Bumpy Road for Bus Rapid Transit at Planning Commission

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday July 03, 2008 - 09:53:00 AM

Declaring that Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) “looks to me like a huge development scheme,” Berkeley Planning Commissioner Patti Dacey said last week she couldn’t cast a vote without more information about its potential impacts. 

But for fellow Commissioner David Stoloff, “the first major public improvement of public transportation in 50 years” deserves strong support. 

The one thing commissioners could decisively and unanimously agree on at the June 25 meeting was to reject a second joint session with the city’s Transportation Commission so they could focus on the land-use implications of the massive AC Transit project. 

The commission was taking its last opportunity to formally respond to AC Transit’s draft environmental impact report (EIR) on the project, but the project is certain to provide fodder for the panel in months ahead as final plans are drawn up and the final EIR is released.  

The three members of the public who addressed the commission were all critics of a central element of the project—reduction of Telegraph Avenue traffic lanes to one in either direction in order to accommodate bus-only traffic down the center of the avenue. 

They also didn’t like elimination of on-street parking on the avenue and favored instead the program they call Rapid Bus Plus, which would combine some aspects of the AC Transit program without doing away with any lanes. 

Dacey’s concern, echoed by several others on the commission, was learning precisely what impacts BRT would have on development. 

Under state law, each of the platforms used to board and unload the bus along the length of its route from the downtown Berkeley BART station to San Leandro BART would qualify as a transit station under state law. And state law grants a 25 percent bonus to new projects built within a quarter-mile radius of a station—and that may be on top of existing city bonuses for provision of affordable housing. 

“That would transform the Telegraph corridor into six and seven stories—huge,” said Dacey. 

“I’m hearing the word ‘development’ used as though it’s always a negative,” said Land Use Planning Manager Debbie Sanderson. “But there are a number of parts of the city that would welcome development because they’re right on the tipping point.” 

For commissioner and City Council candidate Susan Wengraf, a major concern is BRT’s impact on the downtown streetscape. 

“I think the platform would transform the character of downtown,” she said, turning a crucial block of Shattuck Avenue between Center and Addison streets into “a bus station.” She’s also worried that the project could prove “devastating” for already struggling small businesses, including those on Telegraph Avenue and Bancroft. 

The city also needs to know who will bear the responsibility for maintaining the streets, platforms and medians if the full-scale BRT plan is implemented. 

Another question raised by Wengraf as well as several critics in earlier meetings is the fate of trees currently planted in the Shattuck Avenue median strips. 

“This is really an Oakland project,” said Commission Chair James Samuels, holding up a map to illustrate that most of the length of the BRT corridor falls in that city. “I was kind of startled. We’re like the tail wagging the dog.” 

“We’re at the bottom of the food chain,” responded Commissioner Gene Posch-man, a notable BRT skeptic. 

Though architect Jim Novosel was attending his first meeting as a planning commissioner, he had already seen the BRT proposal during his tenure on the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee. “When I saw it, I was quite horrified,” he said. “It’s a system designed by engineers and not architects.” 

Novosel, who replaced Helen Burke as City Councilmember Linda Maio’s appointee, shares his predecessor’s concern with the living environment. 

“Every tree between Bancroft Way and Center Street would be gone” under the AC Transit proposal, he said, shaking his head. 

Wengraf said Berkeley shouldn’t accept the transit agency’s alternatives, adding, “San Leandro and Oakland are not taking this thing sitting down. They’re fighting back.” 

San Leandro rejected dedicated bus lanes, and Oakland officials have weighed in with their own critiques. 

“BRT is the most important land-use decision we are going to make in the next five years,” said Poschman. “It’s incredibly important.” 

Poschman, the commission’s resident policy and statute wizard, said his review of websites for BRT projects in other cities portrayed the concept as an opportunity to increase development. 

“One of their main goals is new development,” Wengraf said. 

“Let me be direct,” Poschman said. “Telegraph Avenue is the prime development area in terms of mixed-use and bad commercial space.” 

Mixed-use projects build housing over ground-floor commercial space, and such projects are allowed to cover 90 percent of a lot’s surface area, compared with 40 percent for housing-only projects, leading, Poschman said, to situations like University Avenue, “where you wind up with little commercial spaces, mostly vacant,” which these added solely to obtain the extra size allowed for mixed-use projects. 

“How did we get the mixed-use bonus of over 100 percent? Damned if I know, but I’ve got to go back and figure it out,” he said. 

Poschman said multiple state laws provide for so-called Transit Village and Transit Oriented Development, further buttressed by federal laws and policies. 

Stoloff said Berkeley should take advantage of development opportunities, and faulted the community for effectively downzoning the areas around the Ashby and North Berkeley BART stations when the rail system was installed. Other cities, he said, had taken advantage of the opportunity to add more housing.