Commentary: Brower Center, Ashby BART: A Right Way, a Wrong Way

In her Feb. 24 letter to the editor, Carolyn Sell mentions both the David Brower Center and plans to develop Ashby BART, an interesting combination which, for me, is an invitation to comment on how the city plans for the use of publicly controlled space.

But first, it’s important to correct a factual error in her letter and to describe what is actually being planned.

She mistakenly says that the David Brower Center, which will be built on the city’s Oxford parking lot downtown, will be a “nine-story” building. In fact the Brower Center will be a four-story building, an entirely appropriate height for that downtown location.

The Brower Center is expected to be a “LEED platinum” building, which is to say that it will be built to the highest “green building” standard set by the U.S. Green Building Council. Photovoltaic roof panels will produce electricity for the building. A number of environmental groups which had close ties to David Brower, including the Earth Island Institute, will occupy the offices in the Brower Center. To learn more, visit Earth Island’s website:

The Brower Center will be a model that other developers of office space should follow.

In addition, 96 units of affordable housing will be built on the Oxford lot site. This is an excellent example of using public land for public benefit. Private for-profit developers have shown that they cannot meet the city’s need for below-market affordable housing, especially for families. Projects like Oxford Plaza, developed by non-profit developers, are needed to provide some affordable units in one of the nation’s most expensive housing markets.

Ms. Sell complains that another project, the Kragen project at University and MLK will not include units for families. This is indeed a problem with much of the housing that has been built downtown recently. While no data on new building occupants exists, anecdotal evidence suggests that a majority of the new units are occupied by students.

Ms. Sell should be pleased to learn that the Oxford Plaza housing, being built in tandem with the Brower Center on the same site, will contain a large number of family-size units, including some of the few three-bedroom units to be built in Berkeley in recent years.

To address the issue of public process: Ms. Sell implies that the Brower Center is the outcome of a backroom deal involving the mayor and developers (unnamed, of course). In fact, the Brower Center/Oxford Plaza development comes out of a public planning process conducted by the Planning Commission. This planning process contrasts sharply with the way the city started off the process of planning for Ashby BART.

As chair of the Planning Commission’s Oxford lot subcommittee, I presided over numerous public meetings at which a range of ideas for developing the Oxford parking lot site were put forward. Many viewpoints were heard.

After gathering public input, the Planning Commission made recommendations to the City Council about the site and the City Council approved them. An excellent team of developers was chosen on the basis of who could best realize the vision put forward in the recommendations approved by the council.

I and many others look forward to seeing ground broken this year on the project which is consistent to a substantial degree with the recommendations that came out of the original public planning process.

Unfortunately, the city got off on the wrong foot with another excellent publicly controlled opportunity site for development, namely Ashby BART. The city’s General Plan has policies regarding the development of housing on the Ashby BART site. In particular, at least 50 percent of the units on the site “should be affordable to low- and very-low-income hosueholds” to the extent that’s feasible. It needs to be understood that it is already city policy to develop the Ashby BART station site.

The General Plan, itself the result of an extensive public planning process, also includes a “Citizen Participation” element which mandates “Community Involvement in Planning.” And, indeed, the city has a long tradition of involving the public extensively in its planning processes, the most recent example being the Oxford lot process itself. The city’s many area plans and strategic plans, including the West Berkeley Plan, the current Downtown Plan, the South Shattuck Plan, and the draft Southside Plan, all come out of planning processes in which the public had extensive and meaningful involvement.

What’s needed for Ashby BART is a similar process that will involve all stakeholders and interested members of the public. The starting point for such a process should be the city’s General Plan policies, but no assumptions should be made about the number or specific type of housing units that should be built there. Nor should it be assumed that the flea market has to move.

There are all kinds of possibilities for how this site can be developed. It is certainly possible to develop housing that will not have a negative impact on adjacent neighborhoods and which could in fact enhance the neighborhood and give a boost to local retail businesses. It’s possible to maintain space for the flea market. It’s not essential to cram as many units as possible on the site or to use the entire site. It’s possible to have multiple developers; it shouldn’t be assumed that a for-profit developer should be the exclusive developer of the site.

The Ashby BART air rights are public space and, as with the downtown Oxford parking lot, should be developed to provide public benefit rather than to enrich private developers. Possibilities include building housing for the disabled, both those who are physically disabled and those who are developmentally disabled. This could be a good fit with the Ed Roberts Campus which is already planned for the Ashby BART site.

Ed Roberts was an early advocate of independent living for the disabled. The Ed Roberts Campus will house organizations that work to assist the disabled to live independently. How about some housing units where the disabled can live independently at the same location?

Other possibilities for the site include senior housing, which will be more in demand as the Baby Boom generation reaches retirement age, especially if the Republican assault on Social Security and retirement benefits continues and achieves some success. Many of the people who rent in Berkeley now, because they can’t afford to pay $700,000 for a two-bedroom bungalow, will find themselves hard-pressed to afford their rent when they reach retirement age and have to get by on less income. They will need affordable housing for their retirement years.

Housing for families with lower-income breadwinners could work as well if designed with families in mind. Let’s not forget that lots of people in Berkeley work at low-paying jobs and lack the resources to pay a lot of rent, let alone buy a house. Think about how much rent you can afford if you only make $8 or $10 or $12 an hour, or you earn the current pitiful minimum wage of $6.75 an hour.

The details of what should be built at Ashby BART need to be worked out in an extensive public process, not predetermined. There are many options to be considered. Let’s stand with Berkeley’s tradition of participatory democracy.

As with the Brower Center/Oxford Plaza project, the city should consider mandating that anything built at Ashby BART be built to meet the highest green building standards. When public sites are developed, I think the city should set high aesthetic and sustainability standards and should not settle for mediocrity or for whatever a for-profit developer might consider to be suitable or compatible with projected profits. Public sites should be developed in accordance with publicly-generated visions and recommendations.

Looking beyond Ashby BART, there is no reason why the city should not start thinking about what could be done at North Berkeley BART, which is obviously equally suitable for the kind of transit-oriented development that’s needed to ensure Berkeley’s future as a sustainable city. The city should be talking to BART about acquiring the rights to develop North Berkeley BART and should think about initiating a public planning process at some point in the future.


Rob Wrenn is a member of Berkeley’s Transportation Commission and of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee.