Election Section

Commentary: Drayage Artisans Were Protected Until 1998 By JOHN CURL

Tuesday July 05, 2005

The tragedy playing out at the Drayage building today was set up when the city quietly dumped the Arts and Crafts Ordinance protections covering the building until the rezoning of West Berkeley in 1998.  

For the decade between 1989 and 1998, all West Be rkeley arts and crafts studios were “protected uses.” Those spaces were reserved for artisans and artists. The landlord could change the use of the space only by creating a comparable space somewhere else in West Berkeley. 

The Arts and Crafts Ordinance o f 1989 was passed unanimously by then-mayor Loni Hancock and the City Council as an “urgency ordinance,” to stem a growing exodus of artisans and artists from West Berkeley, who were being forced out by gentrification. The situation back then was similar to what is happening today: A wave of gentrification was enticing owners of artisan and artist buildings to convert them to more profitable uses. The ordinance recognized that maintaining a stable pool of arts and crafts space was vital to Berkeley as a whole, because of the role artisans and artists play in the quality of life in the city. It saw artisan and artist studios as a threatened community resource that needed to be protected if it was to survive. If studio space were permitted to disappear, so would artisans and artists, like a species deprived of its environment. 

For a decade the ordinance stabilized the situation, working successfully to keep studio space available and affordable, while not interfering with the building owners’ right to cha nge tenants for the usual reasons. The owner could, however, only rent to similar tenants, who could afford only a similar rent. This removed the landlord’s incentive to push out the current tenants by raising the rent unreasonably, since the use itself c ould only sustain a modest rent level.  

However, in 1998, when West Berkeley was rezoned and the entire zoning ordinance reorganized, the protections of the Arts and Crafts Ordinance were quietly applied to only certain districts of West Berkeley, and om itted from other districts. This was done with absolutely no public discussion or knowledge. I myself only became aware of the fact in 2002, when I was serving on the planning commission. Whether by intent or negligence, the new zoning boundary placed the Drayage building in the commercial-west (C-W) district, where artisan and artist studios were suddenly left unprotected, instead of in the adjoining mixed-use/light industrial (MU-LI) district down the same block, where it belonged, and where the arts an d crafts protections remained in force. If the boundary had been drawn properly, with the Drayage remaining in the protected district, or if the protections had been included in the C-W district, this mass eviction and conversion could not have legally ha ppened.  

To make matters even worse, the same 1989 ordinance revision made it suddenly impossible for manufacturing space to be reused for arts and crafts. This too was done with no public discussion or knowledge, and was diametrically against the spirit and letter of the West Berkeley Plan. While both manufacturing and arts and crafts were protected uses, they were now put into two different categories. Before this a change from light manufacturing to crafts was simple and not considered a conversion, b ut in 1998 it became almost impossible, because a conversion kicked into effect the replacement provision for manufacturing space. That locked the door on the possibility of reuse of empty industrial buildings for arts and crafts; any new artisan or artist studios in Berkeley could now come only through pricey new construction. 

In 2005 we are in a volatile emergency similar to the one in 1989. The Drayage is the second mass eviction of artisans and artists in Berkeley this year. The first was inflicted on the long-term artist colony in the old Dakin Warehouse at 2750 Adeline St., a location outside the boundaries of the West Berkeley protections. Today the Nexus building artisans and artists on Eighth Street are also under threat of eviction. The Durkee building artists are threatened by the pending conversion of the adjoining warehouse at 740 Heinz St. Besides the Drayage, other arts and crafts buildings were also left suddenly unprotected by the 1998 rezoning and today remain at risk, notably the art isans and artists in the Berkeley Arts Complex (Magic Gardens) off Heinz Street, in the mixed manufacturing (MM) district. The mayor’s proposal to rezone all of Ashby and Gilman west of San Pablo from industrial to commercial, and the proposed West Berkel ey Bowl on 9th Street that will bring 50,000 cars per week into the sleepy arts-crafts-industrial neighborhood, clearly show that the entire artisan and artist community is at serious and immediate risk from the unleashed and unchecked forces of spiraling gentrification. 

Three years ago, when I first became aware that some of the Arts and Crafts Ordinance protections were no longer in place, I made a concerted effort to bring this to the attention of the Planning Commission and City Council. I was part o f a group of planning commissioners who recommended that the arts and crafts protections be reinstated over the entire area of their original extent. This proposal was summarily shot down, and denied even a public airing, by the conservative majority led by current chair Pollack and vice chair Stoloff. If this proposal had been accepted, the Drayage building would have regained its protected status and could never have been scheduled for demolition and rebuilding as pricey condos. 

Back in 1989 the city showed the political will to protect our artisan and artist community, and the backbone to implement an effective urgency ordinance. Today the city shows only a shameful abandonment of artisans and artists to the false god of profit. The artisans and arti sts of West Berkeley need to wake up and use their enormous latent power. The Drayage building can still be saved, if public outrage can force the City Council to somehow summon up the vision and the courage. We need a new urgency ordinance today that wil l reinstate arts and crafts protections everywhere in West Berkeley, and remove the insane restriction against the creation of new affordable arts and crafts studio space. If not, the Drayage eviction is just a taste of what’s ahead. 


John Curl is a West Berkeley woodworker and a former member of the Planning Commission.