Commentary: Would Transit Village Require Upzoning? By ROBERT LAURISTON

Friday January 13, 2006

Recent stories in the Daily Planet about the 300-unit “transit village” proposed for the west parking lot of the Ashby BART station have referred to upzoning of the surrounding area. It’s important that neighbors understand that these are two separate issues—a transit village could be built at Ashby BART without upzoning the area, or vice-versa. 

A “transit village” is a building or group of buildings, adjacent to a subway or train station or other major transit hub, including a mix of housing, retail, offices, open space, and/or community facilities such as daycare or libraries. Best-case scenario, a transit village increases mass transit use, decreases automobile use, and provides needed housing and services. Worst-case, it’s just a giveaway of public land to private developers. 

A “transit village development district” (TVDD) is a legal tool that, according to California law, is intended to increase mass transit use and decrease automobile use. A local legislative body with jurisdiction over a rail transit station—in the case of Ashby BART, the Berkeley City Council—may declare the quarter-mile area around the station a TVDD, entitling all developments within the area to a 25 percent density bonus, “expedited permitting,” and access to certain kinds of state or federal transit funds. If the City Council were to declare a TVDD at Ashby BART, the affected area could extend west to California, east to Fulton, north to Stuart, and south to the Oakland border. 

Declaring a TVDD currently would not give the city the power of eminent domain over the area, as would a redevelopment district. However, some legislators in Sacramento are seeking to amend the law to that effect. 

The effects of the density bonus would be most dramatic in the residential portions of the area. Most of those lots are zoned R-2A, in which district the zoning code allows one unit for every 1,650 square feet of lot area, plus one additional unit if the remaining lot area is at least 1,300 square feet. A 25 percent density bonus would reduce those thresholds to 1,320 and 1,040 square feet, allowing an additional unit on many lots. This would effectively upzone the neighborhood as noted in the above chart. 

In a nutshell, declaring a transit village development district would cut the number of one- and two-unit lots in half and quintuple the number of four-unit lots. The distribution of upzoned lots would be random, since whether a particular lot would be allowed an additional unit would depend on its area, and lot areas in this neighborhood are highly inconsistent. 

In the commercial portion of the area, zoned C-SA, the zoning code currently allows mixed-use buildings of up to three stories south of Russell and four stories north, and discourages construction of commercial-only or residential-only projects. The commercial portion of a mixed-use development is limited to the first two floors (but is usually only the first) and can cover 100 percent of the lot, minus some small required setbacks. The residential portion is limited to 45-50 percent of the second floor, 40-45 percent of the third floor, and 35-40 percent of higher floors (the higher limits apply to corner lots). How the TVDD density bonus should be applied is debatable, but based on past experience developers would ask for and be granted both additional stories and greater lot coverage. Developments with five or more residential units would gain additional height and bulk from the 25 percent density bonus granted for providing the mandatory 20 percent so-called “affordable” units (which for the most part rent at market rates; see my “Note to ZAB: Time to Say No To Phony Affordable Housing” from the April 26, 2005 issue). 

I see no good reason for the City Council to declare a transit village development district around Ashby BART. The Zoning Adjustments Board already has the authority (under zoning code section 23E.52.070.D.5) to relax development standards for mixed-use projects in the C-SA district to allow buildings of any height, density, and lot coverage, and to waive any or all off-street parking and open-space requirements. The existing housing substantially exceeds the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s “housing threshold” of 3,850 units in the half-mile radius around the BART station, which means the area is less qualified for state and federal transit-village grants than most other East Bay BART neighborhoods. 

Project director Ed Church told me that he has no desire to pursue a TVDD designation, and that there would be no advantage to doing so. I suggest that the City Council put neighbors’ concerns about this possibility to rest by passing a resolution adopting policy guidelines that a TVDD would be inappropriate for the Ashby BART station. 

Neighbors interested in learning more about this proposal should visit nabart.com for additional information and attend a community meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 17 at the South Berkeley Senior Center. 


Robert Lauriston lives across the street from Ashby BART.