EL CERRITO -- More than 500 housing units are under construction, have been approved, or are in the approval pipeline in the city, all of which will enable many new residents to stay out of their cars and walk or take transit for commuting and shopping.
The five developments are within a short walk of the city's two BART stations and three of them have some retail or commercial space planned for their ground floors.
All are also on or near San Pablo Avenue and conform to the goals of the city's San Pablo Specific Plan that calls for housing near public transportation and making the avenue more inviting for bicyclists and pedestrians.
The projects defy the notion many once had that El Cerrito was "built out," and will enable the city to increase its tax base and provide much-needed new housing to the region while continuing with the city's goal of reducing its carbon footprint.
"The concern is to make sure of housing for the future and that it's in the right place," said Mayor Janet Abelson, now in her fourth term on the City Council. "It would then have a minimum negative impact on climate change."
Starting from the north end of the city, the council extended exclusive negotiating rights with Build, Inc., a San Francisco-based developer, for a state-of-the-art retail and housing development on a site called the Mayfair Block near the El Cerrito Del Norte BART station.
The project will include 240 market-rate apartments combined with 13,000 square feet of retail and commercial space on the ground floor. Build Inc. and the city are hoping the project can be approved by April of 2015 so it can be completed by 2017.
Two blocks south, a project at 1715 Elm St. that would relocate a historic house and create a 15-unit condominium project next to a tributary of Baxter Creek has received approval from the Planning Commission.
The city considers the project transit-oriented development, since the site is near bus service on San Pablo Avenue and the El Cerrito Del Norte BART station, according to Melanie Mintz, El Cerrito's interim community development director.
A group of residents is appealing the commission's approval to the City Council on environmental, aesthetic and other grounds.
The City Council will likely hear the appeal at its June 2 meeting, Mintz said.
A third project, to be located near San Pablo and Manila avenues next to City Hall, would create a $26 million, 63-unit apartment building for low-income seniors that would occupy the vacant former Tradeway furniture store.
It would also preserve a historically significant former florist shop once owned by a Japanese-American family that was interned in a relocation camp during World War II.
"There are buildings like (Tradeway) when you're talking about the best use of land," Abelson said. "As it is, (the vacant building) will not be well-maintained and might catch on fire."
Nonprofit developer Eden Housing is applying for tax credits to fund the majority of the Tradeway site project.
Construction has recently begun on nearby Ohlone Gardens, a $28 million, four-story development of affordable rental housing at 6449 Portola Drive, about midway between the El Cerrito Plaza and El Cerrito Del Norte BART stations.
The residential portion of the project will have 18 one-bedroom, 21 two-bedroom and 18 three-bedroom apartments that will be restricted to tenants with incomes from 30 percent to 50 percent of the Bay Area median income or $27,600 to $46,000 for a family of four.
"I haven't heard a single negative word about Ohlone Gardens," Abelson said. "The Eden Housing project is similar."
The final development, the Creekside project, will be at the south end of the city on the southwest corner of the El Cerrito Plaza shopping center near the Plaza BART station.
Plans call for 48-unit and 80-unit buildings with parking on the ground floor and three stories of studio, one-, two-, and three-bedroom condominiums above.
The project received approval for a conditional use permit and design review from the city in 2007.
Construction can begin after the city checks the final plans and issues building permits, according to senior planner Noel Ibalio.
New housing will also provide "more customers for our businesses and help alleviate the housing shortage," Abelson said.
"There is almost no condo housing in El Cerrito, and existing single-family homes are on the market for only a short time," she said. "We already have a housing crisis."
Not everybody in the city is on board with the whole concept.
Former El Cerrito Chamber of Commerce President John Stashik said he has reservations about plans for further reducing traffic lanes on San Pablo Avenue and development that limits parking.
"Slowing down traffic with bike lanes and medians does nothing but frustrate people," he said.
Stashik said he thinks El Cerrito needs larger stores rather than small stores beneath transit-oriented housing projects.
"The retailers we should be trying to attract want lots of space and lots of parking," he said.
Some residents of the Richmond Annex, meanwhile, have expressed concerns that relaxed parking space requirements of new residential projects will result in people parking in their neighborhood.
The development trend in El Cerrito conforms to policies advocated by regional planning agencies such as the Association of Bay Area Governments, Mintz said.
ABAG's Plan Bay Area, a roadmap for regional development, advocates that housing be built as close as possible to BART station and buses, she said.
"It's increasing the amount of housing in the urbanized Bay Area, without more investment in infrastructure, such as freeways," Mintz said. "It makes urban areas more economically vital and takes (development) pressure off farmlands and open space."
BART is naturally sympathetic to development near its stations, said Zakhary Mallett, the agency's director for District 7 that includes most of western Contra Costa County.
Mallett said BART favors "turning stations into places," with more housing, jobs, shopping and entertainment options within walking distance.
If some form of BART service can be created for commuters north of El Cerrito, it could reduce the need for parking at the El Cerrito Del Norte station, now the busiest in the East Bay, Mallett said.
That could enable a concept that El Cerrito favors of infill development on some of BART's parking areas, he said.
"The (San Pablo) specific plan is an infill plan," Mintz said. "Rather than big, underutilized parking lots, try to put people there."