A new bill could give BART the authority to speed up housing construction. Here’s how it would work.
With State Senator Scott Wiener’s ambitious Senate Bill 827 driving a heated debate over California’s housing shortage, a smaller-scale bill preempting local land-use authority has gone largely unnoticed. Assemblymembers David Chiu (D-SF) and Tim Grayson (D-Concord) are introducing AB 2923, a bill that would give BART the power and the mandate to permit transit-oriented housing development on land it owns around its stations.
The bill itself does not have an exact housing production goal or minimum density, unlike SB 827. However, the aim is to build 20,000 housing units near BART by 2040—this comes from guidelines passed in 2015, and AB 2923 gives BART the power to rezone its land in order to meet this goal.
For technical reasons, AB 2923 only applies within the BART district, that is, San Francisco and Alameda and Contra Costa Counties; it does not apply in San Mateo County and will not apply in Santa Clara County, as neither has representation on the BART board.
AB 2923 is also restricted to BART-owned land. There is no upzoning on private land, unlike in SB 827. However, BART already owns a substantial number of lots near its stations, mostly for parking. The agency owns more than 200 acres of land near its stations, which can accommodate 20,000 housing units at high density. The required density, 65,000 dwelling units per net residential square mile, is comparable to sections of Upper Manhattan and Eastern Paris built up to six to ten stories.
While the scope of AB 2923 is smaller than that of SB 827, it has several innovative aspects that aim to ensure the best possible TOD (Transit Oriented Development). Most importantly, it does not just cover housing. Jen Kwart, spokesperson for Assemblymember Chiu, explained that the BART TOD guidelines include mixed-use development. The neighborhoods to be rezoned would see not just higher-density housing, but also walkable retail and office development, to help mitigate the suburban sprawl of employment hubs.
In addition, there is a direct emphasis on walkability in the BART guidelines for station development. Houston METRO board member Christof Spieler has long advocated for walkable stations, and in 2006 compared BART negatively with the Washington Metro, arguing that BART has too many park-and-rides, whereas the Washington Metro serves more town centers. Louis Mirante, the legislative director of the housing development advocacy group California YIMBY, said that BART is interested in redeveloping the parking lots, and AB 2923 would give it the power to do so, even over the objections of local municipalities.
The third and final innovation is the focus on process. In California, the zoning rules are not necessarily onerous by the standards of other expensive, tightly-zoned areas, but there are longstanding problems with the approval process. Before he introduced SB 827, Senator Scott Wiener (D-SF) passed SB 35, permitting by-right development for housing that conforms to local zoning codes, provided it meets basic affordable housing mandates.
AB 2923 continues in the tradition of streamlining the permitting process. It gives municipalities in the BART district served by BART stations two years to change their zoning codes to comply with the TOD guidelines, and if they don't, BART can change the zoning on BART-owned land.
The aim is to prevent housing opponents from dragging the process for too long. One example is an affordable housing complex in Fruitvale: it took 24 years from the conception of the plan to completion, as higher-income commuters tend to prefer convenient parking for themselves to affordable housing for lower-income households.
Overall, the bill remains far less ambitious than SB 827; it is no surprise that housing advocates in California and elsewhere as well as the opposition to YIMBY groups have mostly discussed Wiener’s more expansive proposal. However, Chiu’s bill provides targeted TOD improvements in areas where there is already good public transit service. The extra housing accommodated would play a role in relieving the Bay Area's housing crunch and increasing public transit ridership.
Alon Levy is a mathematician with a strong interest in urbanism and mass transit, and currently works as a freelance writer. He contributes to the Bay City Beacon as a weekly transit columnist for Pedestrian Observations. You can find more of his writing supporting walkability and good transit on his blog.
Join SF political insiders and fellow Beacon readers as we discuss June election predictions at our Primary Election Pick'Em Challenge! Or grab a beer with our panel of experts and discuss the big questions facing small business at Small Biz & Beer: Discussing the Urban Economy!