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Berkeley Is Running Circles Around SF in Housing

Scott Lucas | January 14, 2014 | Lifestyle Story City Life

We don't know if you've heard the news yet, but housing prices are kind of a mess in San Francisco right now. We know, we were as shocked as you are to find out. And whether you blame the Ellis Act, greedy landlords, and oblivious techies or the NIMBYs, the Byzantine planning process, and the lack of incentives to build, it's clear no matter what side you're on that the situation is severely problematic. It's a mess—a $2,395 a month for 375 square foot studio apartment mess. And as special as we think we are in the City by the Bay, there's no reason we can't look to what other burgs are doing to find ways out of our own problems. In fact, we don't even have to look very far.

Because when it comes to housing, maybe it's time for San Francisco to be a little more like Berkeley. Yes really, the town with its own foreign policy could teach us a thing or two about development.

According to a review of the development projects by Berkeleyside, the Nuclear Free Zone across the Bay from us has more than 1,400 units of housing in the pipeline along an eight block area centered on Shattuck Avenue in Downtown Berkeley. That's in addition to 88,000 square feet of retail space that the projects are due to bring. And talk about transit-oriented development—all of them are within a stone's throw of the BART station.

So how'd they do it? There are a few key reasons.

Berkeley is not afraid of growing up: Seventeen stories. Sixteen stories. Twelve stories. Many of the new projects are tall. That's a departure from past zoning practice in downtown, where few of the older buildings are more than a few stories tall. (Remember the knock-down fight over the Gaia Building? That's nothing now.) Berkeley seems more willing these days to take advantage of the third dimension than San Francisco is.

On site affordable housing: Unlike the practice in city—where much of the affordable set-asides are done separately from new construction—the downtown Berkeley units mix market- and affordable-rate housing in the same structure. At least six of the projects highlighted by Berkeleyside include affordable or below-market-rate housing on-site, instead of paying into the city's affordable housing fund.

Incentivizing building: Last February, the city council voted to temporarily reduce development fees for buildings whose developers choose not to have on-site affordable housing. The city also passed a Downtown Plan that allowed for increased development—a plan that they've stuck with, instead of litigating individual projects at the ballot box.

Knowing where to build and where not to: Notice where the construction isn't. Nobody is putting up towers in the hills. But what better place to build than in downtown Berkeley? The university campus is right there. The BART station is in the middle of the area. It has a killer Walk Score. Plenty of shops and restaurants. Sound like any of our neighborhoods?

Now if they could just figure out how to put something up in that empty lot on Telegraph Avenue.

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