Public Comment

Commentary: Berkeley Needs More Density on BART Site By Jonathan Stephens

Tuesday January 24, 2006

The reason that I moved to South Berkeley a few years ago was to become part of a community that shared my vision for an inclusive society that valued diversity and compassion above all other things. While I still feel deeply committed to a world that is centered more on the common good of its citizens than petty economic pursuits, I do feel that there needs to be a little flexibility and open mindedness when it comes to the growing need for high-density housing options here in Berkeley.  

Here in Berkeley this problem is more acute than anywhere else I can think of off hand. This city is one of the most densely populated cities in the entire state. For nearly a century, development of land in Berkeley was approached with a philosophy that was totally incongruent with the geographical limitations of the area. The approach was not unlike Los Angeles. However the fact that Berkeley is situated between the bay and the coastal range made the problems associated with urban sprawl much more acute than in the Los Angeles basin and its seemingly endless expanse of arid pasture land.  

With this bit of history in mind, I am amazed that the citizens of South Berkeley are angrily fighting the mere study of a potential development at the Ashby BART parking lot. In my estimation, parking lots are probably the biggest waste of land imaginable. The idea that a piece of land in the middle of a densely populated city is only being used to house cars and a flea market is insane. Thankfully, the kind of antiquated thinking that led to such an outrageous notion in the first place is being supplanted with the wisdom to do more with our land than host drum circles and collect oil slicks. Of course, this sentiment is coming from a guy who parks at the Ashby BART and loves to hear the drum circle when I sit in my back yard on the weekends. 

Now I am certain that most of the opponents to the development can agree with me in principle that something must be done at the site. I am pretty sure that a city with such an educated populace is more than aware that a parking lot is a big waste of space. Unfortunately, I don’t understand what the opponents are afraid of at this point. After all, at this point, Mr. Anderson and his associates are merely trying to secure money for a study regarding the property. When did this become a major no-no? It’s not as if they invited Bechtel over for drinks and signed a deal that would have given them enough kickback money to send the next three generations of family to college. Clearly, nothing illegal, immoral or underhanded was done. All that has happened so far is a chance for the city to get money to examine potential uses for the site.  

I think the real issue here is that many people who oppose this plan are being nit-picky about the bureaucratic process because they do not want to see any changes in South Berkeley. They would rather watch weeds grow in a parking lot than support a development that they view as elitist. I believe there is a pervasive fear that any development that doesn’t serve the far-fetched claims I have read about in this paper recently is inherently wrong.  

I’m sorry to say this, but the flea market does not justify the massive land waste at the Ashby BART. For those who feel the flea market is their only way to make a living, the city has pledged to find the venue a new home on Adeline. Moreover, citizens who use the flea market as their justification to oppose a new development need to acknowledge that something must be done with the land eventually, and it is inevitable that the flea market will have to find a new venue at some point. Further, using the land for “a creek to help children lose weight” is a nice sentiment, but a little unrealistic. In my view, the only viable option for the site is to provide high-density housing and viable commercial options in an area that badly lacks both of these things. Also, there is no chance that eminent domain will be used in any development, and nobody in favor of the development has insinuated that historical buildings should be torn down. However, if this development could bring upgrades to the area’s buildings, this is a good thing.  

Lastly, I am grateful to live in a city with so man citizens who care about the path we take as a community. However, there must be compromise to allow development to take place. We must keep pace with the changing dynamics of our time so that we can continue to provide for the current and future needs of our city. Instead of opposing any development outright, why don’t we look at ways to ensure there is affordable housing components of developments and that the construction is green. The future of any development on the parking lot must have the input of all of South Berkeley’s citizens and must conform to a vision that we all can agree on. I truly hope that we can have some sort of a creek in the new development, as I love the idea of restoring native habitat. I also hope that we can integrate essential services for underserved people in the new development. However, we cannot let far fetched theory and pettiness deride the great opportunity we have at the Ashby BART parking lot. For any development to work there must be compromise. The future will bring change regardless of our personal views, and the only way we can all shape this change is to talk it out and reach a consensus.  


Jonathan Stephens is a South Berkeley resident.$