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Berkeley’s affluent neighborhoods could accommodate more housing

Cars and a motorcyclist drive through the intersection of College and Alcatraz in Southeast Berkeley
The city council could change zoning rules on College Avenue and other popular streets in Berkeley’s wealthier neighborhoods to allow more apartment buildings. Credit: Ximena Natera for Berkeleyside/CatchLight Local

Berkeley’s more affluent neighborhoods aren’t getting their fair share of new housing in the city’s growth plans over the next few years, according to some local officials, who say less affluent areas should take an unfair share of new construction .

West Berkeley Board Members Rashi Kesarwani and Terry Taplin make this case in letters to planning staff this summer in response to a draft housing element. The planning document, which California cities write this yearoutlines how Berkeley will meet the state’s mandate to approve nearly 9,000 new homes between 2023 and 2031.

Taplin and Kesarwani were joined by council member Lori Droste and several housing advocacy groups in arguing that the city should rezone parts of “high-resource” neighborhoods such as North Berkeley and the Elmwood District to allow for the construction of more apartments along popular corridors such as Solano and College avenues, as well as the northern blocks of Shattuck Avenue.

“It’s very difficult for me to explain to my constituents why they see so much development along San Pablo Avenue and virtually none in our city’s wealthiest commercial districts,” Kesarwani said in an interview. “Without rezoning, these parts of the city will not share the responsibility and the burden of creating housing for the next generation.”

The letters could foreshadow debates about Berkeley’s growth at city council meetings in the months and years to come.

City planning and development department staff are currently working on what will likely be a controversial set of zoning changes that would allow small apartment buildings in neighborhoods that today are mostly single-family homes, whether proponents of greater density see it as a route to building more housing in affluent neighborhoods.

Once these changes are made, staff will initiate another process next year to revise zoning rules for streets Berkeley considers transit corridors, which could result in higher height limits or further steps. to allow for denser housing along North Shattuck, Solano and College.

San Pablo Avenue has dozens of vacant and industrial properties that city planners say could be turned into new housing. A promoter wishes to transform this land located at 1201 San Pablo Avenue into a 66-unit building. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/Catchlight Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/Catchlight

Council member Sophie Hahn, who represents North Berkeley, was skeptical the zoning changes would make a big difference to the amount of housing being built there. Although Hahn noted that she was part of the unanimous vote of the city council last year who initiated the rezoning processes, she said the region’s higher land prices and smaller plot sizes can make projects less attractive.

“The idea that we can’t produce affordable housing in North Berkeley with the zoning we have is wrong,” Hahn said, pointing to the opening of the 34-unit Jordan Court apartment complex on Oxford Street this year.

“I greet, I embrace and I would like to see more affordable housing in North Berkeley,” she said. “I’m not sure zoning is the issue.”

The letters from Kesarwani, Taplin and Droste were in response to a draft of the Berkeley housing element that planners released in June. Berkeley must approve a final housing item that complies with state law by the end of January, and Sacramento officials looked closely at these plans.

Planning staff submitted a revised housing item draft to the state Department of Housing and Community Development for initial review earlier this month. This updated draft includes a new reference to upcoming work to change zoning on “transit and commercial corridors, especially in higher resource neighborhoods.”

The revised housing element does not specify North Shattuck, Solano or College Avenues as locations for rezoning, but Berkeley Planning Director Jordan Klein said those streets could “absolutely” be part of the effort.

Where should nearly 9,000 new homes go?

Several housing advocacy groups contested the “Site Inventory” part of Berkeley’s Housing Element, which lists properties where city staff think developers could build new housing during the eight-year cycle.

The inventory shows many potential sites in the city for new housing can be found along San Pablo and University Avenues, at the North Berkeley and Ashby BART stations, or in the Downtown and Southside neighborhood near UC Berkeley. Other parts of the city have far fewer potential housing sites.

City planners have identified far fewer potential sites for new housing in the Elmwood neighborhood compared to less affluent areas such as West Berkeley. Credit: Ximena Natera for Berkeleyside/CatchLight Local

Analysis Kesarwani included in his letter showed that the site inventory identified a capacity of 3,600 apartments to be built in West Berkeley, compared to 326 in Northeast Berkeley. The imbalance was even greater for affordable apartments, with 1,956 in West Berkeley and 136 in Northeast Berkeley. And even within this small pool of properties, Kesarwani and others argue that some sites identified as candidates for new housing are unlikely to be redeveloped because they are already occupied by businesses.

“It’s not fair – it doesn’t mean affirmatively fairer housingsaid Kesarwani, referring to the state’s requirement that cities distribute affordable housing fairly across all neighborhoods. “In fact, he does the opposite.”

She linked the imbalance to Berkeley’s history of redlining and other forms of housing discrimination. West and South Berkeley were zoned to allow for more industrial and commercial uses, such as body shops, which were not permitted in the city’s whiter and wealthier neighborhoods; today, many of these sites are seen as prime candidates for further development.

By not planning for more housing in areas such as north or southeast Berkeley, Kesarwani said the city’s plans also mean fewer people will have access to the amenities enjoyed by existing residents in those areas, parks and tree cover in better air quality.

And while wildfire concerns have led officials to limit growth in the historically affluent Berkeley Hills, advocates argue other affluent neighborhoods could safely accommodate more new homes.

“I think every neighborhood, every neighborhood, has to play a part in the future of our growth,” Taplin said. “We cannot content ourselves with establishing all the subsidized housing [and] all the density, along San Pablo and Adeline – it has to go everywhere.