Public Comment

Commentary: A Traditional Neighborhood at Ashby BART

By Charles Siegel
Tuesday June 06, 2006

It is possible to build housing at Ashby BART to create a sizable neighborhood park, and to make the neighborhood more livable. Let me describe what could be done in a sketchy way, using approximate numbers.  


Narrowing Adeline  

We can give ourselves more land to work with by narrowing Adeline adjacent to the BART parking lot.  

This part of Adeline used to be three lanes in each direction but was restriped so that it now has two very wide lanes and a bike lane in each direction. It also has a bleak looking mall in the center of the street.  

If we made it into a normal four-lane street, we could narrow it by about 30 feet. It is at about the same level as the deck that would be built over the BART parking lot for the development, so the land that is no longer needed for the street could be added to the project area.  

This would add over an acre to the project area, increasing it from about five to over six acres. 


Housing and Park  

This expanded site could give us two-and-a-half acres for housing and over three-and-a-half acres for a park.  

Two-and-a-half acres would be enough to build 250 units of housing at 100 units per acre—close to the “maximum of 300 units” proposed for the site.  

By comparison, the Trader Joe's project at University Avenue and MLK is on one acre of land and has over 150 units in five-story buildings. Housing at Ashby could not be this dense, because we have to put the resident parking at ground level rather than underground. But 100 units per acre is less than two-thirds of the density of the Trader Joe’s project, and we could easily accommodate it in four- and five-story buildings.  

The rest of the site—over three and a half acres—could be used for a neighborhood park similar to Willard Park. This is more than two-thirds the total current area of the BART parking lot, enough land for the flea market. On weekdays, when the flea market is not operating, this park would give the neighborhood badly needed open space where it now has an ugly parking lot. 


Restoring Urban Fabric  

The park should be in the center of the site, and housing should be at the north and south ends of the site.  

It is better to have this sort of park surrounded by housing than to convert the entire parking lot into a park because the housing provides “eyes on the street” that make the park safer. 

Housing should be of buildings with small footprints, compatible with the scale of the neighborhood. For example, there should be four or five buildings facing Ashby, rather than one mega-building that fills the entire block.  

There should be shopping on the ground floor of the housing facing Ashby Avenue. Currently, drivers treat Ashby as a freeway. With shopping on both sides, Ashby would become an old-fashioned neighborhood shopping street. When they pass this sort of shopping street, drivers tend to slow down and watch for pedestrians—as they do on San Pablo Avenue between University and Addison, which is a pleasant place to walk and shop even though it is a state highway like Ashby. There should also be some shopping at the southern end of the site, where Adeline and MLK meet. Currently, there is commercial zoning on both sides of the street here, but the street is so wide that it is hard to cross. If we put some shopping in the middle and made Adeline narrower, more people would walk here.  

We should break up the large parking lot site into smaller blocks by creating pedestrian walkways that line up with the surrounding streets. There should be stop signs or stop lights where these cross streets meet Adeline, in order to knit the urban fabric together by making it easier to cross. Though MLK has heavier traffic, it should also be possible to add at least one traffic light there.  


A Shared Vision  

Ideas like this vision of a traditional neighborhood are the first step in creating a vision of what should be developed at Ashby BART, and I hope that other people come up with other positive visions.  

New urbanist planners have found that the best way to create a shared vision is by having a charrette where planners do drawings that let residents see what their suggestions would look like. The city should do this sort of envisioning for Ashby BART.  

People tend to panic when they hear abstract numbers like 100 units per acre, but they are pleased when they see what a traditional neighborhood with 100 units per acre would actually look like. It reminds them of North Beach or of some other turn-of-the-century neighborhood that they love.  


Charles Siegel is a Berkeley resident.