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Planners Approve West Berkeley Car Dealerships

By Richard Brenneman
Friday September 28, 2007

Planning Commissioners Wednesday approved a modified plan and rezoning agenda that will open up the northern end of West Berkeley to car dealerships. 

The measures, if approved by the City Council, will allow car dealers into land previously restricted for use by manufacturers, the city’s only M Zone. 

Mayor Tom Bates and the city’s Economic Development staff have pushed for the changes because they say they are needed to keep the city’s remaining car retailers from bolting the city, along with the sales tax dollars they generate. 

A divided commission also defeated a measure that would have exempted from rezoning the long, nine-acre block occupied by the city’s largest concentration of recycling efforts—opting instead for a compromise to ensure new and relocated dealerships wouldn’t interfere with recycling efforts. 

The proposal by Helen Burke to exempt the block between Gilman Street on the south and the city’s Albany border on the north from Second to Third streets from the rezoning failed on 4-4 tie vote, with Chair James Samuels deciding the measure by his abstention. 

Instead, commissioners adopted the compromise proposed by Roia Ferrazares after Principal Planner Debra Sanderson cautioned that the move “would reduce the ability of the city to manage its own property to maximize its options.” 

“We don’t have any authority to prevent the city from selling,” said Commissioner Harry Pollack. “The city has a right to sell its property.” 

Nonetheless, Sanderson said, “I see no evidence the city is interested in undoing the Transfer Station and recycling center.” 

Only Burke voted against the Ferrazares’ motion, which was to include in the rezoning a proviso that the measure “will not materially interfere with the activities” of the transfer station and recycling facilities.” 

Burke left minutes later. 

In the end, commissioners voted 7-0-1 to approve the amendments, with Patti Dacey abstaining. 


Passionate pleas 

The meeting began with impassioned pleas from West Berkeley artisans and recyclers. 

John Curl, chair of the West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies (WEBAIC), urged the commission to include mitigations whenever car dealers appeared in the zone. 

When the West Berkeley Plan was adopted, he said, mitigations were required whenever sites in other zones were transformed to other uses. “These are left out of the M zone because there were no other permitted uses,” he said. 

Steven Jensen of the city’s Zero Waste Commission said he was concerned about the potential impacts on recycling businesses, and said he was glad that the site of Urban Ore—the city’s largest private recycling/reuse business—had been removed from the planned rezoning. 

Commissioners earlier this month exempted a second block of property proposed for rezoning at the southern end of West Berkeley along the southern margins of Ashby Avenue west of San Pablo after activists and the owners of Ashby Lumber, which occupies part of the site, along with Urban Ore voiced their concerns. 

Urban Ore co-founder Mary Lou Van De Venter, speaking also on behalf of the Northern California Recycling Association, called for protections for Berkeley’s “green producers.” 

With the City Council official adopting a “zero waste” goal for the community, the city needs manufacturing zoning to handle all the tonnage of recycling for production uses, she said. 

While she urged the commission to restrict the rezoned area to relocating dealerships already in the city, commissioners rejected the notion because Sanderson said it could pose legal problems. 

Nancy Gorrell, who serves on the board of the Community Conservation Center, and spouse Mark Gorrell, an Ecology Center board member, urged the commission to rescind the measure to preserve the city’s growing recycling industry. 

Ecology Center Executive Director Martin Bourque told commissioners that American recycling has overtaken the auto industry in size, in part because of overseas carmakers and in part because of the rapid growth of recycling. 

His own center, he said, employs 10 to 15 union workers, saves millions of gallons of water a year, tons of carbon and hundreds of thousands of trees while saving taxpayers many thousands of dollars. 

He said he was very concerned about the potential impact on the city’s recycling businesses should the city decide to sell the transfer station block, and urged its exemption from the rezoning. 

David Isaac Tam, a member of the Zero Waste Commission and a representative of the Sustainability, Parks Recycling and Wildlife Legal Defense Fund, charged that the city’s environmental impact statement and the accompanying mitigated negative declaration prepared along with the proposal were both legally insufficient. He too urged exemption of the long block from the rezoning. 

“I see no reason that the nine acres should even be considered,” said Rick Auerbach of WEBAIC, who said he was also concerned about existing businesses along the freeway frontage road in the M zone. 

He urged the addition of language that would exempt the properties occupied by Alameda County Computer Recycling Center and a paper-shredding business. 


Changes made  

Commissioners did amend the measure they had adopted two weeks earlier, removing used-car lots and truck and motorcycle sales as well as boat and recreational vehicles sales from the district—while adding provisions to allow the sale of restored classic cars that would have otherwise been banned along with other used-car dealerships. 

Pickup trucks, a staple of new-car dealerships, are permitted, along with used-car sales incidental to a new-car dealership’s business. 

While Commissioner Susan Wengraf wanted to include used-car sales “because it’s a form of recycling,” colleague Gene Poschman pointed to the proliferation of used-car lots along San Pablo Avenue. 

The changes still allow new-car dealers to sell used cars as part of their businesses. 

Poschman, who reluctantly voted for the Ferrazares compromise, said he was concerned that city was surrendering to a neo-liberal agenda, “thinking that market conditions are the reference point for decisions in public policy.” 

Commissioners will have one final pass at the measure next month when they will review the redrafted plan and zoning amendments to make certain the changes they approved Wednesday night are clearly expressed..