The Shipyard Isn’t Dead Yet, Say Architect, Official

By Richard Brenneman
Friday August 10, 2007

Don’t be sounding any death knells yet for The Shipyard, one of West Berkeley’s last remaining hangouts for techno and steampunk artists. 

Despite the heated rhetoric that followed city inspections and a welter of violation findings and threats of heavy sanctions earlier this year, relations between the outspoken artists and their erstwhile bureaucratic nemeses have improved, and a crucial, studio-saving compromise is in the works. 

“They have a plan, and it’s doable,” said Deputy Fire Chief David P. Orth, who had found 13 city and state fire code violations at the 1010 Murray St. facility in May. 

Tensions had reached a breaking point that month, after Orth and two other city officials signed notices demanding that the yard’s 30 artists leave the odd collection of refurbished shipping containers that formed their studios. 

The massive oblong steel boxes, stacked two and three deep along the perimeters of the industrial site, provoked the concerns of Orth, city Building Official Joan MacQuarrie and Zoning Officer Mark Rhoades. 

The result was a detailed notice of 15 building code violations, four affronts to the city zoning code and three fire code breaches—accompanied by the threat of $2,500-a-day fines. 

Among their concerns were wiring that failed code requirements, alterations to the containers that threatened their structural integrity, unsafe foundations installed without permits, a solar power system sans permit and allegedly posing a fire danger, and a declaration that some of the artists may have been living in the containers. 

The notices prompted a strong reaction from Jim Mason, who leases the site and sublets to his fellow artists, and led to highly restrained relations between the artists and the city until architect Les Young intervened and took over the delicate task of managing relations between anarchic artists and city officialdom. 

“All of the inspection items are out of the way now,” Young said. “We have plans for a new two-story metal building along Murray Street, and we’ll be lining up containers along the old railroad tracks for use as studios and for storage.” 

Mason and Young have asked the property owner to finance construction, in return for an extended lease at a higher rent. “He’s agreed,” said Young. “He would select the contractor, and the city will be dealing directly with him.” 

Young met with Orth and other city officials Wednesday and presented preliminary designs for the new structure. 

“So far they like it,” he said. “It’s all code-driven at this point, and I don’t see any deal killers.” 

In the interim, Shipyard artists have been busily completing projects for the upcoming Aug. 27-Sept. 3 Burning Man festival—that anarchic event in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert that has become the focus of the energies of many West Berkeley artists. 

“The city has been looking the other way until they’re done,” Young said. 

“They were reminded that they need to continue cleaning up,” Orth said. 

Just how long it will take before the Shipyard can start rebuilding depends on a review of final plans, which have yet to be completed, said Orth. 

“If it just takes an over-the-counter administrative use permit, it could be a matter of weeks. But if it require a full use permit, it could take six to eight months,” Orth said. 

Such use permits have to go through a public hearing process and win a majority vote before the Zoning Adjustments Board.