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The Public Eye: Big-Box Shopping Center on Fourth Street?

By Zelda Bronstein
Tuesday May 15, 2007

One of the city’s most valuable services is the NewsScan, the free, online daily compilation of media references to Berkeley. You find things there that you wouldn’t know about otherwise. Last Friday, I happened across just such an item, an article pulled down from the website of that reported the upcoming auction of two parcels totaling 5.8 acres at Fourth and Gilman, a.k.a. the former site of Flint Ink.  

The property is contaminated, said Todd Good, whose Newport Beach company, Accelerated Marketing Group, will handle the June 1 auction, but it will be “delivered clean” to the highest bidder in 15 to 24 months. “What we are really selling,” Good explained, “is the future deliverability of a piece of property that right now, in its current form, cannot be used.” He added: “I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’ve never seen this done.”  

That was interesting. Even more intriguing, though, were the names of two of the people on the selling end of the transaction: Ali Kashani and David Greensfelder. Kashani, the founder and longtime director of Affordable Housing Associates, is well-known in Berkeley. In 2004 he left AHA and not-for-profit development and started his own firm, Memar Associates. The article described him as “a Berkeley area property and asset management specialist.” It was an inquiry from Kashani to the city’s fire department that sparked the chain of events leading to the eviction of the artists at the Drayage Building in 2005.  

David Greensfelder, who sits on the AHA board, is the former real estate director for Longs Drugs. In 2006 he became vice president for acquisitions at Rawson, Blum & Leon. Headquartered in San Francisco, RBL specializes in the acquisition, development and management of commercial real estate throughout the western United States. indicated that if an out-of-state investor bought the property at Fourth and Gilman, Memar might handle the entitlement process, while RBL could oversee development.  

Greensfelder is already collaborating with Kashani on another development in West Berkeley, a four-story, mixed-use, 100-condo project to be built on a 0.75 acre site at the southwest corner of Ashby and San Pablo. RBL’s website says, however, that the company’s focus is on shopping centers—“urban in-fill centers, suburban neighborhood and community centers, lifestyle centers, power centers and regional malls.” Adorned with photos of Home Depot, Target, Best Buy and other big box chain stores, the website touts a history that makes Patrick Kennedy—to date, Berkeley’s single biggest developer—look like a piker. “Since its inception,” we read, “RBL has acquired and managed over 40 properties with an aggregate value in excess of $500 million.” In urban areas, RBL’s “new development opportunities” are all five acres or larger. noted that the 5.8 acres at Fourth and Gilman are in the city’s manufacturing district, “which permits numerous uses including warehousing, distribution, light manufacturing, production facilities and arts/crafts” and thereby “makes the land parcels highly desirable.” But not, perhaps, desirable enough. The article went on to report that the city of Berkeley is installing a zoning overlay that would permit auto-related sales on the site. According to auctioneer Good, the sellers are willing to make the sale contingent on that change. 

What brought me up short was another prospective change, hinted at in the article’s final paragraph, in which an unnamed “local industry source” estimated the variable value of the property depending on the zoning. According to the anonymous informant, “[I]f used for light manufacturing, the property might be worth between $40 and $60 per square foot. If the overlay is put in place and entitlements are obtained for a car dealership, the value may be $75 to $100 per square foot. If a special permit is obtained to put pure retail on the site, it might be worth between $100 and $125 per square foot.”  

A special permit for pure retail? Whatever that might mean, it would go way beyond the City Council’s directive to the planning commission, which dealt only with an auto-sales overlay in the manufacturing (M) and mixed-use light industrial (MULI) districts. As it turns out, the city’s planning staff want to go even further. Last Wednesday the planning commission considered a staff proposal to amend the zoning regulations so as to open the way to making major commercial development a regularly permitted use in the M and MULI districts. Staff suggested expanding the purposes of both districts to “support the development of businesses, including retail automobile sales, that contribute to and enhance the economic viability of the area and provide essential sales tax revenues for the city.” The syntax renders auto-related sales into an afterthought. The emphasis is on businesses that generate a lot of sales tax.  

Sales tax generation is code for the out-and-out commercialization of the West Berkeley economy because retail yields much more sales tax than industry and artisanal transactions. Staff didn’t have the audacity to remove the zoning ordinance’s explicit prohibition on retail that’s unaffiliated with industry. Instead, they were testing the waters, seeing how far they could go with a sneak attempt to undermine the businesses that depend on industrial zoning to keep their rents affordable: Berkeley’s manufacturers, artisans and recyclers.  

I say “sneak” because staff buried their actual revisions deep in its 41-page report to the planning commission. The report appeared on the commission’s May 9 agenda under the heading “Discussion of West Berkeley Automobile Sales Zoning Amendments.” Nothing about allowing retail per se. Ditto for the two-page staff cover memo, which focused exclusively on auto-related sales. To discern staff’s underlying motives, you had to comb through the attached text of the zoning ordinance and mark the (de)regulatory language embedded there. 

To date, no city official has publicly tied the West Berkeley zoning changes being considered at the planning commission to the upcoming auction of the Flint Ink site. Land use planning manager Mark Rhoades has told the commission that staff activity has been spurred by a “nibble” at West Berkeley real estate. But he’s said nothing about the Flink Ink site or a mega-shopping center developer’s entry onto the scene. 

Nor, at the council’s budget workshop last Tuesday, did Mayor Bates or councilmembers Wozniak and Capitelli mention the deal in the works at Fourth and Gilman, as they echoed each other’s calls for economic development that yields high revenue. “I don’t want a big box here,” said Wozniak, “but I think there should be a store [in Berkeley] where you can buy a TV set. Same with refrigerators and driers.” In the wake of the revelations, that sounds a lot like advance publicity for a big box store.  

Note to prospective bidders on the Flint Ink site: If city officials have told you that putting a shopping center at Fourth and Gilman is going to be a slam dunk, they have only been telling you what they know you’d like to hear. This is Berkeley, not Emeryville. Be prepared for a battle royal.