Public Comment

Commentary: Development Bonanza Behind Artist Housing

By John Curl
Friday March 23, 2007

“We want to turn this into a new type of artists’ community,” said Doug Herst, owner of 5.5 acres of industrial land in West Berkeley, speaking at a special meeting at City Hall. He came over as a nice guy, and he really seemed to like artists and the arts. Sounded great. Until he unveiled the real project: a million square feet of mostly commercial, office, and residential development, with only seven thousand square feet for arts/crafts workshops, and only 20 percent of the residential units as artist live/work studios. 

Herst and his development consultant, Darrell de Tienne, want to change the West Berkeley zoning ordinance so they can replace recently filled manufacturing space with seven-story corporate and residential buildings. They want to “blur” the distinctions between residential, office, commercial and industrial. As a “trade-off” for changing the zoning code, Herst said, he would include 20 percent low-income artist live/work housing, along with 80 percent of the units at market rate for anybody. And here’s the kicker: The city already requires 20 percent inclusionary low-income in all housing projects, exactly what Herst is proposing. As the old saying goes, “They’re giving away ice in winter.”  

The special meeting was attended by members of the Civic Arts Commission, city staff, City Council representatives, and several members of West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies, myself included. I asked Herst, “If you care for artists and artisans so much, why not just subdivide the property into affordable studios? That’s what artists and artisans really need.” Herst responded, “That’s not my vision.”  

The property, almost two entire blocks between Allston and Bancroft Ways and from Fifth Street to the railroad tracks, was formerly the site of Peerless Lighting, owned by Herst. In 1999 he sold Peerless to a large corporation, which retained him as manager and vice president but moved the plant to Mexico and Indiana. Herst retained ownership of the properties. 

A key part of Herst’s proposal is making regular residential units an allowable use in the mixed-use light industrial (MU-LI) district. This is contrary to the zoning code, which excludes residential uses there. The MU-LI is home to most of the city’s industries and art/artisan studios, and these uses cannot compete with residential, which generates several times the rent. Residential speculation in the MU-LI would open the proverbial gentrification flood gates and sweep arts and industries away. 

De Tienne said in order to do this project they want the city to revise the zoning ordinance to “blur” the distinctions between industrial and other uses. But West Berkeley zoning is built around exactly those distinctions. The zoning is geared to keep incompatible uses at an acceptable distance, so that industries, residents, offices and merchants can all be good neighbors. Herst wants to put artisan studios, which make noise and dirt 24 hours a day, directly across the street from upscale residents.  

De Tienne also explained that they are interpreting the newly revised definition of an arts/crafts studio to mean that they can rent those studios to strictly computer artists. However, that is contrary to the intent of the new definition, which was passed unanimously by the Arts Commission. The new definition simply includes computers among the permissible tools of artists who are otherwise eligible for arts/crafts studios. Both the old and the new definitions make a clear distinction, reserving arts/crafts studios for uses that cannot ordinarily be done in an office or home office environment, for artistic and crafts uses that make a mess or are dirty or noisy. Just as poets do not need an industrial-type studio to write poems, creative people who work only on computers do not need industrial-type studios. There is plenty of space for these office-type creative uses in all of the extensive commercial zones throughout downtown and the rest of the city, including home offices, whereas the only place working artists are allowed to do their hands-on work is in the industrial zones of West Berkeley. It’s their only habitat and it is scarce. 

Then why open up arts/crafts studios to strictly computer artists? Blurring the distinction opens up arts/crafts studios to a very large number of people, almost anybody, and thereby jacks up the rents. Since real working artists usually have very modest incomes, this interpretation of the art/craft studio definition winds up pushing them out and replacing them with upscale high-end models, people who could already afford good space. Calling this a project for real working artists becomes nothing more than a marketing ploy. 

If the city would agree to blur the distinctions between industrial and other uses, then it would be throwing out the entire underlying structure of the zoning ordinance, and the heart of the West Berkeley Plan. The repercussions would be enormous over all of West Berkeley, and every industrial and arts/crafts space would be at risk to be replaced by more upmarket uses.  

