A proposed major new development with at least 300 units of housing built over ground floor commercial space at the site of the Ashby BART Station’s western parking lot could spell major changes in South Berkeley.
The City Council will be asked Tuesday night to endorse a $120,000 grant application to the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) for the project, which would occupy the five-acre parking lot now used by the Berkeley Flea Market on weekends.
City Councilmember Max Anderson, the proposal’s sponsor, said that the council several years ago called for workforce housing on the site to enable nurses, firefighters and others to have an opportunity to live in the city.
If approved, he said, the resolution would recommit the city to that goal in the context of a “transit village,” while ensuring an open process that would allow the community to determine that the nature of the project fit in with their vision for the neighborhood.
“It would bring South Berkeley into the modern era in terms of economic viability and as a further development of the Ashby Arts District,” Anderson said.
If approved by Caltrans, the grant would require an additional $30,000 from the city, either in funds or in staff time.
The proposal, developed by Anderson and the South Berkeley Neighborhood Development Corporation (SBNDC), designates Ed Church as the project director. A veteran of Berkeley politics, Church founded the Nine Trees Group last year, a firm specializing in transit-oriented development.
Transit villages—developments at transit hubs—are the creation of Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, created in Assembly Bill 3152, drafted during his 1994 term in the state Legislature.
Under that legislation, creation of a transit village project also upzones the surrounding area, extending no less that a quarter-mile from the project’s boundary, allowing for greater density for low- and moderate-income housing projects.
New legislation by his spouse, Assemblymember Loni Hancock, which takes effect Jan. 1, will allow a city or county to use an existing specific development plan to serve as a plan for a transit village—in the case of the proposed development at the Ashby BART Station, the existing South Shattuck plan may qualify.
The housing would be the second major project slated for Ashby BART, the first being the new Ed Roberts Campus that would occupy much of the eastern parking lot. That project aroused considerable concern in the surrounding neighborhood because it eliminates parking spots.
The city controls above-ground development rights on both parcels, which are owned by BART.
The project places two major issues on the table, according to Planning Director Dan Marks’ report to the city council: first, the relocation of the Berkeley Flea Market that now occupies the western lot on weekends, and the other is replacement of at least some of the existing parking spaces, writes Planning Director Dan Marks in a report to the city council.
The project worries neighborhood activists Jackie DeBose and Robert Lauriston.
DeBose said she was unhappy that the community wasn’t allowed to comment before the grant application was submitted.
“When you apply for a grant, you have to assume that the goal is to build the project. I’m also concerned about what will happen when construction starts, especially if they’re building the Ed Roberts Center at the same time,” DeBose said.
“You have to wonder what the effects will be on small business while all that construction is going on, too,” she said.
Robert Lauriston, a Woolsey Street resident, said he hoped that any development at the site would fit the scale of the neighborhood.
“If they try to put in a big, Stalinist block, and minimize parking, that will cause all the neighborhood associations to freak out,” he said.
Another major concern would be the underground creek that runs through the area, at times loud enough for nearby residents to hear and with enough force to pop out manhole covers.
Development of housing at the site had strong support from former Vice Mayor Maudelle Shirek, who sponsored a successful city council resolution in 2001 calling for development of housing on the site, “to the greatest extent possible...affordable and available to public sector workers.”
As currently envisioned, one fifth of the units would be so-called inclusionary apartments or condominiums, which would be rented or sold to low- and lower-income tenants.
Though the grant proposal is first appearing before the council tonight, Church said he applied for the funds on behalf of the SBNDC on Oct. 14 because he had learned of the grant opportunity only two weeks before the application deadline.
Church said his job is to get the community involved in the planning process to formulate the elements to be included when the SBNDC issues a request for qualifications (RFQ) from developers interested in building the project.
“It’s time for the public to get involved, to decide what they want on the land and issues they want addressed in the RFQ,” he said. Church said his Nine Trees Group was not involved in the project.
“It’s important to have development there because creation of the BART station left a big hole in the community and the neighborhood can only be a neighborhood again when there is a great infill housing project in there,” he said.
The South Berkeley Neighborhood Development Corporation was created out of the planning process that created the South Berkeley Plan, and also the 35-unit Rosewood Manor apartments at 1615-1617 Russell St.
Church said he hopes the developer is approved before the grant is awarded—which could come in July—so that the developer could work with the community throughout the development process.
The proposal has attracted significant endorsements, including those of Rev. Allen L. Williams of St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church at 2024 Ashby Ave., Adeline/Ashby Merchants Association President Sam Dyke, Epic Arts Executive Director Ashley Berkowitz and Ted Droettboom, regional planning program director for the Joint Policy Committee of the Association of Bay Area Governments, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.
Steve Wollmer of PlanBerkeley.org said he has several concerns about the project.
“I haven’t seen the proposal, but a transit village development can blow away existing zoning within that area, leading to even greater density. I also find it interesting that Loni carried a bill on transit villages, and a few months after its passage, we have this,” Wollmer said.›