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ZAB denies publisher’s request for expansion

By Hank Sims, Daily Planet staff
Saturday November 03, 2001

What is the difference between an office and a factory? 

The answer would seem to be self-evident, and, if forced to explain, one would probably speak of blue and white collars, the differing lengths of workers’ resumes or the amount of grime on their hands at the end of the day. 

However, it became evident at the Oct. 25 Zoning Adjustments Board meeting, that sometimes the distinction isn’t so clear.  

Publisher’s Group West, a Berkeley book distributor, asked the ZAB to approve its application to expand its current Fourth Street offices into a neighboring space, formerly occupied by the Tom Tom Clothing Company.  

PGW wished to move its subsidiary, Avalon Travel Publishing, into its building at 1716 Fourth St. Avalon, with 75 employees, is housed in Emeryville.  

The company asked ZAB for a variance from the strict codes that apply to the West Berkeley mixed-use/light industrial district, in which the building lies. The MU-LI codes prohibit conversion of manufacturing space into offices unless the ZAB determines that “exceptional or extraordinary circumstances” apply. 

The board eventually followed planning department staff’s recommendation and denied PGW’s request for a variance, but not without a great deal of agonizing over the state of the city’s historically important publishing industry and whether, in the end, book publishing is an office or a manufacturing use. 

MU-LI codes, which were developed after the city approved the West Berkeley Plan in 1993, specifically state that if publishers do not run their own printing press, they cannot occupy former industrial space. 

However, PGW CEO Charlie Winton and Avalon CEO Bill Newlin argued that though the Avalon staff does nearly all its work on computers before electronically shipping it to the printers, they should be considered manufacturers. 

“Everyone on our staff feels very engaged in the making of books,” Newlin told the ZAB.  

He said his employees physically proof the galleys of books in development, handle and gauge potential materials and do other tasks that result in a physical product – the book. 

In a letter to city staff, the applicants took this defense a step farther. 

“The nature of book publishing is the creation of books,” they wrote. “The Standard Industrial Code has always considered the creation of books a manufacturing designation.” 

But according to the authors of the Standard Industrial Code, the U.S. Census Bureau, that has not been true since 1997, when the SIC was rewritten and standardized by the United States, Canada and Mexico. 

Under the North American Industry Classification System, which superseded the SIC, publishing without printing is classified as an “information” industry, which is itself a subset of the services sector. 

Upon learning this, ZAB member Carrie Sprague said Friday her only surprise was that the federal government has finally caught up with the West Berkeley Plan.  

“They’re sitting there at computers,” she said. “Of course it’s an office!” 

But Sprague, who voted against granting PGW’s variance, nonetheless said she shared the concerns of those who voted for the variance – that the city should be helping to retain publishing and other book-related companies, which have historically played a major role in the city’s economy and cultural life. 

“The activities that (PGW) undertakes are ones that we should encourage in the West Berkeley area,” said Carrie Olson, a member of the Landmarks Preservation Commission who substituted for ZAB member David Blake at the meeting.  

“Berkeley loves our books, and we should be supporting the publishers that bring us those books. Personally, I would rather see the heavy manufacturing move out of West Berkeley.” 

ZAB member Lawrence Capitelli agreed, and said the incorrect information in PGW’s letter to the city was relatively unimportant. 

“It wouldn’t have influenced my decision,” he said. “Publisher’s Group West is the kind of business we should encourage in the West Berkeley area. It’s been here for many years” 

“This an industry we want to support. We’re a center for publishing nationwide, far beyond our numbers.” 

Capitelli also said in light of the damage the ruling may inflict on the company, the city should review policies like the West Berkeley Plan.  

“The other thing I think we have to do is look at the changing nature of business,” he said. “I know there are many people committed to retaining blue-collar jobs, but I think we need to look at how many of those the city can realistically attract.” 

The issue of conversion of manufacturing spaces in the MU-LI district has been a major controversy of late. The Planning Commission is studying whether or not it will recommend a one-year ban on conversion to the City Council.  

Though Winton and Newlin could not be reached for comment after repeated calls to their offices, Winton has in the past promised to appeal the ZAB’s decision to the City Council – where, he said, he “is told” he has the votes to overturn the ruling.