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April/May 2015

Resurgent Economy Likely to Lift Priority Development Areas

By Cecily O’Connor

The City of Berkeley has begun a 24-to-30-month planning process to pinpoint community goals for revamping the Adeline Corridor, one of nearly 200 Priority Development Areas (PDAs) throughout the Bay Area. As with many other PDAs across the region, local officials are studying upgrades to create a “complete community” along the 1.5-mile stretch of road that bypasses the Ashby BART Station. They intend to make the vicinity more pedestrian and bike friendly, and better integrated with transit services. They also hope to stimulate greater commercial activity within the designated zone, adding more shops, restaurants, professional services, and jobs for existing and future residents.

Officials are organizing meetings and doing outreach to stockpile ideas from South Berkeley residents and businesses. Initial planning priorities target affordable housing, local jobs, and historic preservation, among other goals. Adeline was originally a heavy rail and street car corridor.

“We’re doing surveys to see what the community thinks is missing, what they like, and what they think needs to be preserved,” said Carol Johnson, land use planning manager for the City of Berkeley.

The strengthening U.S. economy is providing a boost to officials looking to make housing and transit improvements.

“It’s a good timing because the [PDA] plans are being completed and there are developers interested in moving forward,” said Therese Trivedi, senior planner and PDA program planning manager at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC).

The economy’s resurgence collides with other big trends, including baby boomers’ and millennials’ increased preference for urban living with amenities, and greater emphasis on making neighborhoods safe and livable for people of all income levels.

“It’s a very quick influx of jobs and money, and people scrambling to look for housing,” said Gil Kelley, director of citywide planning in San Francisco, where a lack of housing supply and land for future office space are among the city’s big planning considerations.

PDAs came to be in 2007 when MTC, the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), and several other agencies collaborated on a framework to encourage growth in transit-served, infill locations. They serve as the backbone for Plan Bay Area, a strategy to meet 80 percent of future housing needs, keep the region affordable, accommodate transportation needs, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

PDA plans center on major hubs like San Francisco’s forthcoming Transbay Transit Center, or established urban areas like the Adeline Corridor, a transit-oriented neighborhood for over 130 years now anchored by the Ashby BART Station. They also include suburban downtown locations like San Rafael, which is planning for the 2016 arrival of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) system, and the Fremont City Center project, an area shifting from an auto-oriented suburb to an urban environment.

Since 2007, 191 PDAs have been nominated by cities and counties and adopted by ABAG at the regional level (although all land use authority lies with the local jurisdiction). There are 118 PDAs considered “planned,” with locally adopted planning and zoning that guide development for a neighborhood or future environmental impact reports, according to MTC data. The South Berkeley Adeline Corridor project falls into the planned category. Another 73 have “potential” in locations where a community has not yet enacted a neighborhood plan and zoning.

MTC has invested nearly $24 million into 51 PDA projects over six funding cycles between 2005 and 2014. (Before 2007, this undertaking was called the Station Area Planning grant program). The latest PDA planning funding cycle in May totaled $6.8 million, $750,000 of which was awarded to the Adeline Corridor plan.

“It’s competitive,” said MTC Planning Director Ken Kirkey about the 2014 cycle. “We aren’t able to fund all the applications we received.”

MTC requires the congestion management agencies in larger counties allocate 70 percent of federal funding available through the One Bay Area Grant program to transportation projects or programs that support PDAs. For smaller counties, the limit is 50 percent.

The idea is to funnel grant money to cities to eventually create communities with high-density housing near mass transit hubs. These neighborhood plans can include complete street components to ensure they are bike and pedestrian friendly. They also can feature amenities such as stores, parks, community centers, and restaurants to meet the day-to-day needs of residents.

A PDA “engages the community to take a look forward and say, ‘In 25 years, what do you want this neighborhood to look like?,’” Kirkey said.

Most of that three-year Adeline Corridor grant will be used to pay for a recently retained consultant, Johnson said. Funding also will be matched with in-kind staff hours.

The City of San Rafael has collected $528,000 for two PDAs where SMART train stations are anticipated, one in downtown San Rafael and the other by the Marin County Civic Center (although the latter no longer has PDA status). That funding helped create a “to-do” list of items the city may pursue, including changes to the general plan, policies, or further studies, said Paul Jensen, community development director for the City of San Rafael.

“The train is yet to come, so we’re holding off on any [further] planning until the SMART station is up and running to determine traffic implications from the train,” Jensen said.

“We’re merely setting the table for things to happen,” he added.

San Rafael’s wait-and-see approach speaks to the nature of PDAs in general. They are long-term development concepts — although that’s hard for some eager residents to accept when presented with the potential for change in their neighborhood.

“It’s a defined area… but really a development pattern that will take time to be implemented, and it will be incremental,” said Tess Lengyel, deputy director of planning and policy at the Alameda County Transportation Commission. Alameda County has 43 PDAs, the most of the nine Bay Area counties.

MTC is not currently accepting PDA applications. The next funding cycle could occur in 2017, depending on federal funding, Trivedi said.

Cecily O’Connor is a freelance journalist based in Corte Madera.

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