By Michael Orion Powell-Deschamps
According to a 2016 study by the McKinsey Global Institute, California has the capacity to add 1 to 3 million homes within a half mile of all the state’s transit hubs. If a few state legislators in the Bay Area get their way, the transit hubs may soon be able to reach their full potential for real estate.
California Senate Bill 827 was introduced by State Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) and principally co-authored by State Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) and Assemblymember Phil Ting (D-San Francisco). It would allow for more residential development within a half mile of the state’s transit centers by up-zoning the areas for taller and denser buildings. It would essentially take away cities’ ability to restrict areas around transit for only light residential housing. Municipalities could no longer restrict height limits for residential buildings within a quarter mile of transit stops to below 55 feet on narrow streets, and below 85 feet on wider streets. Within a half mile of transit, narrow street height limits couldn't be below 45 feet, and wider street height limits couldn't be below 45 feet. Cities would also no longer be able to mandate minimum amounts of parking near transit. While the bill would have a statewide impact, Wiener and Skinner hope that it will lead to denser real estate development near the Bay Area’s public transportation hubs, decreasing the region’s automobile traffic and housing crisis.
The sort of building that could take off, thanks to SB 827, is already in its infancy in Oakland. Construction at the MacArthur Transit Village, a 624-unit project at MacArthur BART, is well underway, and plans are also in place to build a 1,032-apartment complex right beside West Oakland BART. In fact, the BART Board of Directors have committed to building out agency-owned land around its stations by 2040, possibly adding 20,000 housing units.
The strongest criticisms against SB 827 have come from those worried it will increase displacement and take away local control from city governments to decide what housing is built in their communities. In a letter to Wiener, Mountain View Mayor Leonard Siegel stated that "by exempting projects from floor-area-ratio (FAR) limits, SBS 827 would remove cities' ability to receive 'bonus FAR' community benefits, such as local transportation improvements like bikeways, in exchange for added density." Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said in the past that she would agree to support SB 827 if protections were added for residents that could be displaced by the construction it would allow.
Hearing the displacement and local control concerns, Sen. Wiener added a “Right to Remain Guarantee” amendment to the bill in late February that would give residents relocated by new construction the first right to accept or refuse new apartments in the buildings being built on the location of their homes. It would also give them moving expenses and assistance to cover higher rent in comparable temporary apartments for up to 42 months. Wiener also added amendments that would ensure local communities still have the ability to restrict and limit demolitions of housing near transit.
Still, there are concerns.
Asiyahola Sankara, the Organizing and Outreach Coordinator for ACT-LA, said that up-zoning would decrease the use of mass transit. She said the research she has seen shows that an increase in market-rate housing near transit can displace poor riders and contribute to a reduction in transit ridership across the system. “The most likely population to use transit are African Americans, recent immigrants, and families that make less than $25,000 a year. That is who is most likely to use transit,” Sankara said. The least likely to use transit, she said, are clearly households who make more money, those most likely to be able to afford new homes near transit.
Ethan Elkind, director of the Climate Program at the Center for Law, Energy & the Environment at UC Berkeley, believes that up-zoning near transit centers could actually expand ridership. “It would greatly benefit transit ridership. We see over and over and over again that the most successful transit lines in the world are ones that have a good amount of density concentrated around the stations. So this is just a no-brainer to boost transit ridership,” Elkind said. While he admits that lower-income people ride transit more than higher-income people, he believes that everyone’s more likely to ride transit if they live very close to it. “So it’s an overall big win for transit if this [SB 827] gets passed,” Elklind said.
Elkind added that Rockridge, an affluent and growing part of Oakland, is the area of Oakland most likely to be directly impacted by up-zoning. The Rockridge BART station is located near an expanding urban shopping district and up-zoning would raise already high property values. “A lot of Oakland is probably zoned commercial or maybe mixed use, so it would affect the residential areas basically. That’s a very affluent area, high property values, so that’s where you would see development go,” Elkind said. “Jack London Square [also] has frequent transit so that area would fall under the jurisdiction, but again, it’s only if it is residential property.”
“This bill does not accomplish what it sets out to do and, in particular, it puts low-income communities and people of color at risk of displacement by market-rate development,” Sankara said.
Elkind doesn’t dispute concerns about the impact of development near transit, but cast them as overblown. “These are mid-rise apartment buildings. They would be within just a few hundred feet of a major transit stop, so I think there’s just real hyperbole here that is not rooted in what is actually happening. Any change to people’s neighborhoods can really engender a lot of concern and anxiety, but we are talking about relatively modest changes just adjacent to major transit, so it’s a limited footprint and, you know, there’s a lot of benefits that it would provide communities.”
Michael Orion Powell-Deschamps is a freelance writer in the San Francisco Bay Area.