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Bates Began Drive to Build Transit Villages By RICHARD BRENNEMAN

Tuesday December 20, 2005

The plans for a transit village development for the west parking lot of the Ashby BART station owe a lot to Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates. Bates could rightly be called the father of the transit village, thanks to legislation he authored that was passed in California eleven years ago. 

The decade from 1980 to 1990 had seen a significant decline in the use of mass transit in all California metropolitan areas. AB 3121, the Transit Village Development Planning Act of 1994, created transit village development districts that include all land within a quarter-mile of an existing transit station. 

Designed to offer incentives for the use of public transportation and to create more affordable housing in inner cities, transit villages have blossomed across the country, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development played a major role in promoting the developments.  

Bates’s legislation requires a city or county planning agency to design the neighborhood centered around the mass transit facility so that “residents, workers, shoppers, and others find it convenient to patronize transit.” 

As outlined in his legislation, such plans should include: 

• A mix of housing types, including apartments, within the planning district. 

• Other land use, including a retail district oriented to the transit station and community, including daycare and libraries. 

• Attractively designed pedestrian and bicycle access to the transit district. 

• Rail transit that encourages intermodal services—that is, bus or paratransit to rail, etc.—rather than single-occupancy cars. 

• Demonstrable public benefits that include 13 specific findings, later described as conditions of blight. 

The categories include relief of traffic congestion, improvement of air quality, increased affordable housing stock, redevelopment of blighted or marginal inner-city neighborhoods, live-travel options for “transit-needy” groups, promotion of infill development and preservation of natural resources, promotion of a safe, attractive pedestrian-friendly neighborhood around stations, reduced need for more travel by providing goods and services at the station, promotion of job opportunities, cost savings through use of existing infrastructure, increased sales and property taxes, and reduced energy consumption. 

The need for all 13 findings was reduced in subsequent legislation in 2004 by former Assemblymember John Dutra (D-Fremont) to a requirement that only five of the 13 findings were needed to create a district. 

Transit villages created under the older, stricter law have been created in many California metropolitan areas, the East Bay included. Oakland’s Fruitvale Village is the most prominent example. 

Construction of the Richmond Transit Village is already partially complete, with 231 units of housing already built and another 300 planned. Construction on a new transit station to serve BART, Amtrak and AC Transit began on Oct. 28. 


Spousal support 

Former Berkeley Mayor Loni Hancock, Bates’s spouse and the current occupant of his old Assembly seat, is another major supporter of transit villages. 

Her Transit Village Development Planning Act, strongly supported by BART and AC Transit, becomes law with the dawn of the new year. 

While previously the creation of a transit village required the development of a specific plan by the city or county government offering the proposal, Hancock’s AB 691 changes the equation. 

Until terms of her legislation come into effect, local planning commissions can designate existing specific and redevelopment plans as plans for new transit villages by holding a noticed public hearing, followed by another hearing and vote by the city council or county board of supervisors. 

That provision was subject to criticism by the legislative analyst for the Senate Rules Committee, who noted that by short-cutting the planning process, “this bill limits public participation. While residents and landowners had a chance to participate in the adoption of the specific plan or redevelopment plan, they had no way of knowing that the plan would become a transit village plan.” 

The city does have a specific plan which includes the proposed transit village district—the South Shattuck Strategic Plan of 1997. 


Stalled legislation 

To those existing categories, one bill now stalled in the state legislature would have added another category of blight—lack of high density development within the district. 

That same proposal would have also broadened the definition and the geographical scope of the surrounding districts. 

The measure, Senate 521 California state Sen. Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch), appears to be headed for legislative limbo, said an aide to the senator. 

Under the terms of SB 521, transit villages could also become redevelopment areas if the area they encompass meet statutory findings of blight including such factors as residential overcrowding, high crime rates, excessive numbers of bars, liquor stores and “adult” businesses, lack of neighborhood-serving commercial business and high business vacancy rates. 

Mark Stivers, a Torlakson aide, said that while the bill is still technically alive, he doubts that the senator will bring it up for a vote. 

Because the tax-increment funding used to fund redevelopment projects means a loss of revenues to county governments, counties have registered strong opposition. 

Torlakson had resolved one key source of opposition: that by designation as redevelopment districts, transit villages would be granted the controversial powers of eminent domain. 

“He amended the bill so that the transit village districts wouldn’t have the power,” Stivers said. 

Supporters of the bill included BART, the Planning and Conservation League, the Bay Area Council and the California chapter of the American Planning Association. 

Another bill stalled in the state legislature, AB 986, was written by Assemblymember Alberto Torrico (D-Fremont), Dutra’s successor. 

That measure would have required the joint policy of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Governments to identify and prioritize regional transit oriented development zones in the San Francisco Bay area for submission to the state legislature by Jan. 1, 2007. 


The future 

The City Council last week approved the first step toward making the Ashby BART transit village a reality. Backed by Bates and City Councilmember Max Anderson, a grant application seeking $120,000 planning grant from the California Department of Transportation won the council’s endorsement. 

Funds from the grant would be used to create a community planning process that would lay out the general parameters of the development, which would then be provided to prospective developers interested in bidding on the project._