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Anderson Seeks to Allay Ashby BART Anxieties By RICHARD BRENNEMAN

Tuesday January 31, 2006

Spurred by neighborhood concerns, Max Anderson is asking his fellow city councilmembers to agree to limit the statutory powers to be used in building a proposed housing project at the Ashby BART station while re-affirming their support for a planning grant application for the site. 

The resolution will be presented to the City Council for a vote on Feb. 7, to be followed four days later by a public meeting Anderson said he is calling to correct misperceptions about the project. 

The location and time of the meeting will be announced within the next few days, he said. Anderson, Mayor Tom Bates and Project Manager Ed Church will field questions, said Church. 

Anderson’s resolution asks the council to reject the use of eminent domain in building the project and to disavow intent to create a redevelopment district. It would also assert that the city would forgo creation of a Transit Village District, a legal entity created by Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates in his earlier incarnation as a member of the state Assembly, on and around the Ashby site. The resolution would be an expression of intent only, since one council cannot bind future councils to a specific course of action. 

Robert Lauriston, a South Berkeley writer and development issues activist who has organized Neighbors of Ashby BART, says the concessions mean very little. 

“Under the Berkeley zoning code, the city can approve just about anything it wants in the South Berkeley commercial area,” Lauriston said. “For mixed-use projects specifically, ZAB can approve almost anything.” 

Anderson said he is organizing the Feb. 11 meeting “to clear up the misinformation in the community about eminent domain, upzoning and redevelopment,” Anderson said. 

Anderson’s council resolution also includes a provision that the affordable housing units in the project be reserved for low- and very low-income tenants—a provision that merely restates the existing requirement for all new housing projects in Berkeley that include five or more dwelling units. 

Under city law, 20 percent of units in new condominium and apartment complexes must be reserved for such tenants, and the provision was already included in the existing proposal. 

The council-endorsed application for $120,000 in planning funds from the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) already included the provision for the low-income units. The proposal calls for the remaining units to be market-rate condos or apartments. 

While the CalTrans grant application calls for a project with “at least 300 units of new housing to address population increases,” Anderson’s resolution specifies that “no specific number of residential units in any potential development has been established and it should be part of the planning process to recommend that number to council.”  

If passed, the resolution might allay some of the concerns of project neighbors who packed a meeting room at the South Berkeley Senior Center on Jan. 17 to voice their concerns about the project. 

The overwhelming majority of speakers at that gathering spoke against the project, many citing fears of eminent domain that could jeopardize their property, and others calling the project a form of gentrification. 

“People get frightened when they hear a lot of rumors about things that threaten their existence,” said Anderson. “That’s understandable. People are talking about eminent domain, about huge areas to be upzoned—and this is designed to provoke a public response.” 

Despite the number of units mentioned in the grant application, Anderson said there is no fixed size for the project, which would house residences over ground-floor neighborhood-serving retail. 

“There is no size of anything yet,” Anderson said. “This is merely a grant so we can have some public process.” 

Anderson said the funds are needed because the city has allocated only the equivalent of one-quarter of a full-time employee’s work to planning in the area. 

“We need some resource so we can get a real look at what we want to do,” he said. “It will be a transparent process throughout.” 

Anderson said that a decision to forgo creating a Transit Village District to facilitate the process would not affect the ability of the South Berkeley Neighborhood Development Council to secure CalTrans funds. 

The districts allow for a greater density of housing in the surrounding district than would be otherwise permitted in the area surrounding the transit hub—the upzoning Anderson and the critics have cited. 

While Anderson said he wants the community to be fully involved in the planning process, Lauriston said that the CalTrans grant application calls for a developer to be selected in June before the grant awards are announced. 

The grant applicant is the South Berkeley Neighborhood Development Council, a community group that currently administers some affordable housing. The group, of which Anderson has been a long-time member, designated consultant Ed Church as project director. 

“I don’t believe Ed Church is looking for a community process,” said Lauriston. “I believe he is looking to cut the community out of the process, that he wants to neutralize the community in the process.” 

Church disagrees. 

“I have experienced many personal attacks in the process of doing this, and questioning someone’s motivations is not productive,” he said. “I don’t question his motivations, though I could imagine any number of reasons why he’s doing what he’s doing. The point is, we need to sit down together.” 

Church, whose Nine Trees Group was formed as a limited liability corporation in January 2005, was also the founding director of the Livable Communities Initiative. 

Livable Communities is funded by the Oakland-based East Bay Community Foundation, which paid a contractor to do a 2004 study of a proposed mixed-use development at Ashby BART, one of several studies that have focused on the economics of building at the site. 

Church said that many studies have looked at the site, “but we won’t get any real answers until we can sit down across from the table from a real developer and ask the questions.” 

Throughout the process, there will be constant opportunities for public involve- ment, he said, both as the proposal is being formulated and as it makes recurring appearances before the city council. 

Many questions remain to be answered. Lauriston cites studies showing that any housing built at the site could be very expensive and beyond the reach of many Berkeley residents. He notes that the official “affordable” housing rates are based on percentages of the incomes for the Alameda and Contra Costa counties metropolitan areas, where median incomes as a whole are “almost double” those in Berkeley. 

Church acknowledges that affordable housing beyond those units already required remains an open question. 

“The city has said they want housing affordable to the public sector work force,” Church said, adding that the city could chose a combination of a for-profit developer and a non-profit developer of affordable housing.