This is an update and expansion on a site design proposal for redeveloping the area around the North Berkeley BART station, building upon a project from the UC Berkeley [IN]CITY program.
Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) stations are distributed throughout the San Francisco Bay Area in a typical commuter rail configuration. These stations are fairly far apart (i.e., only one or two per suburb) and are generally optimized for “park-and-ride” commuters to use during peak rush hour periods to and from offices in downtown San Francisco and Oakland. However, the role of BART has been evolving and an increasing number of Bay Area residents wish to see more sustainable infill development at station sites, coinciding with the trend of adaptive re-use of excessive parking seen elsewhere. (Walker 2017)
Why this site?
BART officials have identified a number of existing stations ripe for a transit-oriented development (TOD) overhaul. (San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District 2021) North Berkeley is one of those stations, originally classified as “Urban with Parking” but soon to be rezoned to match BART’s new TOD place type named “Urban Neighborhood / City Center”. There has been an intense amount of community interest in this rezoning and potential redevelopment over the past couple of years, which is understandable given how radically different it could become compared with its existing surroundings.
The City of Berkeley has been working with BART and residents to align on a vision since 2018, and several modest design concepts have even come out of this process. (City of Berkeley Planning and Development Department 2020) However, I wanted to try a more ambitious take on this site, maximizing the potential of this valuable land while also challenging myself to stay attuned to the needs of the passionate local residents.
Assembly Bill (AB) 2923 was California state legislation passed in 2018 that promoted transit-oriented development (TOD) by making BART define a set of baseline TOD standards for building heights, density, parking, and floor area ratios and subsequently forcing local jurisdictions to update their zoning ordinances at certain BART-owned property to meet or exceed these standards. If a city’s zoning does not conform to BART’s standards by July 1, 2022, the baseline TOD standards automatically become the local zoning, so it is in each city’s interest to work with BART to develop zoning updates that conform but also are satisfactory to the city and its residents.
For the North Berkeley BART site, the Berkeley City Council and BART agreed upon a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that established a framework for development and a community engagement process. This included the creation of a Community Advisory Group (CAG) to work with BART and provide input to the City Planning Commission in preparation for the new zoning. The CAG hosted a series of public meetings from June 2020 up to the present where they discussed the TOD standards, debated how to get more affordable housing built on the site, explored preliminary site concepts, and collected copious amounts of feedback from the local community. (City of Berkeley 2021)
At this time, the CAG and the City Planning Commission have finished preparing draft zoning and General Plan amendments. Developers will be selected in Winter 2021 and actual project designs are targeted for Winter 2023 with construction beginning afterwards. A set of Objective Design Standards (ODS) will be crafted in a separate community engagement process and eventually enforced on developer applications.
As the debate over the future of this site has dragged on, several notable actions have been taken that will likely have strong influences on what eventually gets built. A BART visioning event in 2018 introduced “missing middle” housing concepts to the community by way of a submission from Opticos Design that was very well received. (Corman, et al. 2021) Drafts of a City-BART Joint Vision and Priorities (JVP) document were reviewed and edited throughout 2021 which established shared priorities such as affordable housing, new public space, and connecting of the Ohlone Greenway – what (Lynch 1981) would call Strong Values. (City of Berkeley 2021) In April 2021, the city set aside $53 million from a combination of Measure O tax revenue and developer fees to guarantee that at least 35% of the apartments built at this site will qualify as affordable with aspirations for more in the future. (Raguso 2021)
The community has been somewhat divided over what would be a desirable outcome and eventual development. Many voices are calling for a maximization of density to address the ongoing housing and climate crises. Others, particularly current residents of the neighborhood living nearby, are in favor of a much more scaled down approach that would fit in better with the existing character.
Neighborhood Characteristics & Local Context
It’s important to first understand the needs of these existing residents before diving into a redesign of the North Berkeley BART site. These needs were primarily inferred using data from a demographic analysis and several observational visits to the site.
First, a half-mile walkshed was established around the North Berkeley BART station to represent the local neighborhood. This walkshed was overlaid onto a map of Census Blocks to identify a corresponding set of Census Block Groups for closer analysis (i.e., Census Block Groups 4218.1-2, 4219.1-2, 4222.1-3, 4223.1-3, 4230.1/3, and 4231.1-2).
Demographic data from the U.S. Census Bureau was then pulled specifically for these Census Block Groups as well as for the City of Berkeley as a whole for comparison. This data was pulled from the 2000 Census, 2010 Census, and American Community Survey (ACS) 5-Year Data 2019 to identify trends over time.
