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Berkeley BART Housing Battle Rages On

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The topic of Bay Area housing development is complicated. Renters burdened by market rates lament the struggle. Communities resist aesthetic changes, especially when high-density proposals are made. Developers seek to maximize profits. Local governments battle between zoning determinations, pragmatic needs and neighborhood cultures. Although there is a sense of hope each time land is made available to develop, the good feels are often scarred and tainted by the inevitable battle of competing interests. 

In recent years, Berkeley has epitomized development stagnancy that comes with lack of compromise. A decision made Tuesday indicates that compromise just may be on the horizon.

BART North Berkeley station. Photo: By Pi.1415926535/Wikimedia Commons

The Berkeley City Council unanimously voted Tuesday to adopt a Memorandum of Understanding with BART in regards to development at the North Berkeley and Ashby stations. The move is a step forward but is hardly the end of contentious debate. How dense should high-density housing be? What percentage of units should be available as affordable housing? Where will people park? What will the developments do to the look and feel of the neighborhoods already there? And what will happen to the Berkeley Flea Market?

Those details are difficult to iron out in any proposal, but complicating matters worse is the fact that BART  holds most of the power in this particular situation. Assembly Bill 2923 gave the transit agency control over housing development on BART lands, in a power structure that essentially allows them to supersede local governments. The bill was talked up as a way for cities to expand their housing markets while the transit agency used the revenue to operate the train system. And of course, transit stations are attractive areas for housing.

Unfortunately, the arrangement largely cuts communities out of the discussion.

But as was demonstrated by the dozens of speakers who turned up to voice opinions, preferences and concerns at the dais Tuesday, Berkeley residents are pushing for a larger say in how the new developments play out. While some people may criticize the local critics in these projects, it should be noted that the land used to build BART in the 1970s was essentially stolen from the people who already lived there in the area that would become the North Berkeley station, all in the name of eminent domain. Longtime residents and families were displaced, so you don’t have to stretch far to understand why people would prefer the land be managed by the public and not by BART officials.

BART Ashby station. Photo: Pi.1415926535/Wikimedia Commons

The MOU that passed Tuesday is just the beginning of what will be a long and hotly debated process. Basically, it requires the city to adopt zoning changes by June 2021 and to set aside budget to subsidize a 35 percent affordable housing goal. Further, it allows for the establishment of a community advisory group intended to help guide the transit agency in zoning decisions and “vision” for the proposals.

Many people want 100 percent affordable housing built, as was echoed by Mayor Jesse Arreguin, but that will require much more fight and much more budget the city has to pony up to subsidize BART’s expected revenue.

The areas in question, Ashby and North Berkeley stations, are vastly different in terms of the surrounding neighborhoods. What’s good for one location would not work well for the other. There are unique needs in each spot that will require some thinking and some compromise going forward. But one thing is not debated: The need for affordable housing is real, and we won’t get there without some compromise.

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Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Journalist, editor, student, single mom to a pack of wolves, foodie, music lover, resident smart ass, and champion of vulgarity and human kindness.