Renderings show plan for North Berkeley BART housing

The rendering shows the view along Acton Street of the proposed North Berkeley BART apartment complex. Draft design standards for the project call for reducing its footprint along the edges facing existing single-family homes in the neighborhood. Credit: David Baker Architects, Yes Duffy Architects, Einwiller Kuehl Landscape Architecture

One housing advocacy group sparked a social media storm five years ago with its model for a 31-story residential tower at the North Berkeley BART station. More recently, a neighborhood group that has pushed to limit development at the site mocked a massive cluster of 18-story apartment buildings, rallying opposition to zoning rules that would have allowed high-rise buildings there.

While these designs sparked a lot of conversation, they did not represent an actual proposal for one of Berkeley’s most controversial housing sites.

Now there is a real plan on the table.

The development team presented a colorful set of renderings Monday night depicting its vision for 750 homes, half of them zoned for affordable housing, atop what is now the parking lot of the North Berkeley BART station. The apartments will be distributed across buildings ranging from three to eight stories high, and held together by more than 50,000 square feet of new outdoor space filled with amenities, including parks, plazas, and pedestrian and cyclist paths.

The approval process enters the final stage

The images were released as the project enters some key final steps in Berkeley’s approval process.

City officials are scheduled to adopt design standards for housing at the station this fall, a draft of which includes provisions that would require the development team to concentrate the complex’s high-rise buildings toward the center of the site or along Sacramento Street, where they would be furthest from existing single-family homes. Standards also require the project to lower the height of buildings along the edges of the site, with setbacks of five to 10 feet from the property line, and new, wider sidewalks along Virginia, Acton and Delaware streets.

The design criteria will be presented to the Berkeley Planning Commission in October, then to the City Council for final approval in December.

From there, the development team — made up of for-profit developer AvalonBay, nonprofit builder BRIDGE Housing Corporation, the Berkeley Food and Housing Project, and the East Asian Bay Local Development Corporation — will submit the project for city approval.

But the plans will not go through Berkeley’s typical housing approval process.

Instead, those proceedings will be expedited as a result of state housing laws, which give city planning staff 180 days to review the project and ensure it complies with design standards and zoning rules. There will be no public hearings on the plan before the Design Review Commission or the Board of Zoning Adjustments, and the planning staff’s decision cannot be appealed to the City Council. The council will have the authority to decide whether to provide previously committed funding for affordable housing at the station, but will have no say in approving the project as a whole.

The development team plans to seek city approval for its plans early next year and begin construction in 2025, Jonathan Stern of BRIDGE Housing wrote in an email.

The architect's rendering shows a bike path running between a shaded pedestrian walkway and a bed of plants and flowers at the North Berkeley BART station.
The rendering shows a proposal to redesign the Ohlone Greenway, flanked by a pedestrian walkway and garden beds, as part of a redevelopment project for the land surrounding the North Berkeley BART station. Credit: David Baker Architects, Yes Duffy Architects, Einwiller Kuehl Landscape Architecture

The ambitious design mitigates some, but not all, opposition

About 200 people attended the meeting Monday night to get a first look at plans for the project.

In essence, the designs envision a new neighborhood and a four-block promenade, with touches like front porches and curves in some of the ground floors facing the existing homes, and dramatic flourishes like the promenade and apartments that form a bridge between two buildings over a new pedestrian path through the station site. A redesigned vehicle access road and upgraded Ohlone Greenway will extend into the complex as well.

There will be 310 parking spaces for residents in a five-story garage that drivers will enter from Delaware Street. This parking would be separate from BART’s plans for up to 200 commuter parking spaces at the station, down from 700 commuter spaces now.

Landscape architect Sarah Coyle described the design’s 55,000-square-foot open space as “a new front porch for North Berkeley,” with shaded walkways, ping-pong tables and outdoor seating that can serve as gathering places for current and future residents.

“It’s more than just houses,” Cowell told the audience.

The architect's rendering shows a design for a pedestrian path running between two buildings.  The walkway and flats form a bridge over the track.
The rendering shows a dramatic feature of the planned North Berkeley BART station development: a “grand gateway” in which homes and a boardwalk form a bridge between two buildings on a planned pedestrian path through the station site. Credit: David Baker Architects, Yes Duffy Architects, Einwiller Kuehl Landscape Architecture

Even some of the project’s harshest critics said planners’ vision for the site allayed some of their concerns about the development.

“The project — if they built what they showed us — would probably be acceptable,” said Tony Corman, a musician who lives near the station and who opposed the initial design plans released by the development team. Corman is a member of the North Berkeley Neighborhood Alliance, which has pushed for a smaller development with fewer homes on the site, though he stressed in an interview Tuesday that he was speaking personally and not on behalf of NBNA.

Another resident who lives near the station and asked that her name not be used because she organized opposition to the project with many of her friends and neighbors, called Council Member Rashi Kesarwani after Monday’s meeting to say she felt comfortable and happy with the design.

The architect's rendering shows people playing ping-pong under a shaded canopy, while others rest on benches outside an apartment building.
Plans for the North Berkeley BART housing development presented to the public Monday envision more than 50,000 square feet of new open space, with amenities such as outdoor seating, plazas and ping-pong tables. Credit: David Baker Architects, Yes Duffy Architects, Einwiller Kuehl Landscape Architecture

But there is still little evidence of the extent of the controversy surrounding the project.

Shortly after the meeting began, another NBNA member, Vicki Sommer, grabbed the microphone and appeared to try to read a statement to the audience detailing the “many issues” she had with the project, before Keserwani took back the microphone and asked Sommer to return to her seat. Sommer did not respond to a message seeking comment. Corman said the NBNA did not ask or encourage her to boycott the meeting.

Corman said he remains concerned that the plans in developers’ proposals may not match what will eventually be built. The design did not overcome the opposition he and other nearby homeowners face to the project.

“I still think it’s too long,” Corman said.

On the other side of the debate, North Berkeley’s Libby Lee Egan says Now! — a housing advocacy group that has long called for more homes at the station — also said it was a fan of the development team’s plan.

“I didn’t know North Berkeley BART could be this great,” Egan told me in an interview.

But she also wished the 750-unit proposal for the station site, which was earmarked for up to 3,600 homes even after the City Council imposed stricter zoning restrictions than her group called for, had been more ambitious.

“It looks like there may be more units,” Egan told me. “The design was so great,” she said, “so why shouldn’t we have more of it?”

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