Public Comment

Commentary: Ashby BART: A Chance for Healing, By: Bill Hamilton

Friday March 17, 2006

I commend the Daily Planet for running several good and timely commentary pieces lately concerning the proposed Ashby BART development. Bob Wrenn’s piece (2/28) made the important case for going ahead with the project even though it has “gotten off on the wrong foot.” His reasons include providing needed housing for low and very-low income people, for the disabled, and for senior citizens. 

David Soffa’s piece called important attention to how the project could “create a neighborhood, both to replace the erased neighborhood and to knit the city fabric back together where it was cut apart.” I agree with these assessments. 

I have some further comments about the important opportunity we have to transform or to reconstruct our neighborhood and community. But, before I go there I would like to comment on the reluctance of many neighbors to support the ongoing process to develop the Ashby BART property. 

There is a natural and understandable reluctance by many long time residents to support efforts by the city government to “develop” areas within our neighborhood because of the history of past redevelopment practices that sought to clear away older and less affluent residents and build upscale developments. This practice was good for private developers and city coffers but bad for long-time residents. I believe that this process can be avoided by making sure that all concerned neighbors, homeowners, renters, and even homeless stay involved in the process throughout. Also, some homeowners feel that any development that increases density will hurt their property values due to an increase of housing stock and decreasing demand. Also, in the case of an increase of low income housing some neighbors are afraid of “the criminal element” impacting their safety and possibly lowering their property values. The counter argument is that our neighborhood must be economically varied, having room for all income groups, races, and our own children. We cannot deal with social problems by exclusion. 

The placement of the Ashby BART station in the heart of a predominantly African-American neighborhood 40 to 50 years ago was a big set back for long time residents. Fortunately, neighborhood activists and city officials retained the air rights above the station and parking lot for future development. Further impacting long-time residents is the continual and persistent replacement of black homeowners, renters, and businesses with more affluent and usually white residents. Gentrification continues to change the nature and culture of this area. This economic trend must be resisted or mitigated in order to maintain the unique and valuable character of this multi-racial South Berkeley-North Oakland neighborhood that we are proud of and are known for.  

How might we accomplish such a project? By providing housing and services for low income and senior citizens we can help keep a more diverse population in the neighborhood. Also, an accommodation for the Ashby Flea Market will help maintain this distinctly African-American institution. Traditional black run businesses such as restaurants, beauty parlors, barbers, night clubs and other cultural outlets could be encouraged to set up in the commercial areas of the development. Just as Yoshi’s has done for Jack London Square a world class jazz club could be an anchor and destination for music lovers from all over the Bay Area. An African-American museum and bookstore that chronicles the local history of African-Americans would be a valuable cultural addition to this South Berkeley-North Oakland neighborhood.  

Economic development in the local community including the black community should be a priority. Construction jobs could be set aside for the local black population that suffers from an especially high unemployment rate especially among black youth. A job training and career program could be developed and housed at the Ashby BART development. The city could initiate and encourage lenders to make small business loans available to local small businesses, including black entrepreneurs. 

The Ashby BART Transportation Village envisaged by some local politicians and planners can have a very positive impact on the South Berkeley-North Oakland area if neighborhood activists from all populations get involved in the planning process. We have a unique opportunity to develop a public vision of our community based on our cultural history and to carry it out into the future. 


Bill Hamilton is a Berkeley resident..