Spring News: Homes at BART, Street Paving Update & More

Dear Neighbor,

There is much to be grateful for this spring, as we enter a period of reduced Covid-19 spread. I wish a happy and safe journey to all those who have an opportunity to travel for spring break.

If you are able to make a donation to support relief efforts in Ukraine, I wanted to share three organizations with you:

  • CARE, an international humanitarian organization, has set up an emergency Ukrainian Crisis Fund with the goal of providing immediate support for four million people. Donations will go toward providing Ukrainians with water, food, supplies, hygiene kits, immediate support and aid, and cash.
  • Razom for Ukraine, a Ukrainian-American non-profit, is working to not only support emergency response to the war, but also provide a host of resources for people looking to help, available on their website.
  • Nova Ukraine, a non-profit organization, is dedicated to providing humanitarian aid to Ukraine and raising awareness about Ukraine in the U.S. and throughout the world.

This month, the Planning Commission will vote this Wed., April 6 on zoning and other matters related to creating homes at the Ashby and N. Berkeley BART stations, followed by a Council Work Session Discussion on April 19 and a Council vote on May 31. In this newsletter, you will find detailed factual information about zoning, affordable housing, and station access (including parking).

In lieu of my usual in-person group office hours, I am offering one-on-one 15-minute Zoom appointments to discuss any questions you may have about the N. Berkeley BART development process. The appointments are available on April 22, 24, and 25, and you can invite up to two people to join you. If these times don’t work for you, or fill up before you have a chance to schedule, please e-mail me (rkesarwani@cityofberkeley.info) with the subject line “15 mins” so we can find a time for you. We can also schedule a longer group meeting, in person or on Zoom, for your neighborhood group.

In this newsletter:

Development at N. Berkeley BART

The Planning Commission will vote this Wed., April 6 on zoning for the Ashby and N. Berkeley BART stations, a joint vision and priorities document, and the final environmental impact report.  

Overall, the purpose of developing homes at these two stations is twofold: (1) to help meet the City’s goals for housing at all income levels, particularly for low-income households (a state requirement under our Housing Element Update); and (2) to do so in a sustainable manner—literally on top of public transit.

N. Berkeley BART station. Photo: Pi.1415926535 (Creative Commons License).

Zoning of the Ashby and N. Berkeley BART stations is also a requirement pursuant to state law, AB 2923. This means that we have limited flexibility as it relates to the development standards, and our City Planning staff have proposed the following after an extensive Community Advisory Group input process:

  • Minimum density of 75 units per acre;
  • A maximum height of seven stories; and
  • Floor area ratio (FAR) of 4.2.

I understand some in the community have requested a maximum of 75 units per acre; however, I want to be clear that this is not consistent with zoning requirements under AB 2923, based on the legal guidance I have received. Specifically, I was informed by our City Attorney that it would “undermine the plain meaning and intent of the statute to allow a local jurisdiction to impose a maximum density standard” for the number of units per acre. Further, state law specifies: If “the local zoning ordinance does not conform” to the development standards required under AB 2923, then the [BART] transit-oriented development “zoning standards shall become the local zoning for any [BART] district-owned parcels” [see AB 2923, Section 29010.6­(d)(2)].

These development standards can only be increased (up to amounts studied by the Environmental Impact Report), but not decreased, as the state law is clear that the local zoning ordinance would simply be overridden where it fails to meet the BART transit-oriented development zoning standards. The Planning Commission will consider the development standards proposed by staff—and developed through the extensive Community Advisory Group input process—at their meeting on Wed., April 6. The Planning Commission’s recommendation is expected to come before the Council for consideration and final approval on May 31.

It’s important to keep in mind that zoning establishes parameters for an actual project, but it does not dictate exactly what a future development would look like. There are two other major factors at play:

  1. Financial constraints make certain building heights more or less likely. For example, we often see 100 percent affordable housing buildings that are no taller than five stories because this height enables wood-framed construction that is more economical than taller building designs. Another tipping point exists at 85 feet or eight stories—five stories of wood-framed construction above a three-story concrete podium—with more costly steel-framed construction used beyond 85 feet. Even within these height limits driven by the cost of building materials, for-profit and non-profit developers must carefully weigh a project’s financing and future income against growing construction costs for each additional floor. In the future, newer construction technologies, such as mass timber and modular units, could alter this financial calculus.
  2. A community design charrette process will determine specific decisions about height, a stepped-down perimeter, architectural features, open space, and station access (including parking up to the maximum allowed by BART) and will be guided by the Joint Vision and Priorities document. This process will culminate in the development of “objective design standards” in partnership with the selected developer team, BART, and the City of Berkeley. Selection of a developer team will likely occur by the end of this year for the N. Berkeley station.   

The Joint Vision and Priorities Document (pgs. 44-54) was developed from a community process that spanned from June 2020 through December 2021. Members of the Community Advisory Group—selected to represent a diverse cross-section of the community—had multiple opportunities to provide input. The document reflects the join vision of the City and BART as it relates to Affordable Housing, Public and Civic Space, Land Use, Building Form, and Station Access. I want to address Affordable Housing at length and Station Access in brief….

What We Mean When We Talk About Affordable Housing

The City and BART will strive to maximize the number of permanently affordable, deed-restricted housing units within the funding that can be identified.” —Joint Vision and Priorities

The Joint Vision and Priorities document goes on to state that at least 35 percent of new housing at each site must be affordable to households earning less than 60 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI).