North Berkeley At-a-Glance
There are roughly 17,000 people in 7,430 households living in the study area, roughly split evenly in terms of gender. 82% of households have at least one vehicle, despite their proximity to the BART station. This is an increasingly well-educated population, with 46% having a graduate/professional degree or higher (a 24% increase since 2000). This corresponds to a median income of $84,331, with a steady increase in the ratio of households with incomes over $100K to those under $100K since 2000 suggesting greater income disparity.
Notably, 46% of families have children under 18 years of age, suggesting a need for youth-friendly recreational facilities in the neighborhood. 17% of the population is also over 65 years of age (a major increase from 11% in 2000), which also suggests the need for better station accessibility and a focus on safety on the streets around the station.
Housing costs are high and rising in North Berkeley, with the median gross rent at $1,579 per month and the median value of homes at $807,509. 37% of residents are rent-burdened (i.e., spend more than 30% of their household income on rent), and vacancy rates are quite low at 7% suggesting a lack of housing supply. The majority (52%) of housing stock is single-family homes, with only 14% of buildings having 20 or more units. This suggests a dire need for greater diversity in housing types in the neighborhood and more affordability overall.
North Berkeley versus the City of Berkeley
The North Berkeley neighborhood has several notable differences when compared to the City of Berkeley overall. These are summarized in the table below.
|North Berkeley||City of Berkeley|
|Residents per sq. mi.||14K||11.5K|
|Commute with transit||31%||24%|
|% African American||7.8%||8.1%|
|% Hispanic or Latino||10%||11.4%|
|College Degree or higher||78%||74%|
The higher population density and share of transit use for commuting suggest that there is at least some potential for transit-oriented development in this area, despite the high rates of car ownership. The higher percentage of married folks and seniors reinforces the need for family-friendly amenities and safe streets.
North Berkeley seems slightly less racially diverse than the city overall, which could be a consequence of its higher housing costs which in turn requires residents to have higher incomes and/or education levels. Racial disparities can also be seen in the rates of homeownership that vary greatly in North Berkeley, with 52% of Whites owning their home versus 16% of African Americans and 34% of Hispanics. All of this points again toward the need for more housing variability at more affordable price points.
Two visits, each approximately one hour long, were made to the North Berkeley BART station site to observe pedestrian patterns and existing uses of nearby amenities. Upon arriving via a BART train, a counter-clockwise circuit along the surrounding streets (Sacramento, Virginia, Acton, and Delaware) was walked 3-4 times while taking pictures and observing pedestrians. The first visit was at noon on a Monday, when only a handful of people were observed walking in the area. These included a parent with a child going to the nearby park, a senior citizen taking a walk along the Ohlone Greenway, and a couple of people entering and leaving the BART station. The second visit was in the afternoon on a Saturday, which had noticeably greater traffic to/from the station and along the Ohlone Greenway paths but still not more than 50 people in total.
Although the University Avenue commercial corridor was only three blocks away from the site, no pedestrians were observed in that direction during the visits. All of the people utilizing the BART station seemed to also have parked cars in the surrounding lot, as opposed to coming by bike or foot. (Though there were bicycle parking racks, they were not very heavily utilized.) This suggests that the BART station is still perceived primarily as a “park-and-ride” type station, and any future redesigns will likely still need to accommodate some amount of parking until this perception shifts.
The relatively small number of pedestrians observed during both trips in the neighborhood suggests there isn’t enough draw to the site to make people linger for extended periods of time, nor is there much sitting space that would support extended social interactions. (Whyte 2001) Most people are still generally passing through the station and not making intentional trips to the neighborhood for any particular amenities or activities – in other words, this was primarily a flow facility and not an adapted space per (Lynch 1981). In fact, there were no visible retail businesses or restaurants along the blocks adjacent to the station to attract patrons. The Ohlone Greenway paths are a minor draw but seem to mostly be utilized by residents in the immediate vicinity and not acting as chief destinations.
The streets surrounding the station were mostly quiet residential streets, with the exception of Sacramento Street which was much wider than the others and clearly meant to be a minor north-sound arterial road from North Berkeley to University Avenue and onwards to Central Berkeley. This was the only street that required street lights and pedestrian “beg button” signals as traffic speeds were upwards of 30 miles per hour. This street also separated the BART station from the primary Ohlone green space, but fortunately pedestrian improvements such as a wide median and corner bulb-outs made traversing this street easier.
The remainder of the streets were lined with single-family detached homes and ample street parking, despite being directly adjacent to all the BART station parking lots.
