What’s to be gained from converting the Ashby Avenue and Gilman Street corridors in West Berkeley from manufacturing and light industrial zones to commercial?
If Mayor Tom Bates is right, a lot of new sales tax dollars for a cash-strapped city.
But if the three knowledgeable critics who addressed a community meeting last Thursday are right, the move would also lead to:
• Traffic congestion.
• The elimination of well-paying blue collar jobs.
• Higher rents for artists.
• The loss of a vital mainstay of the city’s economy.
More than 100 West Berkeley residents, city officials, two city councilmembers and an assortment of city commissioners thronged the West Berkeley Senior Center to attend a public forum presented by WeBAIC, the alliance of West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies.
The focus of the meeting was the three-member panel consisting of Neil Mayer, founder and former director of the city’s Department of Economic Development, Nathan Landau, a former Berkeley city planner and the lead author of the West Berkeley Plan, and Eugenie P. Thompson, a civil and traffic engineer.
After a brief introduction by Mary Lou Van Deventer, Thompson led off with a presentation on the traffic impacts.
With three decades of transportation planning experience—including Oakland International Airport and the Caldecott Tunnel—Thompson said commercialization of the two West Berkeley corridors would carry significant potential costs.
She questioned city studies showing no significant impacts from the first major commercial development in the area, the Berkeley Bowl proposed for the corner of Ninth Street and Heinz Avenue near the intersection of Ashby and San Pablo avenues.
Noting that a supermarket can be expected to generate 14 times more traffic than a light industrial use, Thompson noted that “city studies show no impacts from a 10,000-square-foot store. How is that possible?”
Noting that San Pablo Avenue carries more traffic near the Ashby Avenue intersection than in Emeryvillle, she asked, “How can we put more traffic in Berkeley?”
Expanding already crowded thoroughfares and building out freeway interchanges to handle extra traffic could pose formidable costs as well, she said.
Mayer, who now runs his own consulting firm, said the 200 manufacturing, wholesale and warehouse operations in West Berkeley—along with a sizable number of artists and craftspeople—constitute a major source of economic diversity for the city.
At just over one percent, Berkeley has the lowest industrial vacancy rate in the East Bay, and no lack of customers for existing vacancies, he said.
“The West Berkeley Plan has been critical in maintaining a healthy industrial sector. From 1981 to 1991, when the city enacted zoning changes to protect existing industrial uses, West Berkeley lost 2,800 of 7,800 manufacturing jobs. From 1991 to 2001, jobs were stable,” he said.
Some losses followed in the wake of the post-9/11 recession, almost all from the loss of one dotcom company, he said.
Manufacturing also provides good jobs for blue-collar workers, paying double the wages of the retail sector. “Recent studies show that the best way for low-income workers to earn more is to change from commercial to manufacturing,” Mayer said.
He also cautioned that “there is a question if there is a real demand for additional retail in West Berkeley. It could steal business from downtown and elsewhere in the community.”
Mayer also warned that even the discussion of zoning changes has an impact on property values and rents. “It makes owners think they can change to higher rents, and it makes them look for such tenants.”
Finally, he said, the existing West Berkeley Plan was created by a “very painstaking process, often on a parcel by parcel basis, balancing different kinds of uses . . . it was supported by all major sets of participants and approved unanimously by an otherwise very divided City Council.”
Landau, who served as project manager of the West Berkeley Plan from 1989 to 1996 and now serves as a planner for AC Transit and is on the Berkeley Transportation Commission, warned that while “no plan should be sacred, they should be changed slowly, carefully and comprehensively.
“I see no evidence of that now.”
Observing that the plan was written to maintain a mixture of uses, “not a monoculture where higher-paying uses mow down the lower-paying,” he said the plan was specifically written to protect manufacturing from uses that command higher land prices.
