Berkeley’s push to end single-family zoning takes shape

A few years after being sued over its efforts to block this three-unit development on Haskell Street, Berkeley is poised to adopt zoning that encourages multi-unit projects in neighborhoods throughout the city. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

A wide-reaching effort to rewrite zoning rules for most of Berkeley’s neighborhoods is coming into focus.

City staff on Tuesday presented a detailed proposal for zoning changes that aim to encourage property owners to build small apartment buildings in neighborhoods where they were effectively banned for decades.

The new policies would also speed up the approval process for those projects, allowing construction to be green-lit without a public hearing.

The proposed changes — which are still months away from a final vote — have been driven in part by the City Council’s call last year to end single-family zoning in Berkeley, which was followed by a state law abolishing that zoning category in cities throughout California . Supporters say upzoning to allow more small apartments in less-dense areas will also help Berkeley meet a state mandate to approve plans for nearly 9,000 new homes over the next eight years.

Several California cities have sought to subvert the state’s single-family zoning law, SB9, or challenge the aggressive housing targets. But while Berkeley pioneered single-family zoning in the early 1900s, and in recent years fought a legal battle to block a developer from building three homes in a residential neighborhood, the city is now poised to go well beyond what SB9 requires.

“This work will go miles to expand the stock of housing in the city,” said Councilmember Rigel Robinson, adding that the changes would “encourage the development of housing that is more affordable by design, create new ownership opportunities, reduce commute emissions and, as a matter of equity, help introduce affordability into our most expensive neighborhoods.”

The zoning changes that were presented to the City Council on Tuesday would affect areas Berkeley classifies as “low-density residential,” which makes up just over 60% of the city.

Here are some key provisions of the proposal from Berkeley’s Planning and Development Department:

Density: There is no simple answer for how many apartments property owners would be allowed to build on sites in residential neighborhoods under the proposed zoning change. The rules instead use more complex criteria that effectively mean larger lots would be allowed to have more and bigger apartments, while smaller lots would be limited to fewer. Those limits also vary among the different types of residential zones in Berkeley: a 5,000-square-foot property would be capped at three units in areas zoned R-1, but could have as many as six in the denser R-2A and MUR districts .

A map from city planning staff highlights the areas of Berkeley that would be affected by the proposed zoning changes, which cover just over 60% of the city. Credit: City of Berkeley

Height: The proposal allows for slight increases in building height, which in most residential areas is typically capped at 28 feet today. While projects would be limited to an average height of 28 feet, they could rise as high as 35 feet at their tallest point; the limit drops to 22 feet towards the rear of the property.

Approvals: Apartment projects that comply with the city’s set of objective design standards could get what’s known as “by-right” approval. That streamlined process would be similar to the one homeowners use to get approval for backyard cottages, and would involve sending notices about the project to its immediate neighbors. Single-family homes would still be allowed, but they would have to go through the longer use permit process.

The hills: The zoning changes would allow for greater density in the Berkeley Hills, although the rules there would be more restrictive. Projects would have a lower overall height limit of 28 feet and would be subject to tighter density caps compared to other parts of the city: for most of the hills, a 5,000 square-foot lot could not have more than a duplex.

Shadows and views: One question facing Berkeley’s effort to develop a set of objective design standards for new development has been whether to include rules restricting projects that cast shadows on surrounding properties or block their neighbors’ views. The zoning changes do not include those provisions — planning staff and consultants contend the proposed height limits would be sufficient to address concerns about shadows and views, making further standards for them unnecessary.

Planning staff will continue working on the proposed zoning rules over the coming months in response to feedback from the City Council and public. A final proposal is set to go before the Planning Commission early next year and the City Council sometime in the spring.

City staff on Tuesday also shared a separate set of potential zoning changes for the Southside neighborhood near UC Berkeley, including increased height limits that could allow apartment complexes up to 12 stories tall on and around the north end of Telegraph Avenue. Those changes are on a faster timeline, with the Planning Commission expected to take them up later this fall.

The City Council on Tuesday appeared to be broadly supportive of the zoning concepts, although members also scrutinized certain details.

While Councilmember Sophie Hahn said she understood why Berkeley is moving toward by-right approval for projects that comply with its standards, she expressed concern that doing so could stifle input from neighbors.

“It is true that the processes that we have have been used in some instances in obstructionist ways,” Hahn said. “But I want to make sure that we are not completely throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

“We need to build housing, but we also need to make sure that we’re building a community.”

Others supported the streamlined approvals as a step to make the process of building housing faster, cheaper and more predictable.

“Those guarantees,” Robinson said, “will be huge for projects.”

Resident Todd Darling was among a handful of public commenters who said he was concerned the decision not to set standards for shadows could mean new developments might block their neighbors’ solar panels. He called the proposed changes “an attempt to remake the city, culture and environment of Berkeley in a negative way.”

Overall, though, there was relatively little opposition Tuesday night to the direction of greater density in Berkeley’s residential neighborhoods. Instead, many of the comments from council members and the public focused on ways to further loosen the regulations and allow for more housing in those areas.

Several speakers from local Yes In My Backyard (YIMBY) organizations took issue with the policy’s proposed density caps, which would set relatively low limits on the size of apartments in multi-unit projects.

City planning staff said the limits were meant to encourage property owners to build smaller units, which could be less expensive for renters or buyers than bigger ones, and also noted the caps wouldn’t apply to existing structures such as a single-family home that the owner wants to convert into a duplex. But density advocates argued that the rules would have the effect of stifling efforts to build apartments, since there are not similar limits on the size of new houses.

“Do we want more single-family homes, or do we want more duplexes and triplexes?” Kevin Burke of the group East Bay for Everyone said. “We should be providing extra incentives and discouraging single-family homes, instead of making single-family homes literally the most profitable and biggest structure you could build on a parcel.”

Three council members — Robinson, Lori Droste and Rashi Kesarwani — said they shared the concern that the density caps could be too restrictive or complex. They suggested Berkeley could move away from using density metrics altogether and instead set zoning rules for most neighborhoods based on the overall size of buildings, rather than how many apartments they contain.

“We need to decide what it is we want to regulate,” Kesarwani said. “We need to be regulating the building envelope, not the number of units.”

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