The street grid was intentionally broken in several places, presumably to keep the neighborhood quiet by outright blocking through traffic. This was done with bollards forcing drivers to turn at Virginia and Acton Streets, while Francisco Street and Short Street were terminated in cul-de-sacs to prevent any entry directly from the station area.
While this arrangement does allow the surrounding neighborhood to retain its quiet character, these missing street connections might impede traffic flows if the North Berkeley station site becomes more of a destination that creates demand for more automobile trips or freight deliveries. This is not an issue currently, however, as almost no traffic was observed along these side streets during the visits.
Existing Land Use Survey & Site Status
The existing zoning regulations for the area were referenced from official City of Berkeley records. (City of Berkeley 2021) As apparent from the observational visits, almost the entire neighborhood is zoned for exclusively residential purposes. Single-family and restricted two-family residential districts dominate the area, with a strip of commercial relegated to University Avenue.
While the clear division between residential and commercial uses does allow North Berkeley to retain its traditional quiet neighborhood character, it also severely limits the potential for the area to become a destination worth visiting in its own right. The lack of denser housing types also means this area fails to capitalize on the potential transit ridership at this station, which furthers automobile dependency across the Bay Area region and hence makes collective climate goals harder to achieve.
To address these issues, more mixed-use and high-density residential zoning will be needed. While this proposal might be initially off-putting for existing residents, there are ways it can be done that soften the transition and even bring new and highly desirable benefits for the broader neighborhood.
In any case, AB 2923 regulations will force the City of Berkeley to conform the zoning to “Urban Neighborhood / City Center” standards per BART’s 2017 transit-oriented development guidelines and allow BART to set even higher residential density standards on the land they own here. (Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) 2021) This means allowable residential density will need to be at least 75 dwelling units per acre with allowable height 7 stories or higher. Other baseline zoning standard guidelines are listed below.
|Allowable Residential Density||75 dwelling units per acre or higher|
|Allowable Height||7 stories or higher|
|Allowable Floor Area Ratio (FAR)||4.2 FAR or higher|
|Minimum Vehicle Parking||Zero for all land uses (no minimum requirement allowed)|
|Maximum Residential Vehicle Parking||0.5 spaces per unit or lower|
|Maximum Office Vehicle Parking||1.6 per 1,000 square feet or lower|
|Shared or Unbundled Vehicle Parking||Allowed (neither prohibited nor required)|
|Minimum Secure Bike Parking||1 space per residential unit or higher|
Based on learnings from the observational visits, the demographics of local residents, and BART’s own transit-oriented development (TOD) guidelines, it’s clear that the North Berkeley BART station area could benefit from a major re-envisioning that is also long overdue. However, any proposed redesign must be attuned to the needs of the local residents, which are summarized and prioritized here.
- More diverse and affordable housing. Given the low vacancy rate, high rent costs, and the fact that more than a third of existing residents are rent-burdened, the neighborhood could use an infusion of housing supply to relieve some of the market pressure. Higher density buildings can spread the cost of land across more units to bring down average rents and potentially even make homeownership possible across a broader income spectrum. Developers can also be incentivized to dedicate an adequate percentage of affordable units with state and local density bonuses.
- New community amenities. The stark lack of amenities to assemble people is holding back this site from becoming a truly great place and a destination. However, new amenities should be youth/family-friendly to cater to the many current and future families with children in the neighborhood. This will ensure that they will be welcomed and actively used by the local residents instead of shunned and perceived as not benefiting the community directly.
- Safer streets and enhanced station accessibility. The high number of seniors in the area (many of whom may become transit-dependent) need to be able to access the BART station easily as well as any future shops or amenities added to the site. Ensuring street and traffic safety is paramount, but the site could also benefit from defensible design (i.e., implementing good lighting and encouraging resident caretaking).
- Respect for the existing quiet neighborhood character. The existing street network design and orientation of homes suggest that there is a lot of value placed in the existing peaceful nature of the area. Adding more residents and amenities will inevitably disturb this to some extent, but the impacts can be mitigated by softening the edges of the site and implementing strong traffic calming measures to counter the increased numbers of visitors.
- Some preserved parking but not as much as existing. The high rates of car ownership in the area and the positioning of the station as a “park-and-ride” will necessitate some amount of on-site parking, but this can be included in ways that are less wasteful of land than surface lots. Enhancing access to the station via other modes such as biking, public transit, or even ridesourcing services will also reduce the need for on-site parking spots.
