Surrounded by worn chasing hammers, punches and gravers that were made by her father, jeweler Susan Brooks sat at a cluttered workbench and shaped a thin piece of sterling silver with short, precise hammer strikes.
At one point she stopped and held up the small, square piece of silver. With eyes exaggerated fivefold by the thick lenses of a jeweler’s optivisor pulled low on her forehead, Brooks examined the emerging figure of a dark-eyed woman with long, flowing hair.
Brooks was making a pair of earrings in her studio in West Berkeley’s Saw Tooth Building, a former window frame factory that now houses glass blowers, potters, cabinet makers and other craftsmen who earn moderate to low incomes by selling their handmade wares.
“I’ve never been in a building with all working artisans like the Saw Tooth,” said Brooks, who moved in in 2002 after high rents forced her out of her longtime Berkeley work space. “There’s a vitality in this building that you can feel when you walk down the hallways. It’s really exciting.”
The Saw Tooth Building at 2547 8th St. is in the boundaries of west Berkeley’s Multiple Use Light Industry District, also known as the MULI. Within the MULI is an amazing diversity of land uses, including manufacturing, warehouses, offices, bio-tech laboratories, wineries and dozens of arts and crafts studios, like the Saw Tooth Building.
However, several planning commissioners and a group of artisans are concerned that a poor economy and rising commercial rents will spur a trend toward developing office space and converting former manufacturing space into offices, threatening the light industry and arts and crafts businesses in the area.
On June 11, the Planning Commission will hold a public workshop on a subcommitee report on the MULI. The report was prepared by Planning Commission Chair Zelda Bronstein, Vice Chair Gene Poschman and Commissioner John Curl. The report examines office development in the West Berkeley Plan and the zoning ordinance and the protection and enhancement of arts and crafts uses. The report also details what it describes as the “lack of implementation of the two important aspects of the West Berkeley Plan, the inventory of industrial space and the implementation and monitoring program.”
Changing the face of the neighborhood
Curl, part owner of a woodworking cooperative, said it’s time to evaluate whether the West Berkeley Plan, a 10-year-old document designed to guide zoning law, is being followed. He said he is concerned that the district is reaching a “tipping point toward gentrification.”
“We want to evaluate what has happened with the implementation of the West Berkeley Plan,” he said. “We want an inventory of all the businesses in West Berkeley and once we have information about what is going on down there, we’ll be able to evaluate the plan’s effects and try to find ways to implement the West Berkeley Plan more fully.”
Other commissioners, some elected officials and property owners are concerned that zoning restrictions are too tight and might discourage new revenue-generating businesses such as retail stores and offices.
Commissioner Susan Wengraf said the West Berkeley Plan clearly outlined what was a fair balance between light industry, arts and crafts and office use. She added that office use in the MULI is below the recommended levels.
“I don’t think we’re near the limit and there certainly are not a lot of businesses looking for offices in this economy,” she said.
Mayor Tom Bates said he would like to see the West Berkeley Plan encourage more retail businesses on Gilman Street and Ashby Avenue in West Berkeley so long as the design and architecture are tasteful and light industry is also maintained.
“I’m interested to see if there are some opportunities to make some changes and still protect artisans and light manufacturing,” Bates said. “Obviously we want to have good land use policy, but we need some additional revenue to continue to provide the services people have come to rely on.”
Despite the warnings that the days may be numbered for light industry in West Berkeley, many artists, artisans and factories still call the area home.
Ghanbari Design is a small custom woodworking company just opened its doors on the edge of the MULI at 725 Gilman St. They took over the former Tuttle Manufacturing Building, which had been vacant for years and fallen into disrepair. The building was formerly a hot dip galvanizing facility that thrived during Oakland’s ship building boon during the Second World War.
Ghanbari Design, a custom furniture and design company, recently renovated the building.
“This building is perfect for what we do,” said owner Mansour Ghanbari. “There is a lot of open space, lots of windows and great sunlight.”
He said it was also an advantage for his business to have so many other woodworking businesses close by. “The area is just fantastic. There are so many furniture makers around here,” he said. “It’s good for business, customers can in one stop, interview a series of woodworkers.
