Page One

Planning Commission Approves Reduction Of Proposed West Berkeley Auto Zone

By Angela Rowen, Special to the Planet
Friday September 07, 2007

The Planning Commission on Wednesday voted to drastically scale back a proposal to rezone parts of West Berkeley to allow car dealerships, appeasing critics who said the plan would displace recycling and building businesses by raising property values in the rezoned areas. 

In an attempt to encourage auto dealers to set up shop in Berkeley—a need identified by the City Council in 2005—the Planning Department came up with a proposal to allow auto sales in districts with large lots and proximity to the freeway. 

Staff had recommended rezoning two areas: one along Eastshore Highway between Codornices Creek, Virginia Street and 3rd, 4th and 5th Streets, the other south of Ashby between Bay Street, San Pablo Avenue and the Emeryville border. 

The debate centered on the desire to retain car dealerships—which generate $1.2 million in sales tax revenue—while protecting the thriving West Berkeley industrial community and meeting its zero waste goal. The commission heard from 30 or so critics of the proposal and representatives of three of the four auto dealerships in the city. Two of those businesses—Berkeley Honda and McKevitt Volvo-Nissan located on Shattuck—have expressed interest in relocating to West Berkeley. 

“If we want to grow our business it would be very helpful for us to be down by the freeway. That’s really the most important thing,” said Steve Haworth, General Manager of Berkeley Honda. 

In the end, the commission leaned toward opponents of the plan, deciding to go through with rezoning the Eastshore Highway area but to eliminate the proposed area south of Ashby, citing concerns that several recycling facilities and building businesses in that part of Berkeley might be forced out of the market by auto dealers able to pay higher land prices. 

In doing so, the commission rejected claims by David Fogarty, the city’s economic development project coordinator, that auto dealerships might actually have a more difficult time affording land prices in the proposed areas, an assumption he derived from recent land sales data. 

“I don’t think it makes sense to have an auto row right there and I think your rent will go up in a year if we allow this,” said commissioner William Falik. 

Urban Ore attorney John Moore said Fogarty’s analysis is flawed because it relies on land sales data. “An appraiser determines land value based on what the price per square foot is at comparable places.” he said. “I would strongly guess that auto dealers in comparable places are paying more.” 

Urban Ore, located just south of Ashby, is under a 10-year lease that runs out in 2009. At that point, Urban Ore will have to enter into arbitration to renew the lease for another five years. Moore said if the area were zoned for auto dealerships, the reuse business would most certainly be priced out. 

The commission also voted to examine exempting the city’s Transfer Station, located on 2nd Street near the Gilman Street freeway exit, from the proposed rezoned area along the highway at a subsequent meeting. The recycling center is expected to draw increased activity as the city boosts efforts to divert waste from landfills. 

The commission directed staff to come up with exact language to implement the new zoning policy, which will be considered at the next meeting. The City Council is expected to vote on the policy change in December.