The North Berkeley BART station site has the potential to become a fully integrated mixed-use community center that draws in both local residents of the surrounding neighborhood as well as people from across the City of Berkeley and the broader Bay Area region. It can also provide affordable new homes for hundreds of families while also making car ownership unnecessary for them, given sufficient transportation alternatives and enough on-site retail diversity to reduce the need for longer trips entirely. This can all be done by following the lead of many other California cities embracing the “urban village” concept. (Tseng, et al. 2006)
Overall Site Plan
The centerpiece of the site would still be the BART station entrance, with a redesigned glass geodesic dome to allow for more transparency. It would be situated on a wide pedestrian and bike path that cuts diagonally through the site (aligned with the train tracks underneath), fully connecting the separate sections of the Ohlone Greenway as well as serving as a “shaft of space” that unifies the composition of the site. (Bacon 1974) The center dome would be flanked by two point-and-podium towers with green roofs and green walls to offer a therapeutic view, potentially even preventing crime. (MacDonald, Branas and Stokes 2019) These green roofs would extend to a set of surrounding buildings of various shapes and configurations, allowing a diverse and flexible set of uses from retail to community space.
The height of these towers would also vary in ways that prevent excessive shadowing on the neighboring residents and parks during primary daytime hours. To allow for maximum density while also respecting the much smaller scale of the surrounding neighborhood, the tallest buildings would be built near the center of the site with stepped-down massing as buildings approached the edge of the site. Thus, someone walking along one of the side streets would feel a Sense of Definition with at least a 1:2 height to horizontal distance ratio and buildings would appear to be human scale (Jacobs 1995), even though the buildings would rise up much higher out-of-sight. There would also be numerous openings for pedestrians to pass through the façades into the site to avoid dispersing effects per (Gehl 1971).
The variety of building types also allows for the diversity of housing that the community needs. This can include everything from small microunits of student housing all the way up to stacked townhouses for families or large luxury lofts at the top of the point-and-podium towers. The premium market-rate units in the highest towers can also be used to subsidize the affordable units across the site, ensuring a healthy and diverse mixed-income community.
To ensure that both the new and existing residents of North Berkeley have reasons to congregate at this site, and to avoid overly generic placemaking per (Russell 2015), plenty of space for social infrastructure and amenities is included. Open squares along the primary diagonal path and scattered throughout the site can become platforms for children’s playgrounds, pop-up shops, musical performances, or local art installations. Their flexibility in use is key as programming should change with the seasons and as needs shift, much like squares in Mexico that naturally accommodate a variety of uses. (Pieprz 2016) For example, a square can play host to a food truck one week and an open-air tai chi class for seniors the next. This ensures a continuously active site and reasons for visitors to come back again and again. These spaces, along with the broad central pathway, are also the ideal design to play host to radical activism and protest when necessary. (Schwartzstein 2020)
More permanent retail shops can be established on the ground floor of many of the buildings, particularly along the interior edges of the site to avoid being too noisy or disruptive to the local residents just outside. The exterior of the site can feature mostly residential uses to create a better transition to the rest of the neighborhood. An exception should be made for the frontage along Sacramento Street, however, as this will remain the primary transportation corridor and act as the “front door” to the site.
The four streets surrounding the North Berkeley BART station are each quite different and will require differences in treatment. At the same time, they can each serve unique roles in the circulation of passenger vehicles, bicycles, and pedestrians needed to and through the site.
Sacramento Street is the primary public transit corridor connecting to the North Berkeley BART station, but it also serves as a north-south arterial road and has potential as part of a broader bike network as well. (City of Berkeley Transportation Division 2017) While it may seem difficult to accommodate all of these modes of transportation on one street, Sacramento is a particularly wide street and has even more potential if street parking were removed on both sides.
With 110 feet of width (including public sidewalk right-of-way on both sides), there is actually enough space to fit a two-way bike path, transit shelter island, and dedicated transit-only lanes going in both directions. The sidewalk within the BART station site can be 10 feet wide plus have space for wayfinding signage, a planting strip, and even scooter parking.
Notably, street parking has been completely eliminated and travel lanes were reduced to one in each direction along with turn lanes. The existing median also needed to be shifted eastward to accommodate all of the new transportation infrastructure adjacent to the station site, but this seems worthwhile as it allows people arriving by bus or bike to enter the site more directly.
The façade along Sacramento Street would be intentionally lined with street trees for shade, wayfinding signs, benches for sitting, and retail with clean and transparent windows – all qualities of great streets. The retail shops would also have separate doors to create breaks in the façade, contributing to the rich array of qualities that engage the eyes. (Jacobs 1995)
Given that Virginia Street can act as a feeder into Sacramento Street, a passenger pick-up zone may be more efficient here rather than on any of the other side streets. There is also a one-way vehicle entry point into the site interior along the south side of this street, primarily intentioned for freight and emergency vehicles but could also be designed as a woonerf or commercial shared street (NACTO 2021) with strict speed limits if other types of vehicles were to be allowed. This vehicle entry point is also intentionally placed so that it could be connected to Short Street to the north in the future if desired.
