BART to Get New Zoning and Development Power — If Brown Signs Bill

The North Berkeley BART Station and parking lot, one of the transit district sites that could see future development under AB 2923.  (Google Earth )

Updated 7:50 a.m. Wednesday

The state Assembly has passed AB 2923, a fiercely debated measure that gives BART the authority to set zoning standards and approve development on agency-owned property throughout the Bay Area.

By a vote of 44-25 late Tuesday afternoon, the bill by Assemblymember David Chiu, D-San Francisco, now goes to Gov. Jerry Brown for his signature.

Under the measure, BART's own transit-oriented development guidelines would govern residential and mixed-used projects on property the agency currently owns within a half-mile of station entrances. Most of that property is used for parking. The bill would affect an estimated 250 acres in all.

The bill gives the BART board until July 2020 to formally adopt its guidelines. The affected cities would be required to bring their own zoning laws into compliance with the BART standards or allow the agency's rules to govern development on its property.

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Among the key amendments from the original legislation is one that limits the height of the BART developments to one story or 15 feet above the current maximum height limits within half a mile. AB 2923 contains a sunset provision under which it would expire in 2029.

The Assembly vote, which was to approve the amended form of the bill passed by the state Senate last week, was preceded by a series of sharply divergent pleas: on one side, that the state needs to act urgently to relieve the housing crisis in the Bay Area and beyond; on the other, that Chiu's measure usurps local control guaranteed by the state Constitution and hands authority to an agency that has shown it's not fit to exercise it.

Democrat Jim Frazier of Oakley and Republican Catherine Baker of Dublin both argued that BART has encountered few obstacles in getting cities to cooperate with development plans in their district and that in fact many cities they represent have done more than their share to meet state-mandated housing goals.

They both attacked BART in urging a no vote on the bill. Frazier pointed to what he called poor planning by the transit agency in preparing for ridership at its newly opened, and popular, Antioch station.

Despite "the best local advice and statistics," Frazier said, "BART's new station was opened without providing adequate parking or adequate public safety for the volume of riders we knew we would see but that they ignored."

Baker told colleagues that "BART is drowning in its own problems" and shouldn't be entrusted with more responsibility for housing development.

"Let me tell you a little bit about the agency to which a yes vote will give control over housing," she said. "Right now, BART is in the headlines for stabbings, for crimes -- they have a crime crisis."

That drew an objection from Assemblymember Tony Thurmond, D-Richmond, who asked the chair to direct her comments to the merits of the bill. The chair declined, and Baker continued with a litany of the agency's woes, including maintenance, delays in getting its new cars into service and widespread fare evasion.

But rebutting that view were members Tim Grayson, a Democratic former mayor of Concord, and Rob Bonta, D-Alameda.

“You don’t have to like BART or feel good on BART to understand that this state is facing a housing crisis," Grayson said. He added that while serving as a local official, he worked alongside BART when the agency sought to make capital improvements at its downtown Concord station.

"They could easily have come up with their own plans and rammed it through," Grayson said. "But instead, they reached out, they collaborated, they sought for advice and input from our City Council."

Bonta, pointing to a transit-oriented development at BART's Fruitvale station that has taken nearly 25 years to complete, said AB 2923 was needed to streamline housing construction.

“We’ve seen some great communities built around BART stations in my district, but it takes too long," Bonta said.

AB 2923 won wide support from planning, transportation and pro-development groups, who were joined by conservation-oriented organizations like Greenbelt Alliance.

Some 17 Bay Area cities registered opposition to the bill, as did the League of California Cities.