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Major West Berkeley Development Project Unveiled

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday September 26, 2006

A developer unveiled Friday plans for a 5.5-acre, two-block corporate, retail, condo and artists’ development for West Berkeley. 

The project, which could take 30 years to complete, was presented to an unusual afternoon meeting of the Civic Arts Commission held at the old Peerless Lighting plant at 2246 Fifth St., the project’s hub. 

The plans unveiled by development consultant Darrell de Tienne and property owner Doug Herst, the former Peerless owner, were far more expansive, calling for condos, a “signature biotech building,” ”incubator buildings” for new businesses, as well as live/work units for artists that could feature a storefront gallery space and workshops. 

“The idea is to turn this part of Berkeley into a new type of artists’ community,” said de Tienne, who said city Housing Director Steve Barton had given the proposal an enthusiastic reception. 



“This is a great opportunity,” said Civic Arts Commission chair David Snippen. 

“The Civic Arts Commission is really excited,” said commissioner Jos Sances, a sculptor. “We’ve been looking at artists’ spaces in West Berkeley for several years.” 

“This project linking the arts with economic development and housing is really compelling,” said Michael Caplan, City Manager Phil Kamlarz’s Neighborhood Services Liaison for West Berkeley. 

But the co-chair of a West Berkeley organization deeply involved in land use issue remains skeptical. 

“I won’t automatically say it’s a bad thing, but I want to see exactly what they’re proposing,” said John Curl, co-chair of West Berkeley Artists and Industrial Companies (WEBAIC). “The bigger issue is whether they want to use the project to change zoning in West Berkeley in ways that have much larger implications.” 

The project would call for rezoning of the property, for lifting height requirements and reducing minimum property sizes—each requiring variances from current zoning and the West Berkeley Plan. 

The project would also require changing the definition of the arts embodied in the plan and in city code. 

As envisioned by Herst and de Tienne, much of the project would consist of buildings with four floors built over a ground level podium that could include parking and other uses. 

The total of five stories would require a height greater than the 45 feet now allowed in West Berkeley, de Tienne said, because ceiling heights in residential buildings would be 11 feet, and 16 feet in studio spaces. 

But Curl said he is worried that the project could be used to push far-reaching zoning changes which, at their worst, “could gentrify West Berkeley overnight. 

“There are those who want to develop all of West Berkeley and who attempt to use a particular site like the Berkeley Bowl to change zoning in a way that will have much broader implications,” Curl said. “That’s the issue that concerns me.” 

Whatever happens, Curl said, he would like to see the site developed for industrial uses. Live/work spaces are allowed in one of the two zones that divide the property, but not in the other—and a change in zoning that allowed housing in both zones, if applied to all of West Berkeley, would have profound consequences, he said. 

As a tradeoff for the code, zoning and plan changes, de Tienne said, the project would include guaranteed “inclusionary” live/work spaces for artists earning well below the area median income. 

Sances said most of the existing live/work spaces in West Berkeley were created out of similar arrangements. 


Project site 

The project would include most of the two blocks between Fifth Street on the east and the Union Pacific tracks on the west between Allston and Bancroft ways. 

More than half the property is currently unoccupied or covered by parking lots. 

The impetus for the project came in January, when Peerless Lighting closed down its manufacturing operations in Berkeley and relocated to in January to Mexico and Indiana. 

“The company looked at the financials and plant costs in Berkeley and moved everything out because costs here were 50 percent higher” than in the new locations, Herst said. 

As projected in the new development plans, the Peerless plant would be expanded into a five-story laboratory and manufacturing facility for a new tenant. 

Peerless had been founded in Chicago in 1892 by three brothers, one of them Herst’s grandfather. 

He sold the privately held company, while retaining ownership of the property, and in 1999 the firm became part of Acuity Lighting Group. Herst remained with the new firm as vice president and general manager of the company’s Peerless division. 

The developer said his company’s philosophy had always been “to really make it beautiful, to marry art and design with optics and energy, creating lighting that is efficient and beautiful.” 

His own love of the arts is evident in walking through the Peerless building, where sculptures and graphics abound, a legacy in part of the art courses he took as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley. 


Incubator spaces 

In looking for new uses for his property, Herst said he began looking at the notion of creating so-called incubator spaces for businesses in the early stages of development. 

“Across the street there are the large buildings that under the current zoning you can’t cut up, but I started thinking about using them for incubator spaces,” he said. 

An incubator space is housing for a new business in its development stages, typically before it begins to turn a profit and start generating tax revenues. 

“The idea is to change over time, creating spaces of 4,500 square feet, 2,000 and 1,000,” Herst said. “And what if an artist could live on this side of the street and have a studio on the other side? And what if you had spaces for sculpture, for a yoga studio, and things that are connected back and forth, some retail and food? You could have one side where people could work all night and live on the other side of the block.” 

But to make it work, de Tienne said, the city would have to change the definition of the arts. Under the current regime, a photographer who uses film is an artist, but a photographer who uses digital cameras isn’t. 

Similarly, he said, artists who create their graphics with computers don’t qualify—and the definition should be changed to allow software companies, he said. 

Rob Reiter, a photographer who has his studio just across Fifth Street from the former Peerless plant, hailed the project. 

“I came up through the live/work venue standard with a darkroom in my basement,” he said. “I’ve been in live/work space for 20 years. Incubator spaces with lower rents really work, and what I hear sounds just great. I would like to see inclusion of an actual gallery with display space.” 

“It has to be a place with rotating exhibits, a shared exhibition space,” said artist Jerry Landis, who urged the city to rethink the existing West Berkeley zoning, which is primarily reserved to industrial and light manufacturing. 


Unlisted meeting 

The meeting was not posted in the calendar listings on the city’s website nor on the commission’s own web page. A faxed copy of the agenda received by the Daily Planet simply listed the meeting’s topic as live/work space for artists in West Berkeley.