A big box Target is coming to Eastshore frontage road near Gilman Street just north of the Berkeley line. At the same time, a proposal is being floated to rezone west Gilman from manufacturing to commercial, to catch the regional retail traffic. Development of this kind will profoundly affect the whole city.
Imagine the entire length of Gilman below San Pablo lined with shops and chain stores, with one big box down at the freeway, a second near San Pablo, and a third in the middle at Sixth Street. Imagine traffic increased many fold, leaving commutes snarled and traffic problems plaguing the adjacent residential neighborhood. Imagine shoppers tangling with tired commuters desperate to get home. Along the side streets a few manufacturers and artisans still hang on, but their ability to function is severely hampered; quickly rising rents and retail conditions are making them unfeasible, and they all have relocation plans. Imagine the Fourth Street commercial corridor moving inexorably north, toward its manifest destiny of merging with the Gilman mall.
Why would Berkeley politicians and planners consider development that is hardly distinguishable from Emeryville and El Cerrito Plaza? The answer is simple: Regional retail brings in tax dollars. The city is hurting for revenues, and many politicians and planners ogle West Berkeley as a cash cow waiting to be milked, a politically easy alternative to raising property taxes or cutting services.
But beyond the immediate costs to the adjoining neighborhood and to the businesses and people being displaced, there are costs and long-term repercussions affecting the whole city that may not be apparent at first.
West Berkeley plays a unique role in our city. It is a very diverse place, ethnically, socially, and economically, and plays host to numerous ventures that would otherwise be lost to Berkeley. As our only industrial section, it provides jobs with good wage levels for people without advanced degrees. The industrial environment provides shelter and nourishment to a wide variety of uses. Light manufacturers, artists, craftspeople, residents, creative startups, nonprofits, restaurants, and offices share many blocks with a minimum of conflict. Its neighborhoods are home to many of our lower-to-middle income residents, working people from every corner of the world, including an important part of our African American community. West Berkeley—and not the downtown arts district—is the place where our working artists and artisans have their studios.
The dynamism and creativity coming out of West Berkeley every day benefit the entire city and help maintain its character, although this is scarcely recognized by many who only pass through it on their way out of town. West Berkeley is one of the lungs of our city; cut it out and we lose something of great and irreplaceable value.
Maintenance of the industrial character of West Berkeley is a key to the perpetuation of our city’s diversity, because manufacturing defines the economic level of the common space in which many other uses thrive. Converting Gilman to a retail strip will trigger a new gentrification spiral to the whole area, and signal a loss of diversity for the whole city. Gentrification is not a tide that lifts all ships but a tsunami that will sweep people with less money out of town. A disproportion of the people shown the door will be ethnic and racial minorities, blue collar workers, craftspeople, and artists. If industries get pushed out of West Berkeley, so will many startups, struggling nonprofits, and lower income families. Gentrify West Berkeley and the city will take a giant step toward becoming just another increasingly sterile upscale bedroom community.
Yes, the General Fund is hurting, and hard choices will have to be made to bring in new revenues or cut services. And it’s true that manufacturing doesn’t bring in as much sales tax as regional retail. But on the other hand, West Berkeley is currently one of the city’s main economic engines. It provides about a quarter of all jobs in Berkeley, in the most diversified occupations, and generates about 40 percent of all city sales tax revenue, about 30 percent of business license tax revenue, and about 10 percent of property tax revenue. Manufacturing has higher “multiplier effects” than office or retail, generating other local economic activities through its inputs. These multipliers generate tax revenues, but often don’t appear in statistical analyses as credited to manufacturing. It also creates less traffic problems than either retail or office, and traffic problems have a price tag attached. Retail jobs pay a lot less than manufacturing and are almost never unionized; retail has a high percentage of part time workers, and suffers a high employee turnover.
In its own funky West Berkeley way, Gilman Street today is the center of a successful neighborhood, and manufacturing is the anchor of a diverse economy. What if we convert it for a few magic beans that never sprout? What if the projected regional retail golden goose turns out to be a lame duck? A successful area will have been sacrificed for nothing. During the “new technology” boom of the 1990s some developers wanted to convert large numbers of manufacturing buildings into offices, but were prevented from doing so by the policies of the West Berkeley Plan. If they had been permitted to convert them, when the bust came the city would have been left with blocks and blocks of empty office buildings.
The issue is not development, but scale, pace, and nature of development. On the one hand, the West Berkeley Plan calls for slow change incorporating the successes of the past, and careful monitoring of the existing mix of land uses. By contrast, some developers are calling for rapid mallization. In the near future the community will be faced with this choice between contending visions for West Berkeley.
Our city’s uniqueness is more fragile than it may appear, and it is at risk. The character of our town hangs in the balance. Everybody who wants Berkeley to become Emeryville, raise your hand.
John Curl is a member of the City of Berkeley Planning Commission.