Opinion: Berkeley should only allow affordable, appropriately scaled housing at North Berkeley BART station

The city must make sure the development is appropriate for Berkeley and is not just a vehicle to maximize BART’s revenues.

The Berkeley City Council will consider adopting a Memorandum of Understanding with BART tonight about developing housing at the North Berkeley BART station. We want any housing development at the North Berkeley BART station to respect the scale and character of the neighboring residential community, which is now populated by single-family homes and small apartment complexes. We support development, but at an appropriate scale. Anything built should be 100% affordable as envisioned by BARTs adopted TOD (transit-oriented development) guidelines.  

What Matters?

As the city of Berkeley moves forward on an MOU with BART to develop housing at the North Berkeley BART station, perhaps it’s important to revisit how we got here.

Here’s a summary:

BART staff and some BART directors worked with David Chiu to write Assembly Bill 2923 that gave BART power over local governments to develop housing on BART land. One might expect that such an erosion of property rights would be shocking and create outrage. But in the name of “climate emergency” and the need for more Bay Area housing, any means necessary seems to justify the end goal.

Does it matter?

Beginning in Jan. 2018, internal BART emails confirm that BART staff and (former) BART director Nick Josefowitz, with the knowledge and participation of its general manager and deputy general manager, actively assisted Senator Chiu’s office in writing AB 2923, a bill that took power away from cities and gave it to itself, a transit agency, with the purpose of providing a revenue stream to run its trains. This is despite the fact that the BART Board took a neutral position on the bill and three BART directors wrote a letter to Chiu asking not be given that power.

Does it matter?

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The BART staff generated a table of place types and classifications, meant to be flexible guidelines, on how dense development at individual stations would be. Behind the scenes, it worked to those guidelines into AB 2923, leading to an inappropriate designation for the North Berkeley BART station that has been codified into law. It is now designated an Urban Neighborhood/City Center like downtown Berkeley, the Mission or Balboa Park rather than as a Neighborhood/Town Center like El Cerrito, Del Norte, Walnut Creek. North Berkeley BART is not an urban city centerIt is a neighborhood with a BART station. 

Does it matter?

In March 2018, the city sponsored a community meeting where BART made a presentation about a possible TOD at the North Berkeley BART station. Incredibly, that presentation did not include BART’s urban/city center classification of the station and its intention to build buildings seven to 10 stories high there.  Why not let the community know at that time?   The classification was not part of the law then and could have been corrected.

Does it matter?

In the 1970s, land to build the North Berkeley BART station was taken by eminent domain, displacing many families.  This is public land that should be used for the public good.  BART pays no property taxes for the land.

Does it matter?

BART’s adopted TOD guidelines envision 100% affordable housing at the North Berkeley BART station. (See 2017 diagram here.)  In the proposed MOU between BART and Berkeley, BART has abandoned that proposal and wants to limit affordable housing to 35% without specifying how many of those units will be low-income.   BART should contract with non-profit housing developers to achieve its 100% affordability goal.

What gets built at the North Berkeley BART site matters!

All housing built at the site should be 100% affordable, meaning low income, not market-rate housing. There is an abundance of market-rate housing with crazy rents in this city. We don’t need more of that! Berkeley needs more affordable housing. Building hundreds of high-rent units will not cure the affordability crisis.  The city and BART have not disclosed the rent levels for the new units or the profits that will be made by the developers. Based on comparable rents at the MacArthur BART station, one-bedroom apartments rent for $3,500 to $3,800 a month and two-bedroom apartments rent for $4,000-$4,500 a month. Building hundreds of units of this kind of housing will not “trickle-down” to create lower rents throughout the city.  This does not help our affordable housing crisis. We need 100% affordable units at the North Berkeley site with most of the units for low–income renters.

There’s lots of agreement about what should be developed at the BART station:  a desire for greenness, walkability, bikeability, ensuring access for commuters to the station, affordable housing. But the devil is in the details.   There are some who want to max out development at North Berkeley BART, like MacArthur or a West Oakland station development with hundreds of units of high rents.  Some have been actively planning the transformation of the station into a new city center.  We have a city center in downtown Berkeley.  This is a neighborhood with a BART station.   

 We ask for 100% affordable units with a contextual design that respects the scale and character of the neighboring residential community.

Note: In response to a Public Records Act request to BART, we received hundreds of internal BART emails and documents. After reviewing these and after viewing hours of BART director public board meetings and hearings, we have reached the opinions expressed in this article.

Editor’s note: This oped was changed after publication to take out the sentence that there was a glut of housing in Berkeley with many vacant units. 

Jay Koslofsky is a long-time tenants’ rights and disability rights lawyer practicing in the Bay Area. Rebecca Burke is a retired BUSD middle school math/science teacher. They have lived in the North Berkeley BART neighborhood for 35 years.