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Shipyard, City Struggle to Reach Compromise

By Richard Brenneman
Friday June 01, 2007

Berkeley’s Shipyard has been granted a reprieve—but for some artists, it may have come too late. 

City fire and building inspectors have ordered massive changes at the artisan colony, a font of creativity that had been housed in a nest of double-stacked steel shipping containers in a West Berkeley industrial neighborhood. 

But serious violations of a host of city codes and failure to comply with earlier deadlines had led to demands that essentially forced the popular creative center to close for the time being, scattering its tenants to other sites throughout the Bay Area. 

“We weren’t trying to evict them,” said Deputy Fire Chief David Orth, and the Shipyard’s architect, Les Young of San Francisco, agrees. 

“Jim Mason responded to the city’s comments basically by saying ‘We’re moving out,’” Young said. 

Mason, who operates the Shipyard and is the signatory on the property’s lease agreement, has maintained a strained relationship with city officials, and Young agrees that it’s probably best that he’s now handling relations with the city. Orth agreed. 

The publicity surrounding the move of artists from a city which has witnessed the closure of four other artists’ communities in recent years triggered an emergency meeting last week between Young, Mayor Tom Bates and other city officials. 

“They want the artists to stay,” said Young. 

“It’s just a wonderful operation,” said City Councilmember Darryl Moore Thursday. Moore attended last week’s meeting because his district includes the Shipyard. “They’re doing very creative work, and remarkable things around alternative energy. They have also been making very creative use of recycled shipping containers.” 

City Zoning Officer Mark Rhoades said Wednesday that while he signed off on the letter of enforcement that sparked the latest round of actions at the Shipyard, the zoning issues didn’t involve use of the property but building code issues that related to the ordinance. 

The letter, signed by Orth, city Building Official Joan MacQuarrie and Rhoades, cited 15 building code violations, 13 city and state fire code violations and four city zoning ordinance violations. 

Though Orth said the Shipyard “has made significant progress about rectifying their violations,” much remains to be done—and Young said bringing the eclectic gathering of artists and their studios back will mean major cash outlays. 

“We’re talking about the $500,000 range,” Young said. 

“I really hope they can work out their building and safety issues,” said Moore, who added that he will stay on top of the issue as it works its way through the city’s administrative process. 

“It’s going to be a very difficult, very expensive endeavor to turn those shipping containers into something someone can reuse in a safe manner,” Rhoades said. “I hope they can do it, but they have a long road ahead.” 

Meanwhile, the Shipyard gates were locked Thursday morning, though nine of the containers that had been stacked in the two-level ring that girded the northern end of the property had been removed and stored in the vacant railroad right-of-way west of the property. 

A large trash bin nearby was filled with broken boards and other discarded gear ripped from the vacated shipping containers, and Mason’s World War II-vintage amphibious landing vehicle was parked across Murray Street. 

Most Shipyard occupants have dispersed, many to the old American Steel plant in Oakland. “There was talk of some of them going to the Box Shop,” another artists’ collective in San Francisco, “and some went to other places,” Young said. 

Orth said that there’s one quick way to bring back some of the artists, and that’s to do the relatively minor work needed to bring the existing concrete workshop at the site up to code. 

“They misunderstood and thought they couldn’t use the space,” Orth said. “But they do need to get a permit if they are going to continue doing welding there.” 

Once a mechanic’s shop for the repair of BMWs, the building housed the Shipyard’s heavy machinery, used for crafting some of the high tech steampunk robotic gear as well as Mechabolic, the trash-to-energy system that was to have been a central feature of this year’s Burning Man festival in Nevada. 

“This year Burning Man is all about alternative energy, the Green Man, and the Shipyard was going to be” a leading participant, Young said.  

Another Berkeley artisan community shut down by the city—the Crucible, which operated within a block of the Shipyard—is back in business and thriving in Oakland, but only because of an anonymous $1 million gift, Young said. 

Young said he and city officials are also working on a timeline for improvements at the site. 

“The original deadlines they gave us were impossible,” he said, though a acknowledging that the facility had delayed submitting a permit for “to long” after originally promising to do so. 

But Young said the schedule outlined in the city’s letter was also “completely unreasonable,” mandating a 14-day deadline for submitting a permit application. 

“There’s no way we can bring in engineers, bring them up to speed and do all the drawings in that period,” he said. 

Young already has a structural engineer to help with the drawings needed before the next meeting with city staff. Young also has a structural engineer, but he still needs a mechanical, plumbing and electrical (MEP) engineer before he can finish. 

Once drawings are approved, “the ball would then be in the Shipyard’s court to find money and a general contractor,” he said. 

The architect is already sending out feelers to possible donors. “It’s not something we can do with a typical fundraiser that brings in $5,000 or so,” he said. But there are some well-connected people who are interested.“ 

Meanwhile, he’s also working with the Shipyard artist’s, trying to reassure them that the city inspectors had real concerns, “and they’re not out to get you.” 

Moore said that he hopes the city will find a way to include the use of shipping containers in its building codes. 

“I hope the Planning Department takes a look at them, like Portland and other cities have done,” he said. 

Even if the critical building issues are ironed out, two final questions will remain: will the former tenants return their old West Berkeley habitat, and will they be able to afford the increased rents that could come if Mason and Young can’t find enough donors to cover all their costs?