Public Comment

Commentary: Ashby-Adeline Intersection Fix Should Be Part of Plan By DAVID SOFFA

Friday March 03, 2006

I believe that the real disease, the root causes for the imbalance around the Ashby BART station are two-fold—both due to the design of BART done 50 years ago. The first is the six-lane section of Adeline, like a freeway in the heart of a residential area with the disastrous angled intersection of Adeline and Ashby, which has plagued us for a long time, long before BART, and is all the more intractable because Ashby is a state highway, necessarily involving the State of California. Adeline and this inters ection contribute, more than anything else, to the unfriendly feeling of the area, particularly to pedestrians. The second is the damage incurred when healthy neighborhoods were destroyed for BART parking. There has been no attempt to repair any of that damage.  

Because neighborhood destruction without any mitigation is at the heart of this issue, I feel it is appropriate—actually, necessary—that we create a neighborhood, both to replace the erased neighborhood, and to knit the city fabric back together where it was cut apart. Of course, we must also acknowledge the 40 years of evolving cityscape that is now in place here, and look ahead so what we will build can both evolve with and guide future growth.  

I feel the planning grant gives us a golden, or at least underwritten, opportunity, as a community, to talk about this. In fact, the planning grant is already working, already driving communication around these issues involving all of us. For without some actual money on the table there would never hav e been anything to rally opposition! I have great hope for the process on which we are embarking. What each of us has to say, this is the time and place to say it. We are all the hammers, we need all our fire to forge something worthwhile! 

The planning g rant proposal outlines a mixed-use project of 50 units per acre, with spaces for retail use and performing arts, and other things that are needed to support a neighborhood community. 

Looking at the neighborhoods that surround BART right now, I wondered w hat their density was- and what does 50 living units per acre actually look like? The current acceptable lot size in Berkeley is 5,000 square feet. One house on that lot gets 9 units per acre. In Berkeley this is known as R1 zoning, and is almost non-exis tent. Last year I did a study of my R4 neighborhood, which is Otis Street, and Russell Street between MLK and Milvia. My neighborhood has 25 units per acre, but it feels like less; even long-time residents think it is a neighborhood of single-family home s. One interesting thing about the Otis-Russell Neighborhood is that it is the same physical size as the BART parking lot under discussion! That is, you could make a copy of it and plop it down, streets and all, and it would just fit- you’d have 25 units per acre and a fine working neighborhood. But this would fall short in some ways. 

One important shortcoming is that it would not contribute much to the spaces, especially the Ashby and Adeline streetscapes, that surround the BART parking lot. Those wide wide spaces need buildings with some height to help define them. The best nearby example is the Hudson Antique Building, or Webb Block, the big reddish curved building right across Ashby from the BART parking lot. During its initiation as a Berkeley Land mark, it was often remarked that this building really “held” the corner with its mass and form. The Ashby streetscape sorely needs something of equally striking character on the other side, for balance. The same thing is true for both sides of Adeline. 

T he Webb Block also makes a good study of housing density and mixed use development. All together it has 14 units: 10 apartments and 4 commercial spaces. This works out to 100 units per acre, or if only the apartments are considered, about 72 units per acr e. So if mixed-use buildings were built using this Berkeley landmark as a model, they would be way over the study level of 50 units per acre. 

Another interesting example of mixed use development is the Berkeley Zen Center on Russell Street, which is comp rised of 10 units and a Zendo. Here there are about 48 units per acre, with room for the Zendo and landscaping. This is very close to the 50 units per acre study level. 

A third instructive example is the apartment building at 2923 Otis St., which provides 52 units per acre, as well as parking for 78 cars per acre, perhaps the cars missing from the first two examples. This is also a good example of what drove the formation of the Berkeley Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance in the mid-‘70s, in opposition of development that destroyed existing houses. Here is an opportunity to learn from our mistakes also.  

We do know what makes good neighborhoods. There are tons of studies, and better, there are actual good neighborhoods, right here. There are also good neighborhoods recently built new, from scratch, for us to look at for both their shortcomings and successes.  

Ultimately we have to work with what is here, right in front of us, and what it will take to make it work. For example, if we consider somethin g like the Webb Block, a strong edge of buildings to hold the frontages of Ashby and Adeline Streets, that line of buildings could also contain most of the housing needed on this site, and the third side of the triangle, across Martin Luther King Junior W ay, could mostly be left open. That would make a nice area for recreation, being open to the South and West for lots of sunshine. 

I think MLK is the easiest street to get across of the three that border the BART lot, and would be the most easily modified by controlled crosswalks to encourage free interchange, so that a new recreation area might be used by neighbors on both sides of the street. In this way the existing row of houses on MLK and the new buildings on Ashby and Adeline would surround a park as well as the portion of MLK Way that went through alongside the park. 

The Adeline Corridor and the Ashby/Adeline intersection is a difficult problem; there is a history of failed attempts to tame it. I believe this is an issue that must be met squarely, and that solving it is crucial to the whole area and the BART development in particular. A six or seven lane freeway is grossly out of character in a residential area and in a commercial area. Its presence fosters driving habits and attitudes that are extremely dangerous, as any pedestrian knows, sometimes, unfortunately, to their peril! I hope the City of Berkeley will see the importance of integrating Ashby and Adeline streets into this study.  

So, I say, let’s get to work! 


David Soffa is a Berkeley resident.w