With the West Berkeley Plan up for reconsideration this year, the fate of Berkeley’s industrial core hangs in the balance.
Which is why two city councilmembers, an economic analyst, a union official, a commercial real state expert and three West Berkeley business owners gathered at Alliance Graphics Thursday night to consider the future of the neighborhood.
A standing-room-only crowd of West Berkeley residents packed the seats, along with other community activists, including Barbara Gilbert, former City Council candidate, and Zelda Bronstein, former planning commission chair.
Woodworker John Curl convened the meeting on behalf of the West Berkeley Association of Industrial Companies (WeBAIC), an organization dedicated to preserving the neighborhood which plays host not only to corporate giants like Bayer but also a host of smaller businesses and a legion of artists and craftsfolk.
Mary Lou Van Deventer of Urban Ore, a recycling business at Seventh Street and Ashby Avenue, is a passionate advocate of the plan.
“We can’t afford retail rent,” she explained. Her firm, which recycles discarded and rejected goods into saleable products, combines a warehouse with a workshop and a sales area.
Ironically, she explains, the business wouldn’t have been allowed in West Berkeley absent a zoning amendment that was passed to allow a “recovery firm” into the area.
“Had the council not acted, we would have been in Oakland or Vallejo,” she said.
Sharon Cornu, representing the Central Labor Council of Alameda County, said industrial zoning leads to good jobs for cities faced with job losses in the public sector.
“They provide jobs so that workers don’t have to leave the metro area to find work,” she said.
Councilmember Linda Maio acknowledged that artists and craftspeople couldn’t exist in West Berkeley with high rents, and she said the area formed a perfect fit for the growing numbers of green businesses as well.
“At the end of the day our main objective is to improve the lives of West Berkeley residents,” said Councilmember Darryl Moore.
Don Yost, a partner in Norheim & Yost, a West Berkeley commercial real estate firm, blamed part of the pressures on the misinterpretation of the West Berkeley Plan. He said one solution to the growing number of vacant properties in the area might be to upgrade the zoning in some areas to Industrial Manufacturing to attract bigger firms.
Neil Mayer, an economic consultant who worked on the West Berkeley Plan, said, “Manufacturing is good for the basic health of Berkeley. The employment levels are fairly steady across the years and the vacancy rate is very low.”
Susan Libby, whose father started Libby Laboratories at Sixth and Virginia streets in 1950, said her topical pharmaceutical firms has provided steady jobs and good salaries for Berkeley residents.
“We provide 25 to 30 good jobs with good wages and benefits for those with little education all the way up to Ph.D.s,” Libby said. I’d like to see the city give industrial businesses a little respect. We provide a good diversity for the community and we plan on staying here. It would be ill-advised for the city not to take advantage of what we have to offer.”
Maio said she’d like to see more auto dealerships, which provide substantial tax revenues for the city. But the only way to attract them would be to offer them sites along the freeway, the now-preferred location.
Curl said he was especially concerned about growing pressures for development along the Gilman Street, University Avenue and Ashby Avenue corridors.
“West Berkeley is being chopped up into a complex variety of uses concentrated around the uses already there,” he said. “There is great pressure on those three areas to change their uses to generate more revenue for the city.” Curl said.
For that reason, Curl and other West Berkeley activists have been fighting the latest proposed incursion on the Ashby Corridor, the city’s second Berkeley Bowl outlet proposed for the corner of 9th Street and Heinz Avenue.
They fear that the high rents and land prices that go with commercial zoning could force rezoning of the cheaper light industrial and manufacturing sites.