.

People sit around round tables in a high-ceiling wood-paneled room. A man stands on one end, and a woman on the other.
The attendees who stuck around after the two-hour meeting share their thoughts with Timothy Burroughs, Berkeley’s planning director. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The plan proposes an unprecedented tiered zoning structure for the corridor, allowing developers to build more height and density if they include more affordable units in their projects. But, planners said Wednesday, reaching a proposed goal of 50% affordability throughout all new construction would require serious building on city-owned land too. The draft plan suggests building up to 900 housing units, including some at market rate, on the Ashby BART parking lot, while reserving some open space on the site for the flea market — which now takes up most of the lot — and other events. Some parking for residents and riders would be included too.

The draft plan also includes new anti-displacement measures, like a local preference program, wherein people who live or have a history in the neighborhood would be prioritized for the new affordable units.

Such strategies are cold comfort for one 84-year-old resident.

“I’ve been dealing with this for years — the development,” said Richie “Ms. Richie” Smith.

Smith moved to the neighborhood as a child in the 1940s.

“South Berkeley was the only place that people of color could find a place to live,” she told Berkeleyside. Smith views skyrocketing rents and displacement as extensions of the redlining and segregation that limited where African American families like hers could live in Berkeley.

“Gentrification is alive and well. It helps the developer and the people with power and money. The newcomers coming in are privileged. Rather than saying, ‘What’s this community like?’ they’re saying, ‘We’re going to build this, we’re going to move that,'” Smith said.

Three African American women, two older, face and talk with a middle-aged white man.
Residents, including Richie “Ms. Richie” Smith (second from left, in blue hat), chat with Planning Director Timothy Burroughs (far right) about the Adeline plan. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

And previous long-range plans to stem displacement and invest in South Berkeley have either failed or never been implemented, long-term residents like Smith have noted.

Other neighbors said plans for development should be even more ambitious than what’s presented in the new draft.

“I think we need to provide more housing,” said Lillian Lew-Hailer, as attendees milled about, looking at poster displays and talking to city staff. “The affordability goals are great — we just need more homes. I appreciate that the city is talking about it. I think Berkeley can do more.”

As a nonprofit housing developer, Lew-Hailer said she’s all too familiar with the extraordinary shortage of affordable housing locally. New complexes always have never-ending waitlists.

The five-year South Berkeley resident is part of a neighborhood group called “South Berkeley Now!” which has advocated for higher-density housing development, as well as anti-displacement measures and bicycle and pedestrian safety. The group set up a displays at Wednesday’s meeting and was collecting signatures in support of building housing at the BART station.

Another neighborhood group, Friends of Adeline, has been involved in the corridor planning process from the start, emphasizing anti-displacement policies, affordability and a recognition of the area’s history and culture. Smith is a member of that group.

One resident told Berkeleyside that he views increased density as “inevitable.”

But, said Jack Appleyard, who’s lived in South Berkeley for more than three decades, it’s not necessarily an inevitability for all of Berkeley. Appleyard said he wants to see the same level of construction proposed for the North Berkeley BART station as what’s being floated at Ashby, which is in the historically poorer area of the city.

“Affordability and density is a citywide value, and somewhat of a burden that our community has accepted,” he said. “That burden should be shared.”

And elderly man in a colorful shirt talks to a young man holding a sign that says to "ask me" about a community preference policy
Eli Kaplan (right), a former graduate student intern with the city, speaks with residents about the local preference proposal he developed for new affordable housing. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

There are parallel discussions going on around development at both BART stations, in part prompted by a new state law (Assembly Bill 2923) permitting the transit agency to build on its properties. Circumstances at the Ashby station are a bit more complex, as the city owns the “air rights” at the station but not the land itself.

Even with full support from neighbors and officials, the initial Ashby proposal would take years to materialize, said planners Wednesday. The construction could be funded mostly with tax credits and other external sources, but it would necessitate local subsidy as well, said consultant Rick Jacobus of Street Level Advisors.

Presenting at the meeting, Jacobus explained how the city landed on a tiered incentive system for the whole corridor, which rewards private developers for including more affordable units on-site. Without those incentives, the proposed zoning changes in the Adeline corridor plan would give developers a bit more freedom than they currently have. However, they can currently seek exemptions from the city and state, resulting in better deals for developers than they’d get even under the new plan. Hence, Jacobus told attendees, the incentive program, which lets developers build way taller — so long as they guarantee way more affordable units than are otherwise required.

But even with the incentives for private developers, the city is going to need to build big on its own lots, and especially at the BART station, Jacobus said. The estimated subsidy the city would need to provide there? A hefty $50 million to $130 million, according to the city.

In 2018, Berkeley voters passed Measure O, a $135 million affordable housing bond — but the city has already identified multiple other projects that would benefit from that revenue.

“We have to expect voters in Berkeley will pass another Measure O,” Jacobus said. “This isn’t a good plan if we can’t expect that ongoing investment of public resources.”