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Car Dealership Zoning Draws Resident Fears

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday July 24, 2007

As Berkeley’s planning commissioners prepare for a public hearing on a plan to rezone two hunks of West Berkeley for car sales, embattled activists have questions. 

Drafted at the urging of Mayor Tom Bates as a plan to keep car dealers—and the sales taxes they raise—within the city, the plan has raised fears among some that the plan could be targeting local business and result in property value spikes that could drive others to leave—including the area’s dwindling supply of artists. 

Planning commissioners will hold a public hearing on the plan amendments and proposed zoning regulations when they meet at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the North Berkeley Senior Center, 1901 Hearst Ave. at Martin Luther King Jr. Way. 

Rick Auerbach, the spokesperson for WEBAIC, West Berkeley Artists and Industrial Companies, said his concerns with the proposals were raised by a closer examination of the city’s environmental study of their potential impacts. 

The proposals would rezone two blocs of West Berkeley totaling 205 acres—one extending north and south from Gilman Street east of the I-80 interchange and the other between Ashby Avenue and the Emeryville border west of San Pablo Avenue. 

Auerbach said he was particularly concerned because the site used as an example for a dealership in the Ashby sector, now zone for light industrial use, is currently the site of Ashby Lumber and buildings that house live/work spaces for artisans. 

The environmental initial study by city planner Jordan Harrison “assumes 11.8 acres of new dealership uses would be built in the two project areas,” including two along the southern side of Ashby, one a 2-acre dealership and the other occupying about a third of an acre. 


Ashby sites 

The small south-of-Ashby property at 751 Folger Ave. is currently a German car repair shop, with an owner who has told the city he would like to expand into used vehicle sales. 

While Auerbach said he doesn’t have problems with a dealership on the Folger Street site, he said the city could permit the use if the Zoning Adjustments Board approved a variance allowing a dealership at that location. 

“They wouldn’t need to rezone the area to accomplish that,” he said. 

What concerns Auerbach is that the study proposes a “prototypical site” for the larger dealership that is already occupied by one of the city’s leading contributors of sales tax, Ashby Lumber. 

“There are really no good sites south of Ashby,” Auerbach said. “That’s the point. It really doesn’t make any sense.” 

In its traffic analysis, the proposal offers two alternative sites along Ashby on either side of Seventh Street. 

“You have Ashby Lumber on one side and Urban Ore on the other. Urban Ore is a very important part of the city’s Zero Waste program, and both businesses provide good paying jobs,” Auerbach said. 

“Ashby Lumber is a great source of about 60 good jobs, and it’s a good source of revenue to the city,” he said, citing a June, 2005, report in the Daily Planet listing the retailer as one of the city’s top 25 sales tax producers. 

The two businesses are the only sites large enough to accommodate the dealership proposed in the city’s environmental study, he said. 

The tract used for illustration that includes Ashby Lumber also includes buildings that are rented by artists who live and work there. West Berkeley has recently lost two major live/work havens, and studio space has also been vanishing. 

City enforcement actions aimed at building and fire code violations in the Shipyard, an unusual collection of studios housed in shipping containers and an old industrial building within the boundaries of the proposed south-of-Ashby rezoning area, ended short of a shutdown, but raised fears of artists who have seen their foothold in the area dwindle in recent years.  

Four years ago came the closing of The Crucible, a community of studios similar to the Shipyard, after city officials cracked down on code violations following a raucous party that led to a pair of shootings near the site. 

That facility was located at 1036 Ashby Ave., a block from The Shipyard. 

Two years ago city officials cited the owner of the Drayage at 651 Addison St. for multiple fire and building code violations, ending another cherished West Berkeley artists’ community which housed an eclectic collection of artists, artisans and their studios. 

West Berkeley lost another arts collective a year ago, when the Nexus Collective lost its lease to buildings at 2701-2721 Eighth St. 

WEBAIC members, including Urban Ore co-founder Mary Lou Van DeVenter are passionate advocates for preservation of an artist-friendly environment. 


Flint Ink 

The other major dealership site cited in the study is the abandoned Flint Ink Co. site in the Gilman Street area, zoned solely for manufacturing (M). 

While the traffic analysis examines three sites in the M zone, including two between Second Street and the freeway, the largest and only vacant site is the 48-acre property that housed the old ink factory. 

That property was auctioned June 1 by the current owner, a partnership which includes Berkeley developer Ali Kashani’s Memar Properties. 

But the sale won’t be completed unless the city approves the rezoning for car sales. While the auctioneers and Kashani wouldn’t talk to a reporter from the Daily Planet, Todd Good of Accelerated Marketing Group told real estate web site in May that sale was contingent on the rezoning. 

It is the Flint Ink site, which includes landmarked buildings, that has featured most prominently in city discussions of dealership sites. 

The other two sites chosen as examples are currently occupied by self-storage facilities, which typically employ smaller numbers and generate fewer taxes than retail uses. 

What concerns Auerbach is something else that Good told the Internet realty news site—that rezoning could raise the value of the land from its current $40 to $60 per square foot to between $75 and $100 if the land is rezoned and the new owners received the entitlements to install a dealership on the site. 

Auerbach and other advocates for the West Berkeley arts community say they fear that higher property values could lead to rents and new uses that would drive the artists out. 

The city’s planning documents are posted on the web at