On August 23rd, a California assembly bill aimed at increasing transit-oriented development, like housing, was passed by the state senate, confirmed by the assembly, and headed to Governor Jerry Brown’s desk for signing. The bill, AB 2923, specifically targets the San Francisco Bay Area—making it easier than ever for the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) to build housing on the land it owns around its transit stations.
Previously, housing developments on BART-owned land were still subject to local zoning rules, pushing projects through local processes to be approved before building began. This local control led to many delays, and, as a result, housing denials in the midst of an ongoing housing shortage—on that repeatedly spurs news headlines decrying four-plus hour super commutes, median home prices over $1 million, and neighborhoods blocking affordable housing. State bills like AB 2923 are a response to these reports, as well as the local control that led to them. If passed, AB 2923 and other bills like it, will bypass local control’s draconian rules to allow more housing to be built and ease the housing shortage.
Under current law, land owned by BART is often subject to discretionary review in Bay Area cities. This forces BART to become de facto experts in every municipality zoning code, an impossible task that would take away from their focus on improving their transit system. Even attempting to master the zoning codes of every municipality takes time. Ultimately, this causes delays in building housing that’s so sorely needed. But this could easily be avoided if BART could establish their own zoning rules under AB 2923. Housing and transit is intrinsically linked and, just like suburban home developers build the roads to best suit their development, urban transit authorities like BART must utilize their capacity to build the homes best suited for their transit lines.
For instance, in housing-friendly Oakland, a transit-oriented development has taken over a decade to begin its final phase—a 402-home tower nestled in an affordable housing building, along with a five-story parking garage. The MacArthur Transit Village gained approval in July 2008, over two years after a community meeting first discussed the project. By then, the recession hit and financing disappeared. It wasn’t until 2011 that the first phase of construction began. Two more years were required after that for the current 90 affordable homes to be completed. The final phase required a work-around for a neighborhood zoning mandate that capped building heights at 90 feet. Ultimately, it was only through developer concessions, neighborhood action in support of the project, and the lack of major appeals that this project is able to exist.
Aside from a delay in building housing, local control in the form of discretionary review is often at odds with the goals of the BART-owned land—and the transit system as a whole. Transit systems are made to provide not only transit but also ease of use in the form of dependable frequent service and convenient location to work, home, and other lifestyle needs. However, BART is best at providing convenience for drivers and their cars. But this aim is incompatible with the overall goal of efficiently transporting people.
Just up the road from Oakland is another BART station parking lot waiting patiently for a housing makeover. The land BART owns around the North Berkeley Station currently houses up to 822 cars. But, according to BART’s website, there are no current plans to develop this land into much-needed housing for people. It takes a law like AB 2923 to give BART power to develop their own enthusiasm and means of housing planning.
As it stands now, BART is at the mercy of a city council that’s woefully unkind to development. For instance, the council decided to forego over $10 million for their affordable housing trust fund after two city council members filed an appeal against a project approval— one that ultimately ended in the developer soliciting offers in lieu of actually building. But all of that could change soon. AB 2923 could finally transform a high-ridership transit station from housing for cars to housing for Californians.
For too long, cities in the Bay Area have wrested control from the hands of BART in order to meet subjective needs of citizens who make their homes around these transit stations but balk at access for new people through the building of new housing next to stations. If the Bay Area is to meet its social goal of welcoming immigrants to sanctuary cities, their environmental goal of lowering CO2 emissions, and their political goal of showing that progressivism works, more housing near transit is non-negotiable. Turning BART-owned land from housing for cars or dirt pits into housing for people is one step toward reaching the noble goals professed by Bay Area residents.
Martha Ekdahl is a Young Voices Contributor who writes about urban policy. Follow her on Twitter.