“We didn’t want more commercial districts to compete with downtown and San Pablo Avenue,” he said. “On San Pablo we were very concerned about traffic, especially around Gilman and Ashby, which were already congested 15 years ago. Emeryville wasn’t the model.”
Landau said that to change the plan responsibly, the city “must understand why the plan did what it did and not simply wash it away. They must get deep into the data and not just rely on anecdotal evidence.
“Get the data and not decide on the basis of prejudice” he said. “After that they can look at the goals and tradeoffs.”
He also cautioned the city to “avoid trendiness in plans, noting that during the preparation of the current plan, the New York Times headlined an article, “In the Time of a Gold Rush, Berkeley Seeks Lead.”
“Wouldn’t it have been a disaster if we’d followed the dotcom gold rush? I fear we’re in danger again of looking for a trendy land use.”
Following the presentations, the meeting was thrown open for questions.
After one neighbor of Pacific Steel complained of the odors, WeBAIC stalwart and woodworker John Curl said “The future of West Berkeley is intimately tied to the greening of the industry that’s already here. The more polluting industries need to leave. There are problems with Pacific Steel and probably elsewhere, and we need to lobby them to become cleaner.”
“The number one polluter in West Berkeley is the freeway,” added Landau.
Calvin Fong, aide to Mayor Bates, said his office was working on a health risk assessment of Pacific Steel.
Asked by audience members to explain the origin of the proposed changes, Fong said the city council voted to add the item to the city budget plan with a request that the Planning Department incorporate it into their work plan.
“The Planning Commission will take it up. There’s no set schedule yet when it will occur, and the staff may not begin to look into it until January or February,” he said.
“The mayor has asked them to push it down lower on their list of priorities because there’s so much other work that needs to be done now. It will begin at the staff level, and recommendations will be made to the Planning Commission,” Fong said.
After public hearings, the decision to adopt the changes will go to other commissions and ultimately to the city council,” he said. “There is no fixed time line.”
Of the two West Berkeley councilmembers, only Darryl Moore—who sided with Bates on the council vote—was represented by aide Ryan Lau. Linda Maio, who voted against the mayor, was not represented.
Councilmember (and acting mayor) Kriss Worthington, another no vote, was present and addressed the meeting.
Noting that “every plan is violated in the City of Berkeley on a regular basis,” he asked whether opponents of the mayor’s proposal should be concentrating on the plan or on the zoning ordinance itself, the only legally binding power on the city’s actions.
“Should we be fighting over the plan or focus on actually changing the ordinance? Or should we create a pressure group to put pressure on the mayor and city council to enforce the plans and laws we’ve already created? Or do we need to do all three, or something else altogether?” he asked.
“The language of the plan is less important than the ordinance,” Mayer responded. “We have been using the language of the plan because, at least in theory, zoning should reflect the spirit of the plan.” He also said that “West Berkeley is one of the areas where a lot of the activity doesn’t follow the zoning already in place.”
Landau said one of the reasons for the divergence between plan and zoning is the fact that Berkeley is a charter city and therefore granted more flexibility by law. A second reason, he said, is that the city devotes less staff and attention to zoning enforcement than it once did.
Corliss Lesser, a West Berkeley painter, asked Worthington “how can we best lobby the city to protect the plan and still ensure revenues for the city?”
“The answer is the ballot box,” said Worthington. “The vote that occurred to initiate a move to undermine the West Berkeley Plan was decided by one vote. Others felt that other priorities needed the city’s time and money.
“In this process there are many different steps, and at each step of the way there is an opportunity to be heard. You can hold a press conference. You can organize a racially diverse group of West Berkeley people and call on the city to implement the West Berkeley Plan.”
Then, with a smile, he added. “That’s just an idea.”
Among the other city officials at the meeting were Planning Commissioner Helen Burke, Civic Arts Commission Vice-Chair and Design Review Committee member David Snippen, Civic Arts Chair Jos Sances, and Landmarks Preservation Commissioner Fran Packard.