The NIMBYs of El Cerrito Need to Chill the Hell Out
El Cerrito or Little Hill in English is mostly thought of as a well-located bedroom community straddling the line separating Alameda County from Contra Costa County…if it’s thought of at all. But urban housing scarcity in city centers such as San Francisco, and increasingly Oakland, have made neighboring cities more attractive and proposals for growth more controversial.
El Cerrito, like many cities in the Bay Area, is a place of paradox and juxtaposition. You have the suburban El Cerrito of the hills with pristine views of San Francisco and the water that surrounds it, but you also have the flats of El Cerrito, centered around San Pablo Ave, that shares more in common with neighboring Richmond or even North Oakland than it does with the prosperity perched above it. And typical of prosperous people on hills, any sign of change, no matter the necessity, is one met with resistance.
San Pablo Avenue is one of the East Bay’s most definitive streets, and improving the quality of life along the San Pablo Avenue corridor is an improvement that will be felt in every community that shares a section of the iconic thoroughfare. San Pablo Avenue stretches from Oakland to Crockett, but with existing infrastructure along El Cerrito’s stretch of the road, such as two BART Stations, it is arguably the most underutilized, and that is what brings us to the San Pablo Avenue Specific Plan.
El Cerrito is just one small community, but the approach the plan is taking has regional focus. One of the main features of the plan is expanding available housing options, with an emphasis on increasing the stock of affordable housing. Most importantly, these mixed-income developments will be along the San Pablo corridor, near a multitude of public transit options including BART and several bus lines from AC Transit, Golden Gate Transit, SolTrans, the Napa Vine, and WestCat providing service to greater Bay Area.
These public transit options aren’t only beneficial to low-income residents, but to anyone who lives, works, or visits El Cerrito. The construction of dense housing developments in walkable neighborhoods, rich with transportation options, isn’t only good for El Cerrito. It’s an essential component in the herculean task of easing traffic congestion in the job-rich Bay Area.
Outside of job availability, one of the main reasons people move to urban centers is because big cities have cool shit to do, see, and most importantly, experience. Cities build their cultural reputations by having a ton of unique stores, bars, clubs and culture that you won’t find in most smaller communities. But as the people who brought the unique ideas that essentially gave Bay Area cities their spirit get pushed out of the region’s urban core, smaller towns inevitably pick up the slack of preserving the Bay’s uniqueness. This project will provide a ton of commercial space along San Pablo Ave that will undoubtedly be more affordable than spaces of equivalent size in San Francisco or Oakland.
So, who would be in opposition to such improvements? NIMBYs of course. And for typical reasons, according to SFCurbed, one person opposed the development of a dense apartment complex along San Pablo Avenue in El Cerrito because it would “block his view of San Francisco” from his place in Richmond.
That’s not to say everything about the project is perfect. The Baxter Street Apartments project, one of many new housing developments proposed for the San Pablo corridor in El Cerrito, is currently at the site of a shuttered Taco Bell and someone had the audacity to say that the proposed 8-story Baxter Creek apartment complex would be appalling. Yes, because boarded up Taco Bells are the height of sophistication.
When discussing housing in the Bay Area, the subject of gentrification rightfully comes up. You may be asking yourself “will this gentrify El Cerrito?” The answer to that question is a resounding: Not really… El Cerrito is different than San Francisco and Oakland. SF and Oakland both have historically been home to large working-class and minority-majority neighborhoods that have faced displacement as result of development. While El Cerrito isn’t as elite as the Oakland hills, it certainly could be viewed as a more accessible Richmond equivalent to Piedmont. The construction of new housing would likely diversify El Cerrito both socioeconomically and racially.
I personally would like to see more affordable units included in the plan, but when it comes to construction of housing in the Bay Area, more is better than less. Even if you don’t get everything you want from a project, creating more housing to meet the skyrocketing demand is better than not creating housing at all.
On the bright side, the currently under construction Mayfair apartments will include a larger number of affordable units. Which I appreciate because: do you know what’s nicer than an unobstructed view of San Francisco? Getting vulnerable people under a roof. The Mayfair Apartments “will provide 67 below market rate units with levels of affordability ranging from 30% to 60% of area median income.”
The Bay Area is a tough place to do anything, even in relatively suburban communities like El Cerrito, it’s a struggle to do things other places take for granted.
Most communities see an explosion of job growth and happily build to accommodate said growth, but in the Bay, to even get a fraction of the suggested amount of housing, especially low-income housing, is real hassle.
But it doesn’t have to be one. We collectively choose what type of environment we want to live in and adding homes, shops, and walkability to an area where it should already exist in the first place is a good thing. And even if you can’t see it, San Francisco’s still going to be there.
It’s the reason we’re in this mess in the first place.