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Berkeley finally embracing housing in a bid to rebuild a historically Black neighborhood

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 12/18/2020 By J.K. Dineen

The Berkeley City Council was about to vote on rezoning the Adeline Street corridor this month when the members did something unheard of in the city’s famously anti-development politics: They moved to add an extra floor of height to what builders could construct.

Instead of six floors on the southern end of Shattuck Avenue, developers willing to make 50% of units affordable could build seven stories. And instead of five stories along Adeline Street, they could put up six-story residential buildings if they met the same affordable threshold.

For a city famous for blocking development, the 8-1 approval of the Adeline Street plan was a change point, said Matthew Lewis, South Berkeley resident and spokesman for California YIMBY, a pro-housing group.

“This was a big shift and it was indicative of a change of tone we’re seeing in Berkeley on housing politics,” he said. “That extra story is going to make it more feasible to build more affordable housing in a part of the city that has been neglected for years. I think we are going to see a lot more of that.”

Six years in the making, the plan rezones the 1.3-mile, 86-acre stretch of Adeline Street and Shattuck Avenue between Dwight Way and the Oakland border. It allows 1,450 new housing units, about half deed-restricted for low-income families. More than half of the housing, 850 units, would be built on parking lots surrounding the Ashby BART Station, with another 600 apartments scattered on vacant or underutilized parcels along the corridor.

Adeline Street is heavily trafficked and cuts through what was once a thriving Black community, but has become increasingly white as the high cost of housing has driven out working class families. The street, which is extra wide because trolleys used to run in the median, is home to car dealers, antique stores, liquor shops, Walgreens and Berkeley Bowl, a famous foodie emporium. There are vacant lots and boarded-up buildings, including a shuttered appliance store, a camping spot for homeless people.

A central objective of the plan is to narrow the street — the public right of way makes up 38 acres of the area plan — and create space for bike paths and plazas and other green spaces. There is space for development near the intersection of Adeline and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, said Berkeley Interim Planning Director Jordan Klein.

The centerpiece of the plan is the Ashby BART Station, which includes 6.3 acres of parking lots, one used for a weekend flea market.

One of the new, pro-housing City Council members is Terry Taplin, a Black Berkeley native who has watched most of his friends leave the city because of housing costs. He said people now are more supportive of housing and less dependent on cars. He said the only way to make Berkeley more welcoming to young people — and bring back working-class former residents — is to add apartment buildings.

“Everybody my age has surrendered any notion that we will ever own a home in Berkeley, never mind a single-family home,” Taplin said. “You hear homeowners who oppose development say things like, ‘Who would want to live in a tiny apartment on the fifth floor?’ I’ve spent years of my life yearning for nothing more than a tiny apartment on the fifth floor!”

City Council member Lori Droste said she was surprised at the level of support for the plan, about 85% among residents who commented at the meeting or in writing.

“For years Berkeley has been a place that has not adapted to the changes in the world, and we’ve seen more displacement because of that, particularly among African Americans,” she said. “There has been a dramatic change over the last few years where you saw a large number of residents — people living in the neighborhood — saying we want Berkeley to live up to the identity of being a welcoming community. If that means allowing an extra 10 feet so that we can create more affordable housing and address climate change, then that is what we want.”

The plan’s “right of return” provision helps families forced out of a neighborhood by urban renewal or gentrification, giving them preference in affordable housing lotteries.

City Council member Ben Bartlett, a fifth-generation South Berkeley resident, said most of the Black families he grew up with have relocated to less expensive cities like Pittsburg, Antioch and Vallejo.

The decline started in the 1960s with construction of the Ashby BART, which supplanted businesses and homes in what was the heart of Black Berkeley. Since then predatory lending, redlining, rising rents and generational changes have fueled a steep decline of the community.

Bartlett hopes to bring back families that used to live in South Berkeley and attract young Black professionals with a vibrant cultural district.

“There is a sense of social dislocation — where you feel unwelcome in a neighborhood that has become pretty white and not that friendly to diversity,” Bartlett said.

He said that the community was skeptical of the plan at first, but many constituents have come around.

“We are delivering on affordable housing. We are delivering on climate change. We are delivering on culture and green space and the right of return,” Bartlett said. “The conversation around density is something that every city in California is going to have to get more comfortable with.”

Brad Wiblin, a Berkeley planning commissioner and executive at the affordable housing developer Bridge Housing, said the Adeline area has languished from a lack of new investment. He said the market-rate development is needed to bolster the business district.

“This is a homegrown local business district that was struggling even before COVID. It’s a district that needs more rooftops and more discretionary income among its neighbors,” he said. “If you add 1,200 families next door, you can’t help but improve their conditions.”

Developers are not likely to rush to take advantage of increased heights allowed with the affordable units, said Mark Rhoades, a private planner and housing advocate.

The plan’s economic feasibility study assumes construction costs at $320 per square foot, well below current pricing for a five-, six- or seven-story building, he said. Construction costs dipped to $380 a square foot in the early days of the pandemic but have rebounded to above $400. Without public subsidies, developers will be hard-pressed to make projects work at the high levels of affordability the plan proposes, Rhoades added.

“The plan has incredibly lofty goals around equity, which we all aspire to,” he said, adding that meeting those goals “will fall primarily on the ability of the city to provide public funding the resources necessary for our community to succeed.”

Klein said that he thinks developers will eventually embrace the plan.

“The only thing that developers hate more than community benefit requirements is uncertainty,” Klein said. The plan “creates a clear set of rules in terms of what developers need to provide in order to get the density bonus.”

Although the Adeline plan passed easily, housing advocates are bracing for the next phase of planning: rezoning the Ashby BART property. Over the next year the city will set height limits for the 6.3 acres and plan a plaza that would host flea markets and other public events.

The Ashby BART housing development plan is being done at the same time as the plan for the North Berkeley BART Station. Over the next year Berkeley officials will come up with the specifics for both plans — unit count, height, affordability levels, parking requirements — and then BART will put out a request for proposals.

Klein said the BART debate has shifted, in part because of Assembly member David Chiu’s 2018 legislation giving the transit agency power to develop housing on its lots, even if local jurisdictions oppose it.

“Six years ago it was taboo to talk about development around the BART stations,” Klein said. “Everybody understands that these empty parking lots are places we need to put housing. Now it’s a question of how dense and how tall.”

The conversations in Ashby and North Berkeley have differed, with North Berkeley focused on preserving neighborhood character and not overwhelming the historic neighborhood of single-family homes while residents around Ashby have focused on addressing a history of displacement.

“The BART wars are going to be the next big thing,” Taplin said. “For me it’s important to treat these two stations equally. Both stations should have the maximum number of affordable homes and the same number of stories.”

J.K. Dineen is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @sfjkdineen


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