Public Comment

Commentary: Clif Bar Loss Indicative of City’s Out-of-Date Policies

By Steven Donaldson
Tuesday August 22, 2006

Berkeley is now seeing the loss of yet another world-class business. Clif Bar is moving to the City of Alameda. Clif Bar, with it’s great all-natural organic nutritional bars. A green business, with a commitment to employees, customers and the community, is leaving what should be its natural “ideological” home for the City of Alameda. 

How can this happen, you may ask? It’s again an issue of an inflexible, complex system, out-of-date zoning and an inability of the city to act quickly when faced with other more competitive choices from other nearby cities. I don’t fault the staff or the elected officials who, I know, wanted to keep Clif Bar. I fault our highly restrictive, convoluted zoning and approval process, that puts Berkeley at an immediate disadvantage to neighboring communities. 

Clif Bar wanted to expand and keep its headquarters in West Berkeley but the sites Clif Bar reviewed were zoned for manufacturing, which Clif Bar no longer does in Berkeley. Unfortunately this was incompatible with the city’s West Berkeley Plan. City officials where willing to make zoning changes but this requires hearings, review with the planning commission and there’s no guarantee this could be done in a reasonable time frame. I am sure this influenced Clif Bar to open up to other proposals in the Bay Area. 

I do not think Clif Bar was unwilling to stay. They just could not wait, like Berkeley Bowl did, going through the protracted and unpredictable, drawn-out approval process to build a new grocery store and warehouse in West Berkeley. Over three years went by to get this project approved. The West Berkeley Bowl drama only exemplified how difficult it is for any business to get something done in Berkeley when they face the hurdles of a zoning change, an environmental impact report and multiple commission reviews. Should it take three years to approve a grocery store, one that’s home-grown and being built on a vacant parcel of land? It really begs the question: What’s the real purpose of this process? And what do you think it said to Clif Bar who was, I am sure, very carefully looking at how long and convoluted this was? There is no way most businesses can deal with a lengthy review and approval system when facing highly competitive and dynamic marketing challenges.  

The loss of Clif Bar, the type of business the city touts and claims it wants, just shows the conflict between our ideals and the realities of business and economics in the 21st century. The 300-plus acres of land in West Berkeley zoned for industrial, manufacturing and warehousing uses reflects a bygone era. The need to adapt, to be more flexible and to take a longer-range view that acknowledges the evolution of business and manufacturing is necessary (would someone please talk to a real economist—or look at the most recent trends from the Bay Area Council?). No one can convince me we are going to get another large-scale manufacturer of anything taking 100,000 square feet of space in West Berkeley. Those days are long gone. The cost of doing business here on such a scale is prohibitive—those kinds of companies will choose lower-cost locations. 

New types of zoning are needed that take into account the realities of changing local and global markets, not old, fixed designations for industrial and warehousing uses which are no longer relevant. We need to have a vision towards the future that make sense reflecting current assets in our East Bay community like the University of California, Bayer Corporation, Chiron, Pixar and others that draw talent and expertise to this area. These trends show the realities of changing demands in our local market. 

Berkeley elected officials need to be aware of the fact the vocal minority who shows up to fight these projects, sends a message to all business, eco-friendly or not, to be prepared to jump through many expensive and time-consuming hurdles to get anything approved. Is this what we want for our city as we continue to lose much-needed tax revenue? 

Berkeley is not an isolated hamlet, a world apart from the intertwined economics of its neighboring cities, the Bay Area, the state and the world. We need to get on with a truly progressive and innovative re-invention of our zoning and approval process, with a clear plan on how the community and businesses can actually work together for positive, timely change. 

My big question is where’s the vision, the leadership and the understanding of economic change that will take us to a viable mix of business to support the services that everyone wants in the City of Berkeley? 

Remember the reality and demands of the marketplace speak much louder than the rhetoric and opposition to change: business just goes somewhere else. 


Steven Donaldson is a Berkeley