Public Comment

Commentary: Unprotecting Our Industries

By John Curl
Friday September 14, 2007

The Planning Commission last week demonstrated commendable wisdom by removing auto dealerships from consideration in the thriving artisan, light industrial and building supply community in the MU-LI District south of Ashby Avenue, thus heading off the area’s destabilization. The same sort of clear thinking should also guide the commission’s approval in concept of auto sales as a permitted use in the Manufacturing District at the foot of Gilman Street. The Planning Commission will now consider the conditions under which that will happen. It can be done in a way that will benefit everyone in Berkeley, or it can be done in a way that could put all industry in that area at risk.  

Frontage Road is the only place that is perfect for auto sales. The current self-storage facilities there contribute very little to the city, and would meet with almost unanimous support if replaced by auto sales. The closed Flint Ink site is another possibility, but more problematic, since it is blocks from the freeway. The nine acre Recycling Center area should be entirely removed from the new regulations. 

Key to the West Berkeley Plan, passed unanimously by City Council in 1993, is industrial retention and preservation of manufacturing and artisan/art spaces, which were threatened by unregulated market forces. The zoning ordinance was later revised to conform to the plan, dividing West Berkeley into four districts, based on the existing level of industrial use: Manufacturing, Mixed Manufacturing, Mixed Use-Light Industrial, and Mixed Use-Residential. At th0e top of the scale, in the M District, all change of use away from manufacturing was prohibited. Self-storage was made a permitted use, but only in new construction.  

In the other districts, some flexibility of change of use was allowed. In the MU-LI and MU-R, up to 25 percent of manufacturing space in a building could be converted to a different permitted use; but over that amount, change of use could be made only with a finding that “appropriate mitigation has been made for the loss of manufacturing, warehousing or wholesale trade space... through providing such space elsewhere in the city, payment into the West Berkeley Building Acquisition Fund, or by other appropriate means.” The replacement space provision also applied to the MM District. The concept here is that of giving something appropriate back to the industrial and artisan/art community for what is being removed. 

Similar provisions for replacement space or mitigation payment were not included in the M District because there was no permitted use there that manufacturing space could be converted into. Since there was no problem, there was no need for a solution. Now the proposal to make auto sales a permitted use in the M District creates for the first time the possibility of change of use away from manufacturing in that district. This necessitates examining the proper conditions under which that conversion could be made. 

Among the Purposes of the Manufacturing District are “To the greatest degree possible, retain the stock of manufacturing and industrial buildings and sites, especially large buildings and sites, for manufacturing and industrial uses,” and “Encourage development of a manufacturing district dedicated unequivocally to manufacturing and industrial uses, so that manufacturers and industrial businesses will not be interfered with by incompatible uses.” How can we permit auto sales and yet be true to the purposes of the M District? 

Replacing self-storage with auto sales is in conformity with the district, and should not pose an issue. But unrestrained replacement of industrial sites with sales puts all manufacturing space at risk, because retail generates much higher rents than industries.  

In keeping with the concepts of the West Berkeley Plan, if auto sales are made a permitted use in the entire M District, then provisions similar to the replacement space or mitigation payment in the other districts should be placed into the M District regulations. With these provisions in place, for example, a self-storage site could be changed into an auto dealership with no replacement space or mitigation required. However, if Flint Ink or another manufacturing space were to be changed into auto sales, an appropriate mitigation payment would be required. This mitigation payment “into the West Berkeley Building Acquisition Fund, or by other appropriate means” would be intended to help purchase buildings or otherwise retain buildings for light industries and artisans/artists. This enforces the concept of giving something appropriate back to the industrial and artisan/art community for what is being removed. 


John Curl is a cabinetmaker and chair of West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies (WEBAIC).