Home for artists
The Durkee Building, named for the former margarine and mayonnaise factory, is a two-story, brick building at 700 Heinz St. It was converted to inexpensive live-work space in the 1970s and a community of artists soon took residence in the building. By the late 1980s, manufacturing space was in demand for bio tech laboratories that were popping up in the area and the owner wanted the artists out.
After a long battle, during which most of the artists moved out, an agreement was reached with the owner in which he would receive tax credits in exchange for a use permit that guaranteed low rent for artists.
The building continues to be home to painters, sculptors, architects and dancers. The studios are high-ceilinged and drafty, but they serve as valued work spaces for the artists who could not otherwise afford to live in the Bay Area.
Sculptor Donald Torahouich said he would probably have to give up his art if he lost his studio.
“If I lost this place, I’d have to move into an apartment in East Oakland and either throw out all this stuff or put it in storage,” he said gesturing to an array of wood and metal sculpture that dominate the workspace in his studio.
Painters Ira and Corliss Lesser agreed. Their studio serves as work space and storage for their large canvasses. The Lessers, who have a 12-year-old daughter, said that in addition to the space, the Durkee artist community has provided invaluable support.
“I’ve never had such good neighbors,” Corliss said. “As an artist you don’t do things in the normal way. You’ll give up buying new clothes for tubes of paint and most people don’t understand that.”
A balancing act for diversity
In a effort to maintain the diversity and vitality of West Berkeley — which besides the MULI also includes heavy manufacturing, residential and retail districts — a committee of over 100 community members, planning commissioners and Planning Department staff attended weekly meetings for eight years. Their goal was to create a guiding document that would shape zoning regulations and ultimately maintain a diversity of land uses. The committee has taken pains to preserve businesses that employed blue collar workers, live-work artist studios and crafts businesses, which are typically among most vulnerable in a rising commercial rental market.
The result of their efforts was the 225-page West Berkeley Plan. After eight years of arguing, lobbying and compromise, the City Council adopted the West Berkeley Plan in 1993.
“This plan is a remarkable both for its content and for the process which created it,” then Planning Director Gil Kelley wrote in the document’s introduction. “Its policies aim to reinforce and continue the dynamic mix of industrial, office arts and crafts, residential, retail and industrial activities in this vital district of the city.”
However, nearly 10 years after the plan’s adoption, several Planning Commissioners are contending that some of the plan’s guidelines never made the transition to the zoning ordinance.
They are worried that a pattern, which has played out many times before in cities like New York, Santa Monica and San Francisco, is about to occur is West Berkeley. Typically after manufacturing moves out, artists and crafts people move in to take advantage of low rents and work spaces that are easily adapted to their studio needs. Then, as the arts and crafts community begins to thrive, professional businesses are attracted to the area because of the cache the artists and crafts people bring to the neighborhood.
Commercial rents begin to rise because professional businesses interested in office space can often pay top dollar and “these areas thus lose the very characteristics which initially made them attractive to many people,” according to Kelley’s introduction to the West Berkeley Plan.
Adding offices to the mix
The law office of Paul, Hanley & Harley LLP is one of several new office oriented business located in the Courtauld Building, a former paint manufacturing plant. The firm recently expanded from 20,000 square feet to 30,000. The office has a warehouse appearance with exposed conduits and heating ducts running along the high ceilings. Many of the attorneys and staff dress casually as they bustle along the hallways between small offices.
Law Partner Dean Hanley said the west Berkeley location and the loft-style office has been a plus for their business. “Almost invariably our clients are blue collar and the industrial look helps out clients to feel at home. It doesn’t look like a downtown office,” he said. “We also have a lot of young employees who like the stores and the artist studios. We enjoy being around it.”
He added that the firm had considered other places but they did not find any office space that was as interesting. “If we were in an industrial park, we wouldn’t want to do it,” he said. “Just office space is very boring, very blasé and almost depressing.”
The public workshop will be held at the North Berkeley Senior Center at 7 p.m. on June 11th and is open to all interested members of the public.