Neighbors reviewed broad plans to develop housing on the Rockridge BART parking lot at an open house Thursday, providing input on what they'd like to see built there. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

Hundreds of units of housing are rising around Oakland’s BART stations. Over the past several years, a tower has sprouted at MacArthur, the mid-rise Casa Arabella opened at Fruitvale, and ground was broken on the next piece of that station’s transit village. Apartments also opened (then closed) by the Coliseum, and plans are in the works for West Oakland and Lake Merritt.

So far, the city’s northernmost station, Rockridge, has remained quiet as construction roars on elsewhere. That’s beginning to change.

On Thursday evening, BART held an open house on the station plaza, sharing plans to make Rockridge the next site in its system-wide “transit-oriented development,” a movement in housing policy that emphasizes creating dense, walkable neighborhoods near mass transit like train stations and bus routes.

The event drew a steady stream of commuters coming down the BART escalators and Rockridge residents who showed up with their bikes, dogs, and kids. They reviewed posters with information on the development process and placed sticky notes with their hopes and concerns on them.

“I use this station many times per week, to get to school,” said Rafa Bustos, 17, a Rockridge resident who came by after seeing a flier advertising the open house. Building housing there will “improve the neighborhood and walkability,” he said. “Anything that emphasizes transit would be good, to reduce traffic.”

The Bay Area housing crisis and climate concerns have emboldened BART to build apartments at its stations, with the idea that placing residences right at transit sites reduces reliance on cars and allows for a level of housing density often not found in surrounding neighborhoods. The agency is also facing a fiscal crisis, with ridership nowhere close to where it was before the COVID-19 pandemic. Leasing land to developers brings in revenue for BART.

But BART is limited in where it can build at the Rockridge station. Most of the parking lot is owned by Caltrans, the state transportation department, and the placement of the freeway prevents building over most of it. So the agency is looking at developing two relatively small parcels on the west side of College Avenue. 

The areas outlined in red are the two sites where BART is looking to build housing. Credit: BART

“It’s not a lot of land,” said BART Board Director Rebecca Saltzman, who represents the station and came to Thursday’s event to talk with visitors.

Currently, the parcels in question are used for parking, containing 140 of the 886 total spaces at the station. According to BART, about a third of the parking lot typically sits empty these days, both because of the decrease in ridership and because a majority of Rockridge riders arrive at the station by methods other than driving.

“Housing right next to a BART station is very logical,” said City Councilmember Dan Kalb, whose district includes Rockridge. At the open house, he told The Oaklandside that he supports building enough housing to make the project “worthwhile,” but that he wants to ensure that the buildings are aesthetically pleasing and that at least one-third of the apartments are below-market-rate.

Across all of its developments, BART has a goal of ensuring that 35% of its units qualify as affordable housing, and a requirement of at least 20% affordability at each individual project. Recent projects have been surpassing those marks, achieving around 50% affordability, Saltzman said. 

Burj Khalifa or a small affordable apartment building?

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Residents wrote their ideas, desires, and concerns around Rockridge development on sticky notes. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

Residents who came to the open house were largely interested in the idea of developing the station, but they had different ideas about what the future buildings should look like. 

“I’d like to see the Burj Khalifa, as big as they can go,” said Max Davis, referencing the tallest building in the world. Davis is a member of East Bay for Everyone, an organization that advocates for dense housing development. He said a larger building would enable more people to live in the “high-opportunity, wealthy area,” suggesting an SRO or housing for UC Berkeley graduate students. 

Alfred Twu, an architect who’s also part of East Bay for Everyone, agreed: “Lots of housing, similar to what BART has done at stations like MacArthur. Something tall enough to block the noise and dust of the freeway.” While other BART developments have included shops and offices, Twu said housing should be the emphasis in Rockridge given the proximity to the College Avenue commercial strip where there’s already plenty of retail.

Others said they’re uninterested in seeing any market-rate housing at the station, given that Oakland has surged past its targets for that type of development but lags tremendously on its affordable housing goals.

“What we need is middle-income housing, for teachers and artists,” said Janis Brewer, a member of the neighborhood group Upper Broadway Advocates

Larry Mayers, principal at the affordable housing architecture firm where Brewer also works, said he’s concerned that constructing a tall building at the Rockridge station would make the development too expensive to support a large number of affordable units. Tall buildings tend to require steel, concrete, and other materials that are much more expensive than the wood frames that primarily hold up shorter buildings.

Rockridge has an exclusionary history

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The Rockridge BART station was built in 1974, part of a major redevelopment of the immediate area at the time, which included the construction of the CA-24 freeway. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

As the Bay Area grapples with its legacy of housing discrimination, Rockridge has become the poster child of that exclusionary history. Reporters and activists have dug up racist advertisements and covenants from the early 1900s barring non-white residents from buying property in the then-new development tract. 

Rockridge has largely maintained zoning rules that permit only single-family houses to be built in most parts of the neighborhood. Researchers have found that Bay Area cities with higher proportions of single-family zoning tend to be disproportionately white and less diverse.

The building of the BART station in 1974 followed the state’s demolition of nearby residential blocks to create the CA-24 freeway. These developments led many residents to double down on their interest in preserving the layout of the neighborhoods that weren’t impacted by the construction. 

One visitor to the open house, Greg Brennan, remembers Rockridge before those changes. A member of the former Brennan’s Restaurant family, he was born in the neighborhood in 1957 and recalled running along the creek that was later paved over by BART construction.

Saltzman, the BART director, said sentiments have changed since she herself lived in Rockridge many years ago, with neighbors generally receptive to the idea of developing housing there now. 

Over the past two years, the Oakland City Council has also adopted resolutions and a sweeping plan to “upzone” the city, with officials often singling out Rockridge as a prime area for denser development.

The city is in the process of making these changes to its zoning code, including rules that would allow more housing units and taller buildings across Oakland, and relaxing restrictions for affordable housing projects. The proposal would increase the maximum allowable building height at the two parcels slated for Rockridge BART development from 35 feet to 175 feet. (The surrounding areas would not change so significantly.)

“It had a very low height for a BART station,” said city planner Laura Kaminski. “We’re wanting to fix that, and allow for as much housing, and affordable housing, as possible.”

Saltzman said the agency hopes to start searching for a developer by the end of the year. Once the developer is selected, they’ll propose a project for the site, taking input from community members, she said.

“This will move more quickly than any of the past projects, if we stick with the timeline,” she said. 

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.