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Office ban shipped back to commission

By John Geluardi Daily Planet staff
Friday June 15, 2001

The City Council sent a controversial proposal to temporally prohibit office development in west Berkeley back to the Planning Commission Tuesday for another public hearing. 

In the same vote, the council adopted one aspect of the proposal, which directs the Planning Commission to study the effects of office development in the Mixed Use-Light Industrial District, also known as the MULI. 

After councilmembers heard a presentation from Planning Commissioners Rob Wrenn and Zelda Bronstein and asked questions of Interim Planning and Development Director Wendy Cosin, they voted to send the proposal back to the Planning Commission for another public hearing.  

A second public hearing is required because the first one on Jan. 10, was improperly noticed by Planning Commission staff. The notice described the prohibition as a moratorium rather than a temporary zoning ordinance, which has different procedural requirements, according to Assistant City Attorney Zack Cowen. 

Bronstein said the second public hearing would most likely take place in September. 

The council sent the proposal back to the Planning Commission by a slim vote of 5-4 with moderates Mayor Shirley Dean and Councilmembers Polly Armstrong, Mim Hawley and Betty Olds voting in opposition.  

The office prohibition, if ultimately approved, would not allow permits for new office uses in the MULI for one year with the goal of saving blue collar jobs and light industrial uses such artist and artisan studios. The Planning Commission proposal also calls for the promotion of “green” (environmentally friendly) businesses. 

Councilmember Linda Maio, who represents a portion of the MULI, said the temporary ban would give the city a chance to step back and examine if the rate of office construction is harmful to other businesses and residents in the MULI.  

“I think people who live in west Berkeley are very worried about being squeezed out,” she said. “This will allow us time to make sure we can retain those people and businesses who are the heart and soul of Berkeley.” 

Mayor Shirley Dean argued the prohibition wasn’t necessary and that the amount of office space in the MULI is consistent with the West Berkeley Plan, which was approved in 1993 and made part of the Zoning Regulations in 1999. 

“There’s no apparent good reason for the prohibition,” Dean said. “Maybe back in 2000 when there was an economic boom but that’s no longer the case and now there’s an office vacancy rate of 10 percent.” 

Berkeley’s zoning map shows the MULI as an S-shaped area that winds through west Berkeley between San Pablo Avenue and Interstate 80. The roughly 70-block area has traditionally been made up of small manufacturers, retail, light industry and office space, punctuated with pockets of residential areas. 

Development in the MULI is regulated by the West Berkeley Plan, which was assembled after years of public input from property owners, businesses, workers, residents and artists and artisans. The plan calls for zoning regulations to encourage light industrial uses and the continuation of well-paid jobs that don’t require advanced degrees. 

The plan also provides for office development, provided it doesn’t unduly interfere with light manufacturing. The plan uses as a guideline a maximum of 550,000 square feet of office space that can be developed. 

“If this 550,000 square feet were to convert, some 40 percent of the district’s current space would be non-manufacturing/wholesaling, about the maximum level at which the district could still be called ‘industrial,’” the plan reads. 

Currently the MULI has about 349,000 square feet of office space, according to the Planning Commission report.  

“The amount of office space in the MULI is totally on target,” said Planning Commissioner Susan Wengraf, who voted against the prohibition. “With the dot-com bust, rents are falling and vacancies are increasing. Why would we impose this moratorium now?” 

Wengraf said the idea that the temporary prohibition will create or save blue collar jobs was a “romantic” one that has little to do with reality. 

Bronstein argues that between 1997 and 2000, over 164,000 square feet of former industrial space was converted to office use and that the increase has already had a negative impact on traffic and rental rates.  

She said the higher rents that property owners charge for office space gives them incentive to move light industrial businesses out and offices in. 

Bronstein insisted the prohibition is not anti-business. “This is just temporarily anti-office,” she said. “This is really pro-business, we want to see more manufacturers and green businesses come into the MULI.” 

She added that downtown Berkeley is a better place for offices because of better access to public transportation.