I have read your e-mails asking for “the largest number of affordable units” to be developed at these sites. I think there is much agreement with this sentiment, and I want to provide more context on how affordable housing is financed:

Housing—whether it is deed-restricted to be available at below market rate or whether it is offered at market rate—costs the same amount of money to construct. While a BART parking lot may be considered a public asset, BART policy dictates that its parking lots are to be leased to a developer(s) at fair-market value. This means that BART will be paid by the developer and lease income generated would be reinvested into BART’s transit operations for the benefit of the public. BART policy further stipulates that up to a 30 percent land discount of the fair-market value of the ground lease would be provided when at least 35 percent of the total units are built at below market rate for individuals earning no more than 60 percent of AMI. The City of Berkeley is planning to meet these targets and has committed $53 million of local public funds to do so, which will leverage additional state and federal sources of funding at a rate of about 4 to 1. While market-rate housing relies on the expectation of market-rate rents to attract private capital for development, below-market-rate housing relies on public subsidies—from a local jurisdiction, the state, and federal tax credits, among other sources—to fund construction so that rents remain low.

Every additional unit of affordable housing must either be financed through (1) a public subsidy, or (2) more market-rate units that cross-subsidize more affordable units. If more affordable housing is desired through greater public subsidy (and state and federal sources of financing are not growing), then this means that we as local taxpayers must collectively agree to pay more. The City of Berkeley has already committed a total of $53 million towards the creation of affordable homes at the Ashby and N. Berkeley BART stations—something we were able to do because of voters’ generosity in supporting the $135-million Measure O affordable housing bond on the November 2018 ballot. On top of that, the city is currently exploring—through a review of its bonding capacity and a scientific survey of residents—the possibility of another revenue measure(s) for the November 2022 ballot. The additional revenue measure is largely intended to address infrastructure needs and could potentially include additional funding for affordable housing, as a response to the calls for greater levels of affordable housing at the BART stations. The decision to tax residents, particularly during a time of uncertainty and rising inflation, is one I do not take lightly, and it requires further exploration and outreach. I also want to note that the BART sites are not the only publicly-controlled parcels available for affordable housing. The City of Berkeley owns a number of properties that would be suitable for affordable housing development if more funding were available—click HERE (see pgs. 28-52 for the City Manager’s analysis of city-owned property for affordable housing). 

The second strategy of increasing the number of market-rate units requires increasing the development standards, such as by allowing greater height, to help pay for more community benefits like more affordable units. This occurs because market-rate units provide a financial benefit when they are subject to the City’s affordable housing mitigation fee. Funds from this fee would serve to pay for more affordable units than could otherwise be created by public subsidy alone, and the City is currently assuming that $13 million of the $53 million subsidy will be generated from the affordable housing mitigation fee (with the balance of $40 million from Measure O). Establishing development standards that allow for more total units than proposed by the current development standards would therefore subject more market-rate units to the fee and raise more funds for affordable housing. The Joint Vision and Priorities document proposes to “maximize the number of new homes,” and also prioritizes “beautiful, creatively designed, well-proportioned” buildings that “create visual and physical connections with the neighborhood through its architectural design” and considers the “scale and character of the surrounding built environment.”

Station Access, Including Parking Maximum

At its Community Meeting on March 9, BART presented its plans for maximum parking at each BART station. For N. Berkeley, BART used ridership and travel pattern data as well as community surveys to arrive at the estimates displayed in the slide below, which result in a maximum amount of 200 parking spaces. For more information, please review the full presentation and/or watch the Zoom recording.

UPDATE: Our Street Paving Item

The Council item I authored in February (with co-sponsors Lori Droste, Terry Taplin, and Susan Wengraf) related to Street Paving Funding will be heard by the Budget & Finance Policy Committee on Thurs., April 14 (meeting starts at 10 a.m.). The item requests a total of $9 million in additional ongoing funding to adequately fund street maintenance and suggests a three-year timeframe to reach this target.

Poor street conditions adversely impact all users, including drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians.

These funds would more than double our current street maintenance budget of $7.3 million to a total of $16.3 million, bringing us to the bare minimum amount needed to stop further deterioration of our streets. A total of $24 million annually would be needed to address the backlog of deferred street maintenance and improve our street pavement condition. The City is exploring a possible revenue measure on the November 2022 ballot to address deferred street maintenance, and I will keep you updated on how that process unfolds.

Since I introduced our Streets Item in February, it is exciting to see other Council colleagues express interest in adequate funding for street paving. Vice Mayor Kate Harrison introduced an item (beginning on p. 137) in March proposing some potential strategies for funding street paving, such as repurposing one-time salary savings that result from unfilled City positions. While one-time strategies are worthy of exploration, we need to be mindful that we ultimately provide ongoing and sustainable sources of revenue for street paving. Done well, this requires that we carefully review the existing costs of City operations, services, and programs—and that we are clear-eyed about the tradeoffs of adding new City services and programs. I believe our first priority must be the fulfillment of basic City services like adequate street paving, and I’m optimistic about the progress we are making on this important issue.

Vision 2050 Community Meeting on Infrastructure Needs

A meeting is scheduled for Wed., April 20 at 7 p.m. for Districts 1 and 2 to provide input on infrastructure needs, such as deferred maintenance on street paving. This is an important opportunity to share your concerns and priorities for a possible revenue measure on the November 2022 ballot to raise funds for infrastructure.

Berkeley Marina Specific Plan Questionnaire

The Berkeley Marina Area Specific Plan (BMASP) will shape the future of the waterfront, including recreation areas, parkland, retail and bay access.

Please share your input by completing the questionnaire by April 22.

More information is available here: https://www.cityofberkeley.info/BMASP/