While this street has a role to play to move passenger vehicles, bicyclists may also be using this path to connect to the Ohlone Greenway to the north so providing a safe bike path here is crucial. In this case, there is space for a two-way bike lane with a 2-foot planter box buffer. Street parking is also eliminated on this street, but sidewalks were widened in exchange.
Acton Street is clearly the “back street” of the site as it is the least trafficked and narrowest of the surrounding side streets. Hence, treatment of this street was primarily focused on traffic calming and pedestrian safety to turn it into something akin to a 2-way yield street. (NACTO 2021)
Lanes for automobiles were reduced to 8 feet each and flanked with planter boxes protecting raised bike lanes on both sides of the street. Sidewalks were widened and street trees were added to frame the street and provide a healthy buffer of protection for pedestrians. Since this will likely be the quietest street, it was important to add extra lighting to provide a better sense of safety for those walking around the station at night.
Somewhat the opposite of Virginia Street, Delaware Street can be seen as the “off-ramp” for Sacramento Street and likely where most vehicles will be entering the site from. To accommodate this, another one-way curved interior street entrance was opened along the north side of Delaware Street (at Short Street) and is intentioned to be a woonerf-style slow commercial shared street. (NACTO 2021) The entrance to an underground parking garage is also located along this street.
The two-way bicycle lanes from Sacramento Street can transition seamlessly into a similar configuration here, with the added amenity of a bike share station to help with multi-modal trips. The corner of Delaware and Sacramento Streets is also a good location for some outdoor dining, marking the start of a potential restaurant or retail corridor along the three blocks from here down to University Avenue.
I believe this design proposal meets all the needs of current residents identified from the empirical research, as well as offers a compelling vision for a more inclusive, lively, and accessible destination that will thrive for decades to come. It also fulfills objectives of Berkeley’s Urban Design and Preservation Element of the General Plan such as protecting existing resources and ensuring that new construction respects and enhances the existing environment. (City of Berkeley 2002) However, it also has some faults that will need to be addressed prior to any further consideration by the local CAG or Planning Commission.
- Excessive scale. Though every effort was made to keep as much building massing hidden as possible within the site, the sheer size and scale of development may prove to be unacceptable for existing residents. There has been strong resistance to high-density residences expressed in prior community meetings, despite the fact that current residents will not be forced to live there themselves. Replacing the towers with more “missing middle” housing may be preferable, though this will make it more difficult to ensure broader affordability.
- Need for more pedestrian safety improvements. The proposal significantly enhances accessibility to the BART station for people arriving by bike or bus, but not as much attention was given to the pedestrian experience. This is particularly noticeable for those walking the Ohlone Greenway, who would still need to cross several streets in order to continue along the main diagonal path. It also does not go far enough to accommodate the needs of disabled individuals per (Butler and Bowlby 1997).
- Complicated intersections. The liberal use of two-way cycle tracks around the site will result in more complexity at intersections, particularly along Sacramento Street where a transit-only lane and vehicle turn lanes are also present. This has not been explored fully enough and could pose further risk to pedestrian safety at the site without careful design considerations.
Despite these shortcomings, the proposal has the potential to deliver significant new value for the neighborhood in several ways.
- Provides abundant housing. The diverse array of building types and the focused density will result in production of much more needed housing stock than would otherwise occur. While this was not designed to be a 100% affordable development, the numerous market-rate units can go a long way towards subsidizing the affordable units.
- Accommodates many transport modes. This proposal has found ways to make space for cars, public transit, bikes, and even scooters. This was only possible by reprioritizing street space and eliminating almost all street parking, but this tradeoff will likely encourage shifts from driving to more sustainable modes of transportation anyway.
- Enhances the Ohlone Greenway. The new diagonal path through the site raises the prominence of the Ohlone Greenway, inviting more people to discover it for the first time as well as making it easier to traverse for those who already use it regularly. In addition, those walking the Greenway may also discover other amenities on the site and wander, keeping the area active for longer periods of time.
- Adds ample, flexible spaces for social activity. With this proposal, the community has many more options for dynamic programming or other assembling uses. If residents choose to, they can create a calendar of rotating events that will give themselves a never-ending series of reasons to visit and engage with the site and each other.
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