Page One

Mayor, Anderson Field Ashby BART Questions By RICHARD BRENNEMAN

Tuesday February 14, 2006

“It’s pretty clear that we as a City Council got out in front of the community. I’m sorry. I think it was a mistake,” said Mayor Tom Bates to a crowd gathered in a church meeting room Saturday morning. 

“But the intent here was to do something to improve South Berkeley,” he said. 

Bates was joined by his council colleague Max Anderson, who champions with the mayor a request for a state grant to plan a housing and retail development for the main parking lot of the Ashby BART station. 

The meeting, held at St. Paul A.M.E. Church at 2024 Ashby Ave., had been called in response to another meeting organized by project critics and held on Jan. 17, the same evening as a City Council meeting. 

The meeting was run by Taj Johns, the mayor’s neighborhood services liaison for the area. 

“This is the beginning to an open process that excludes no one and invites everyone,” said Anderson, who had pulled a resolution in support of the grant which had been scheduled for a vote at the Feb. 7 council meeting pending the outcome of Saturday’s meeting. 

It was the first time the mayor and councilmember had met with the South Berkeley public about the project, which has raised suspicions with many in the community because the grant application had been presented for a council vote only after it had been filed with the state Department of Transportation (Caltrans). 

That suspicion was evident in many of the questions posed Saturday, although project supporters were more in evidence than they had been at the January meeting. 

The grant application called for a project to be built on the lot that incorporated a minimum of 300 units of housing over ground floor retail and commercial space. 

Though the housing is being touted as an opportunity for library workers and other city employees in the city, Bates referred several times to the units as condos, at one point saying that the project would generate “a lot of income” for the city through stores, restaurants, entertainment “and, if condos, transfer taxes.” 

The city controls the air rights above the parking lot, which is owned by BART—an agency which encourages development of housing and retail complexes (so-called “transit villages”) at its stations. 

Though several speakers called for the council to withdraw the grant application, Anderson said that “to delay, postpone or eliminate would be to take away from our responsibility.” 

He said, “If we delay a year or a year-and-a-half, we would end up with real estate and land speculators buying up the property along Adeline Street. That’s already starting.” 

To abandon the planning grant, he said, would leave the public to protest projects on a piecemeal basis as they appeared before the Zoning Adjustments Board.  

That, Anderson said, “would be a huge mistake.” 

Jackie DeBose, a neighborhood political activist who has taken a prominent role in criticizing the city’s handling of the proposal, said “the past process was on the true path of a nightmare, but there is a chance it can be salvaged.” 

The best thing, she said “is to withdraw the application and meet with the community. The good news is that the mayor and the councilmember have committed” to work with a broad-based community coalition. 

Errol Davis, a founding member, general manager and vendor of the Berkeley Flea Market which meets at the Ashby BART parking lot on weekends, said the vendors don’t want to be excluded from the process. 

Rosemary Hyde, a Prince Street resident, said she didn’t see any way that truly affordable housing could be built on the property. 

Bates had said that the project would follow city law, which requires that 20 percent of the units be set aside as affordable. 

Affordable apartments are reserved for those earning 80 percent less of the area median income (AMI), while so-called affordable condos can be purchased by those earning as much as 120 percent of AMI. Those rates are based on the metropolitan area of Alameda and Contra Costa County, a rate that is higher than that for the City of Berkeley—due in part to the city’s large student population. 

Bates said one possible solution would be for the property to be developed by a partnership consisting of both a for-profit and a non-profit developer. 

“I don’t think this is about affordable housing,” said Mary Trew. “These are condos as Mayor Bates said. “I think this is a land grab—taking public resources and putting them in private hands for profit.” 

“As a business owner, I welcome a project with the emphasis on housing,” said Steve Rasmussen, a Berkeley resident and owner of Key Curriculum Press. 

“As an employer, I have problem finding places for young people who work for me to live. I am confident that if the city is involved we will get something people can be proud of, a showcase.” 

Consultant Ed Church, who is developing the proposal for the South Berkeley Neighborhood Development Council, acknowledged that the grant application which the council approved on Dec. 13 contained errors. 

“We thought the site was a lot bigger than it is,” Church said. The figure of a minimum of 300 units was based on the assumption that a developer could build on all of the site’s six acres. But only four acres can be developed, he said. 

Robin Wright, another Prince Street resident, said that error and other concerns had led her to question the project. “How did you make the mistake of reading four acres as six? Come on, do your homework,” she said. 

But Michael Diehl, who lives near the corner of California and Woolsey Streets, said he favors a project on the site. “It may not be a perfect plan, but it talks about housing. I’m speaking for the people who do not have housing.” The question, he said, was how would the project help maintain diversity in one of Berkeley’s most ethnically mixed neighborhoods? 

Victoria Ortiz, who lives on Shattuck Avenue near the corner of Essex Street, remained highly skeptical. ”Why should we, the neighbors, trust that process?” she asked. 

Ortiz pointed to the inability of herself and other neighbors to stop the development of the so-called “Flying Cottage” at 3045 Shattuck Ave. 

“Our own representative on ZAB (the Zoning Adjustments Board) consistently voted against the community,” Ortiz said. “Why should we trust? Withdraw the application and let us build trust,” she said, receiving loud applause in response. 

The project drew strong support from mass transit proponents, including Steve Solnit and Brian Hill. 

“2005 was the hottest year on record,” said Hill, who lives on Emerson Street. “We need transit oriented development so people can go about their business without getting into a car.” 

“To me it’s a world-class site and it should be a world class project,” said David Krasnor, who added that he didn’t want to see the site developed as “a couple of hundred units of low-income stucco housing.”  

Krasnor said he also questioned why the South Berkeley Neighborhood Development Corporation (SBNDC) had been given the lead role in the project, “given their track record.” 

Church said that the intent had been for the organization to play the role of fiscal intermediary, “but at the City Council, somehow something happened that that made the SBNDC responsible for naming the task force” to direct the project. 

“I’m not sure it’s a good idea,” Church said. “I don’t think the SBNDC should lead. I think the city should.” 

Donna Mickleson, a Fulton Street resident, said she was concerned that the project, combined with the development of the Ed Roberts Center on the eastern Ashby BART parking lot, might interfere with the ability of passengers to use the BART station. 

Bates said that he would post updated information on the project on his web site, and said he and Anderson were willing to meet with small groups of residents in their homes to discuss the project. 

“We really learned that we need to work together,” said Johns at the meeting’s end, promising another community meeting within six weeks.  

One observer reported that a large number of city staff members attended the meeting, frequently applauding comments favorable to the project. ?