Bay Area Weighing a Regional Transit-Oriented Upzoning

The bill would ease transit agency into its new role in Bay Area development.

BART's Antioch station is one where parking for suburban commuters has been debated. (Photo by Pi.1415926535​)

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Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) is already in the housing business — to date, it’s worked with developers to bring roughly 2,000 apartments and townhomes to its stations. A bill that passed the state senate last week could help the agency streamline the permitting process for even more transit-oriented development on its land by bypassing local zoning codes.

Of course, “bypassing local codes” are fighting words in the Bay Area. SB 827, which died earlier this year, proposed removing density limits and parking requirements state-wide to facilitate up-zoning near transit. The bill sparked opposition from many city leaders and community advocates (and at least one reported brawl), with critics claiming it would spur gentrification and strangle city-level environmental checks on development.

AB 2923 is smaller in scope. It’s limited to BART properties in the Bay Area, although it could facilitate the creation of up to 20,000 new units, Curbed reports. But it’s being met with similar opposition, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

In an editorial published Sunday, the paper’s board highlighted the East Bay stations surrounded by large parking lots, suggesting that those lots — while useful for suburban commuters — would be more useful as housing space. Building multi-family units near mass transit is “an excellent way to reduce greenhouse gases, grow the region’s housing stock and reduce traffic congestion,” the board claimed.

From the paper:

These are enormous benefits for the entire Bay Area. So it’s been deeply disheartening to watch a wide range of local officials, including state. Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda, state Assemblywoman Catharine Baker, R-San Ramon, multiple Bay Area mayors and the Berkeley City Council, stand against it.

Their major argument? The bill usurps the power of local governments to make land use decisions.

This is an old NIMBY argument, and it’s a large part of the reason why the state is in this mess.

As Next City has covered, “NIMBYism” is often used as code for “upholding historically racist zoning policies.” And it’s true that, particularly in the Bay Area’s suburban, lower-density communities, “local control” is often the cry of advocates and policy-makers who don’t want to see multi-family developments (and the people who supposedly come with multi-family developments) in their counties, let alone their backyards.

But the opposition to SB 827, at least, was slightly more complicated. Many residents of San Francisco’s Chinatown, in particular, worried that giving developers freer reign would lead to more luxury developments that would displace communities of color already hit hard by skyrocketing rents.

For now, AB 2923 features an amendment to “require a replacement-parking policy so that suburban commuters will continue having access to the stations,” according to the Chronicle. That should help with the ongoing debate about adding new parking to facilitate public transit from the region’s exurbs. Still, Alameda County and the cities of Berkeley, Brentwood, Concord, Danville, Dublin, Fremont, Hayward, Lafayette, Livermore, Martinez, Novato, Orinda, Palmdale, Pittsburg, Pleasant Hill, Pleasanton, Riverside, San Ramon and Walnut Creek have all come out against the bill, according to Curbed. Now that it’s passed the state senate with the amendment, it heads back to the state assembly.

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Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian

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Tags: transit agenciesbay areatransit-oriented development

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