Opinion: A vision for housing at North Berkeley BART station

BART and Berkeley should create a development that is scaled to fit in with the surrounding residential neighborhood and aims to be 100% affordable.

BART and the city of Berkeley are planning major housing projects at the Ashby and North Berkeley BART stations. The process is governed by Assembly Bill 2923, prescribing how the city must zone these sites. BART acquired the land for the North Berkeley station by eminent domain in the 1960s, demolishing many affordable homes in the process.

Our concerns

The neighborhood surrounding the station is diverse, pedestrian-friendly, and dense with low-rise housing, a mix of single-family and multi-family homes and small apartment complexes. However, in AB2923, BART categorized the site as an “urban city center,” with no public review of the categorization. Sites in this category are required to be zoned at least seven stories, with high minimums for units per acre and floor area ratio, a metric that similarly controls how densely the site can be built. This can result in structures built well above the 7-story minimum.

If the North Berkeley BART site is built to the most permissive criteria in AB 2923, the result would be 1,200 units, the equivalent of three MacArthur Station Residences, the apartments by McArthur BART, which cannot be introduced into the neighborhood without destroying its unique character and scale. Such a project violates the commitment that the mayor and City Council made to the community for a project that is respectful and contextual to the existing neighborhood.

The city has about 150% of its quota for market-rate housing but lags significantly on creating affordable housing. Berkeley’s financial consultant has advised it that a predominately market-rate project is not currently feasible, stating that “rents would need to rise [even higher!] or construction costs would need to fall” before a market-rate project can secure private investment.


Public land must be used for the public good. Housing at the site should be affordable, not market rate, but the approach currently being discussed allocates only 35% of the units to low- and moderate-income households, with 65% allocated for market-rate.

Our vision for the North Berkeley BART station

We think BART and the city of Berkeley can do better for the residents of this neighborhood and those who wish to live here. We support an alternative vision that provides more units of affordable housing at a lower cost to tenants, is more financially feasible, potentially faster to build and better meets our global warming mitigation goals.

The following design was created by Berkeley design firm Opticos for the 2018 BART visioning event at which the city requested Berkeley residents to share ideas about what housing at the site might look like. Our understanding is that this approach is compliant or close to compliant with AB2923. It was well-received at the event and we think it sits very naturally in its setting.

Rendering of housing on the North Berkeley BART station
The vision of Opticos, a Berkeley design firm, for the North Berkeley BART station. Image: Opticos

Averaging about four stories, with lower buildings at the street and higher buildings in the interior of the site, this project costs less to construct per unit and could be built quicker than a project dependent upon a large market-rate component. This vision creates 450 affordable units, more than the larger project currently being discussed by BART and city staff (only 280-400 units). A smaller project built by local affordable housing developers is more competitive for local, state and federal affordable housing grants. We realize that this level of affordability requires funding beyond what is available at the moment, and urge the city to seek out innovative means of obtaining those funds.

If you agree with our vision, email the mayor (mayor@cityofberkeley.info), the City Council (council@cityofberkeley.info), and BART (Rebecca.Saltzman@bart.gov) to work toward a 100% affordable project that is compatible with the neighborhood.

Tony Corman, Gary Dahl, Michael Katz, Laura Klein, Larry Orman, and Vicki Sommer are members of North Berkeley Neighborhood Alliance (nbneighborhoodalliance@gmail.com), a local grassroots organization of more than 300 households.