To put this in context, de Tienne is not just the consultant on this project, but has a long history of having his finger in many other upscale developments all over Berkeley, and has an enormous amount to gain by those proposed Zoning Ordinance changes. 

Look at the reality of blurring those distinctions. They want to put artisan studios directly across the street from upscale residents. Imagine those residents trying to sleep with industrial noise and walking in industrial smells. The noise and odors and dirt would get the residents up in arms, the “community” would become a war zone, and the arts/crafts (the purported focus of the development) would be either shut down entirely or subjected to hobbling restrictions.  

Herst said he came up with his proposal in part because the city’s restrictions on industrial subdivision forced him to keep the spaces larger than were rentable to industries under current market conditions. Herst claimed that there are no large industrial users looking for space in Berkeley. But how about Powerlight, which just left town because they could not find a large enough space? Did Herst ever try to accommodate them? Did the city ever try to bring the two of them together? 

Besides, new legislation to facilitate subdivision of larger spaces into smaller studios is currently wending its way through city processes with the backing of the artisan/artist/industrial sector as well as developer sector, and should be in place this year. Small industrial, artist and artisan businesses are a thriving sector, as are start-ups and recycling, and reasonably-priced spaces and studios are in great demand. If we want real artist and artisan studios, not ersatz chic, then just subdivide the warehouses and rent them at an affordable rate. That’s all real artists and artisans need. Let the artists and artisans pretty them up as they please.  

Why would the city go along with this blatant rip-off of industrial land? Because a lot of people in city hall want to transform West Berkeley into a yuppie enclave as quickly as possible. 

Under the current regime, the Berkeley artist and artisan community has been dying. The Bates administration did nothing of any consequence or substance when the Nexus artists and artisans were evicted, nothing when the Drayage artists were evicted, nothing when the 2750 Adeline St. artists were evicted. All of these were true low income artist communities. They were all evicted to make way for more profitable uses. Gentrification is the guiding development policy of this administration. The vision of the Bates administration, which loudly professes to care about artists and artisans, is a phony arts district in which working artists and artisans are replaced by artsy folks with fat wallets who want quaint artisty tourism within walking distance. 

And Bates is now doing nothing to impede the decimation of the world-class film community in the Fantasy Building, currently under attack from de Tienne’s most frequent employer, Rich Robbins’ Wareham Corporation.  

If only Bates were a little more like Ron Dellums. That’s what the progressive community was hoping from you, Tom, that you would fight for social diversity, not for the most profitable developments; that you would be guided by the struggle for social justice, not by the struggle to maximize profits. 

After the smoke, mirrors, and false promises are removed, the Herst project boils down to a huge development scheme hiding behind the facade of a few units of artist live/work. 

But there is an alternative vision for West Berkeley, a vision already embodied in the West Berkeley Plan, which was written by the community and adopted unanimously by the council. And our West Berkeley community has not given this regime the approval to dismantle that plan. That vision is based on the diverse community of creative people who are here today not being pushed out but staying and coming together to jointly improve the neighborhood to make it work for all of us. 

Why is it important to maintain industries and artisans? Because gentrification of West Berkeley would mean the loss of economic, social and racial diversity, and result in a cultural impoverishment of the city. Because globalization is destroying local economies all around the world, local people are fighting back in numerous places, and this is a key part of our local struggle in Berkeley. Because the future of the country and the world hinges on a green reindustrialization. Because Berkeley should and can be a leader in this struggle. Because the great creative depth of our city comes from the interaction of the university with a diverse urban environment. Because a locally-based economy offers strength and a dynamic quality of life that would cease to exist in a mere upscale college bedroom community.  

Because only if we retain the industrial land base, only if we preserve existing spaces for green industries, recycling, and arts and crafts, can we have a real renaissance in West Berkeley. 


John Curl is a cabinetmaker at Heartwood Cooperative Woodshop and co-chair of West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies.