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West Berkeley Car Rezoning Ignites Public Opposition

By Richard Brenneman
Friday July 27, 2007

A proposal to rezone parts of West Berkeley for car dealerships drew massive, vocal public opposition at Berkeley’s Plan-ning Commission Wednesday night. 

While only one speaker from the audience supported the project—as a means of freeing up dealer sites on Shattuck Avenue for housing projects—none of the West Berkeley business owners and workers who spoke had anything good to say of the notion. 

By the time the meeting ended, commissioners had decided to delay action on the West Berkeley Plan and zoning law changes until September, and commissioner Chair James Samuels asked city staff to bring dealers to the next session to support the reasons they want the change. 

One common theme running through many of the critiques focused on the irony of rezoning to accommodate car sales at the very moment the city has embarked on a program to reduce car use as a key step in slowing global warming. 

Another theme was the irony of rezoning the very recycling sites that are critical to the city’s companion Zero Waste mandate. 

During the two hours preceding the commission’s regular session, members had listened to an intense discussion of the city’s greenhouse gas reduction efforts under the programs launched by Measure G, passed overwhelmingly by Berkeley voters last November. 

“How do you reconcile this with the workshop you just held?” asked Steve Lautze, a West Berkeley resident who administers the Oakland/Berkeley Recycling Development Zone. 

The proposal calls for rezoning two areas of West Berkeley, one along the southern side of Ashby Avenue between Bay Street and San Pablo Avenue and the Emeryville border, the other along the freeway between Virginia Street and Codornices Creek, at depths varying between two and four blocks. 

The reason cited by city officials for adopting the controversial plan is to keep the sales tax dollars generated by Berkeley car dealers from leaving if the dealership are pressured by carmakers to relocate closer to the freeway. 

Dave Fogarty, of the city manager’s Economic Development staff, said Berkeley’s car dealers bring well over a million dollars to city coffers through the 9.8 percent of the city’s sales tax revenues they generate. 

The main purpose of the rezoning, he said, was to keep the four existing dealers from leaving along with their well-paying union jobs, rather than to attract new car sellers. 

Two of the city’s four current dealerships—Honda of Berkeley and McKevitt Volvo/Nissan—are located on recently sold sites on Shattuck Avenue which new owners are planning to develop when current leases expire, he said. 

Carmakers are pressuring dealers to relocate adjacent to freeways, so the West Berkeley rezoning was proposed. 

Fogarty also dismissed the notion that discouraging dealerships would discourage Berkeleyans from sliding behind the wheel and stepping on the gas—though he personally doesn’t own a car. 


Ashby blowback 

The two largest sites in the small parcel along Ashby that the city proposes to allow for dealerships in addition to the existing Mixed Use Light Industrial uses are those of Ashby Lumber and Urban Ore. 

The environmental documents required by the land use policy change use as a prototypical site the land now occupied mostly by Ashby Lumber. 

“I am appalled. I am offended,” said Jeff Hogan, an owner of the thriving business at 824 Ashby Ave.  

The business is listed as one of the city’s top 25 sales tax generators and provides 65 jobs. 

“Next year we’re celebrating out 40th anniversary in the City of Berkeley,” he said. “What a wonderful way to celebrate.” 

Hogan said that when he met with Mayor Tom Bates six months ago, the city’s top elected official told him, “We really have a need for your kind of business.”  

Ashby Lumber, the neighboring Urban Ore and MacBeath’s lumber work together, he said. Others described the business as a hub for the city’s builders and do-it-yourselfers. 

“Here I am up here defending myself,” Hogan said. “When I see what they are trying to accomplish, I think maybe there’s a neighboring city that would more appreciate my business.” 

But even if he moved, Hogan said, “I would never sell it to an auto dealership.” 

Applause followed. 

Urban Ore cofounders Mary Lou Van De Venter and Dan Knapp added their voices to the opposition. 

“We’ve been in Berkeley for 27 years in the recycling business,” said Knapp. “We started with zero at the Berkeley landfill,” and put more than a $1 million in the present location at 900 Murray St. “We are threatened by this auto (zoning) overlay.” 

Speaking in her role as president of the Northern California Recycling Association, Van De Venter asked the city for a full environmental impact report rather than the abbreviated statement and mitigated negative declaration produced by city staff.  

Even Steve Moran, whose German car repair shop at 751 Folger Ave. is listed as one of the beneficiaries of the Ashby portion of the proposed zoning, said the rezoning “doesn’t make sense” and said that the issuance of a zoning variance rather than a rezoning would meet his needs. 


M zone  

The largest parcel listed as an example of a potential dealership site in the large M zoned district—the 4.8 acre site of the old Flint Ink plant—didn’t even attract any bidders when it went on the auction block last month, said Mark Rhoades, the city planning manager who was attending his last commission meeting before his departure for the private sector. 

The M zone also contains another key component of the city’s recycling program, the Community Conservation Center at Second and Gilman street. 

David Tam, who serves on the city’s Zero Waste Commission, charged that the environment documents were legally deficient and ignored impacts on community services, including the city’s growing recycling program. He also spoke as a director of SPRAWLDEF (the Sustainabilty, Parks, Recycling and Wildlife Legal Defense Fund). 

The city’s Community Recycling Center is located in the heart of the M zone rezoning sector at 669 Gilman St., a key element in the city’s Zero Waste program goals. 

Van De Venter said the environment documents failed to address impacts on the city’s goals for reducing waste to a minimum, and Tam agreed. 


Delayed decision  

At the request of city staff, Commissioner Susan Wengraf moved to delay action on the proposals and continue the hearing until the panel’s next meeting on Sept. 5. 

Commissioners Helen Burke, Gene Poschman and Patti Dacey—filling a vacancy for the seat appointed by City Councilmember Kriss Worthington—all expressed reservations about the proposals. 

Burke cited the conflict between one policy to discourage car use and another seeking to profit from car sales, while Poschman said he was concerned about city actions to “fiscalize land-use policies,” rezoning land in hopes of gaining more tax revenues for the city. 

Dacey said she was concerned with policies designed to replace existing dealerships with high density housing projects—what she called “housewashing” in the spirit of the “greenwashing” label used to describe seemingly eco-friendly policies of polluting corporations. 

Roia Ferrazares said one solution might be creating a means to make granting variances easier instead of rezoning, or, failing that, to create spot zones for specific dealers—which was greeted by nearly unanimous concern from her colleagues. Chair Samuels said he was torn between the perceived threats to existing West Berkeley businesses and the loss of tax revenues—but said he didn’t think the existing businesses were seriously threatened. 

Commissioner Larry Gurley was the only member who expressed the view that the rezoning policies weren’t problematic. 

The city is taking comments on the environmental documents through Aug. 10, while the Planning Commission will take up the rezoning proposals in September.  

At Samuels’ request, Fogarty said he would invite the dealers to attend.