A vehement burst of community protest compelled the Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) to postpone permitting BioFuel Oasis to establish a filling station at 1441 Ashby Ave. Thursday.
More than fifty people turned up to voice a position on the controversial project, which proposes to displace Kandy’s Detail—a black-owned car wash business—and restore the historic use of the site as an automobile fueling station. It previously was used for selling petroleum-based gasoline.
The board voted unanimously to give property owner Craig Hertz, current tenant Kandy Alford and BioFuel Oasis two months to reach an agreement about shared use of the site.
While proponents of the all-women cooperative BioFuel Oasis, currently located at 2465 4th St., stressed the station’s need to relocate to a larger site and the benefits of biodiesel automotive fuel, neighbors complained of prejudice against the black community, and said that the city’s planning department had given preferential treatment to the proposed new tenants.
Co-founded by Jennifer Radtke and Sara Hope Smith from a community project in 2003, the business is the first biofueling station in the East Bay.
The proposed filling station would include an above-ground 6,000 gallon fuel storage tank. The four existing driveways and two fuel pump islands—which allow up to four vehicles to be fueled simultaneously—would be retained.
“We want to transform the site into an oasis-like setting,” said David Arkin, project architect. “Our model is Cafe Roma.”
Arkin added that the business has been forced to move from its current location because of the long wait customers go through. “The two pumps will make the fill up easier,” he said.
The station’s approximately 2,000 customers will be able to access the pumps from 7 a.m. to midnight.
Although the owners of the fueling station said that the hours of operation would lead to “more pairs of eyes” in the neighborhood, some board members disagreed.
“Yes, it would make a difference to have more pairs of eyes but it would also create a different level of vulnerability,” said Deborah Matthews, Mayor Tom Bates’ new appointee to the ZAB.
Board member Jesse Anthony said that he was worried about the congestion the station would cause at the intersection of Ashby and Sacramento avenues.
“Don’t you think that’s a wrong place to have a fueling station?” he asked.
“We have looked and looked and looked,” said Radtke, who like other co-op members calls herself a BioFuel Oasis owner-operator. “Unfortunately there is no other site in Berkeley.”
Dave Fogarty, the city’s economic development director, said that the other sites available in Berkeley were not zoned for fueling use because of restrictions on auto uses.
He added that there were virtually no sites available in the city where Kandy Alford could relocate his car wash. “If he did, he would have to comply with new laws regarding waste water disposal, which the existing car wash business is not in compliance with,” Fogarty said.
According to the Biofuel plan, existing fuel pump canopies would be removed to provide vertical clearance for taller vehicles, and new, taller canopies with solar panel roofs would be constructed on the existing brick columns. Ten on-site parking spaces would be provided.
The Landmarks Preservation Commission voted against declaring the site a landmark in June, and advised the applicant to incorporate some of the scalloped beam details from the building and existing island canopies into the new structure.
“What BioFuel is proposing is fantastic,” said Hertz. “It’s the best thing that happened in and around that area ... It makes economic sense. I have asked Kandy if he wants to move to another place or share the site, but he doesn’t want to do it.”
Hertz added that Alford was six months behind on his rent and was facing eviction.
“He was not able to pay his rent because he was in the hospital,” said Pamela Isaacs, who identified herself as a spokesperson for Alford. “He is still sick ... We are not against BioFuel Oasis but we don’t want it in our neighborhood. This is all about gentrification, about getting rid of black businesses.”
Toya Groves, a member of the Four Corners Association, a neighborhood community group formed to protest the project, said that the project ignored the retention and encouragement of black businesses in South Berkeley and the revitalization of the community’s economic base.
“It goes against the goals of the South Berkeley Area Plan,” she said. “Kandy’s is a cornerstone of the South Berkeley community which hires and serves the community it is a part of ... You are saying that BioFuel will revive the neighborhood’s economy but they themselves are in a financial bind. The planning department waived fees of up to $8,000 for the proposed project because of financial hardship and even prepared the EIR for them. This is institionalized racism ... It’s splitting two community groups who should be together.”
Board member Terry Doran called the carwash an “asset to the community.”
“Do you have any idea of how to make the transition better for Kandy?” asked board member Suzanne Wilson.
BioFuel oasis owner-operator Margaret Farrow said that no specific ideas had been discussed at this point.