Opinion: To reflect the values of Berkeley, we should build 1,000 homes at North Berkeley BART

That will provide housing for many, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and enhance the neighborhood.

In a city renowned for celebrating difference and diversity, the parking lot above the North Berkeley BART station—a square tenth of a mile of blacktop carved from a charming residential neighborhood—is that rare example of something most Berkeleyans would agree doesn’t quite fit in.

Why? It doesn’t reflect Berkeley’s values. Berkeley is a place that values neighbors of all kinds, regardless of background, and believes that human rights include safety, a clean environment, enough to eat, and a place to live. That parking lot defies all that. It’s a space for cars, built to meet the priorities of the last century. Luckily, this location is an ideal place to address the needs of today and honor the spirit of the city we call home. We should make homes for lots of new neighbors there.

How many? How big? Height minimums and units per acre, percentages of different levels of affordability, and guaranteed numbers of parking spaces per residential unit are not themselves values. Regulations and laws should answer to needs, not establish them. How we regulate the land here is a way to make our values concrete.

Here are the problems we’re trying to solve. Right now, the median price of a single-family home in Berkeley is $1.2 million; median rent is $4,000 a month. With those numbers, Berkeley can’t be a city that has artists and construction workers and teachers living alongside university professors and lawyers and coders. Lower-income residents are getting displaced across the Bay Area, and more and more of our Berkeley neighbors are unhoused, living in unsafe and unhealthy conditions. The way to address all that is by building more homes.

The North Berkeley BART station is within walking distance of four schools. It’s also adjacent to Sacramento Street, a four-lane, high-speed boulevard. In Berkeley between 2005 and 2018, cars injured more than 1,000 bikers and pedestrians, killing six. A dozen of those crashes were within a block or two of North Berkeley BART. We need a city where all people, at any level of mobility and health, with any level of income, can feel safe walking or riding bikes (and letting their kids do the same). Redesigning the space and the streets around it for homes, giving people easy access to a car-free lifestyle, and tightening the connections to parks and bike paths, helps keep people safe. Such a project can fill a missing gap in the Ohlone Greenway and can improve crossings on Sacramento, making it a more viable alternative to driving.

Berkeley has committed to fight climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Transportation is the single biggest source of these emissions in the United States, even bigger than power generation or industrial emissions. Almost two-thirds of those emissions are from cars. As UC Berkeley researchers have shown, denser cities where residents have transportation options emit less planet-killing greenhouse gases than cities that are more auto-dependent. Single-family homes that depend on cars can counteract those gains.

Furthermore, sustainability means more than environmental protection. It also means restorative justice. Berkeley has a history of segregation and redlining throughout the 20th century. We can start to make amends for this history by providing the maximum amount of affordable housing that is feasible, to groups who have been harmed by historic Berkeley practices.

We propose three principles for creating a North Berkeley BART neighborhood that reflects the values of today’s Berkeley:

First: let’s build lots of homes. We think 1,000 new homes would not be out of line here. Well-designed residences and their environs will enhance the neighborhood. Think of what that could mean! Places to live for thousands of new neighbors who’d have the chance to find their place in one of Berkeley’s most wonderful neighborhoods. Most good-paying jobs remain in the central Bay Area. Should we force service-workers to burn more gas and spend less time with their families by excluding them from our city? Or should we enjoy the vibrant urban life they will bring as neighbors? The Bay Area has more super-commuters—people who drive 90 minutes or more between home to work—than anywhere else in the US. We can take real steps to fix that.

Second: let’s make those homes as affordable and accessible as possible. The mechanisms for providing Below Market-Rate housing are complex and varied—rental or owned, funded by whom, at what percentage of median income, and so on. The key is how inclusive we want to be, and to what lengths we’ll go to maximize socioeconomic diversity. Our answer: as far as possible. And “possible” is the operative word here, because 100% of 0 is 0; if a project that doesn’t pencil out and doesn’t get built, it provides no homes to anyone.

Finally, let’s weigh parking versus access. New housing atop the North Berkeley BART station will replace a parking lot. That means fewer permanent spaces at the station. But it doesn’t necessarily mean neighbors will lose parking in the neighborhood, a common concern expressed at public meetings. The goal is to reduce the need for car use. That means connecting the station to a protected, well-designed Ohlone Greenway. It means better pedestrian and cyclist access to the station, with safe routes to neighborhood schools. And ideally, it means upgraded transit service to the station, to reduce the need to drive to the station. If we do it right, that should actually increase parking availability for those who need to drive from neighborhoods with inadequate transit service.

North Berkeley BART can be a place where all our values as Berkeley residents literally take form. A thousand homes can bloom, making a safer, greener city where every neighbor is welcome.

If you want to help make this vision come true, join us. Sign North Berkeley Now’s petition to support this vision for North Berkeley BART.

  • Libby Lee-Egan co-founded and is on the board of East Bay for Everyone; currently she is putting her organizing energy into North Berkeley Now! She and her husband Chris Lee-Egan are raising 2 daughters and commute via the North Berkeley BART station every day.
  • Diego Aguilar-Canabal is a North Berkeley resident working as a consultant in the cannabis industry.
  • Jeff Hobson lives near North Berkeley BART with his partner and two children and has worked on transportation policy in the nonprofit and public sectors for over 20 years.
  • Hayley Currier lives across the street from the North Berkeley BART station. She advocates for equitable transportation solutions in the Bay Area.
  • Sara Fain lives in North Berkeley with her husband and two children and commutes to her job as an immigration attorney via bike and BART.
  • Anirvan Chatterjee is a North Berkeley homeowner, BART commuter, and Berkeley radical history tour guide.
  • Darin and Beret Ranelletti live two blocks from the North Berkeley BART station with their two kids.

The writers all live in North Berkeley and are active in the community.