Election Section

Transit Village Would Enhance Area By TOM BATES and MAX ANDERSON

Friday January 13, 2006

Last month, the Berkeley City Council voted to apply for a state grant that will pay for an extensive community process to plan a possible residential and commercial development on the west parking lot at the Ashby BART station. While this is quite preliminary, since the funding is by no means certain, the Council strongly endorsed the application as an extraordinary opportunity to right a wrong.  

In the late 1960s, the construction of the Ashby BART station displaced residents and tore a hole in one of Berkeley’s most interesting, beautiful, and historic neighborhoods. While much of the neighborhood’s charm still exists, this lovely area has struggled—in part because of the dead zone created by the station’s large sunken parking lots. 

The city and the community have long looked for ways to repair the damage done by the creation of the BART station and to capitalize on its unique proximity to the region’s subway system. In fact, over 15 years ago, an analysis done as part of the creation of the South Berkeley Area Plan found that the “South Berkeley community has expressed an interest in mixed commercial and residential development on the [Ashby BART] site.” In 2001, the City Council passed a resolution “that the west parking lot at the Ashby BART Station be developed with housing as a top priority. To the extent possible, housing should be affordable and available to public sector workers.” This desire was also incorporated in Berkeley’s overall General Plan—which took many years and dozens of public meetings to create. 

Bringing new residents and neighborhood serving shops to the Adeline corridor can clearly increase the vitality and safety. It would be good for South Berkeley, good for the city as a whole and good for the environment, since it would locate residents near a significant transit hub and provide alternatives to automobile use. 

In most development scenarios, a private developer proposes a project on which the public is allowed to comment. We wanted something better for this important site—a project envisioned by the community from the beginning planning stages. That is why the city applied for the grant and why the South Berkeley Neighborhood Development Corporation (SBNDC) stepped up to help lead this discussion. 

The South Berkeley Neighborhood Development Corporation was itself born out of a public planning process in 1987. It has been involved in managing low-income housing, conducting social programs, providing business assistance, and working to beautify the neighborhood. New boardmembers were recently added to its existing veteran boardmembers to help embark on this new project. 

At the City Council’s Dec. 13 meeting, the City Council asked SBNDC to name a task force to conduct a public process regarding this proposal. Members of the City Council, the community, and others can all suggest people to serve on that task force. Upon selection, the task force’s first task will be to coordinate meetings with the community to develop a shared vision for the project. If that process is successful, the city will conduct a nationwide search for a potential developer to work with the task force and the community on designing a specific project that is in keeping with that vision.  

We do not know of another city that has a public/private partnership in which the public is empowered to set the elements of the project, help select the developer and hire its own experts. This will take many months, and significant amounts of staff time and money, all of which must be secured by SBNDC. South Berkeley has never had resources of this magnitude before. 

We hope and expect that planning for this site will be done carefully and with full community engagement. Many types of transit-oriented development that have worked in other areas might not work here. Height, scale, architecture, parking, streetscapes, and other issues will need to be carefully examined. The planning grant would also allow the community to look beyond the project itself and consider how it could integrate with the Arts District, Malcolm X School, the Senior Center, Library and other valued community institutions.  

However, there are several concerns that have been raised about the planning process that we feel should be addressed immediately: 

First, there is absolutely no plan for any increase in density or any other zoning change for the area surrounding Ashby BART. South Berkeley is a beautiful and historic neighborhood and any potential new development at the BART station will need to fit within its existing character.  

Second, the city will not use eminent domain—the government’s power to seize private property for a public good—as part of this project. The only construction to be planned in this process is on the Ashby BART station parking lot.  

Lastly, the grant application is to fund a community discussion. The grant can help us consider alternatives, but it does not obligate us to build anything. We want to find out what is economically feasible on the site and what the community would like. If these are not in sync, we need not move forward with any proposal. 

We have an historic opportunity to realize the aspirations of South Berkeley residents and small business owners, to build badly needed housing for families, and to repair the damage done to this neighborhood when BART was built. We look forward to working closely with the community throughout this effort.