Page One

East Bay Green Corridor: Industrial Berkeley’s Salvation or Road to Ruin?

Tuesday December 11, 2007

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part one of a two-part series. 


Has Tom Bates—surprising us all—suddenly become an advocate of industrial West Berkeley? You certainly could have gotten that impression if you glanced at the Dec. 3 announcement: The mayor and his counterparts in Richmond, Emeryville and Oakland have teamed up with each other, UC Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab to create an “East Bay Green Corridor” that will, in Bates’ words, make the region “the Silicon Valley of the green economy.” 

The East Bay Green Corridor Statement of Principles, posted on the mayor’s website, declares the partners’ commitment to helping “green industries, defined by both the production methods they employ and the types of goods and services they produce ... find fertile ground here to grow and expand.”  

But in the land of the BP—formerly British Petroleum—Energy Biosciences Institute, “green” and “industry” are highly elastic terms. A closer look reveals that Bates is using the Green Corridor to legitimate his plans to turn much of West Berkeley into an office park catering to BP associates and their ilk. The controversy swirling around the BP venture, as documented in the Planet, would be enough to raise major doubts about the mayor’s scheme. (For another good overview of that controversy, as well as UC Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau’s little-known relevant history at the University of Toronto, see Jamail Yogis’ reports in the December issue of San Francisco magazine.) Add the fact that a host of Bay Area planning professionals say that production, distribution and repair enterprise, which includes recyling, are essential to the region’s prosperity, social equity and environmental health, and the mayor’s plans look more dubious yet. 

Bates previewed those plans last February in his 2007 State of the City address. There he equated “building the green economy” in Berkeley with “mak[ing] it easier” for environmental research companies “to open and expand” here. Putting out the welcome mat to such firms, he said, would require “more flexible land use rules…because our current zoning does not permit them.” Last week he echoed those remarks, telling KCBS that the Green Corridor Partnership “will mean” among other things “relaxed zoning.”  

If you wanted to drive industry out of West Berkeley, the first thing you’d do would be to loosen the area’s land use regulations. Here as elsewhere in California, most businesses doing production, distribution and repair (PDR) are small and medium-sized firms that rent their space. Because PDR is less dense than office, retail and housing, it yields lower rents. Predictably, landlords who have a choice prefer the more lucrative tenants. In theory, landlords whose property is zoned for industry have no choice and accordingly keep their rents at levels that industrial tenants can afford. But if owners of industrially zoned land think that a city is reluctant to enforce its zoning laws or is about to change those laws to permit non-industrial uses, they are likely to raise their rents and/or to hold their property off the market until the zoning has been revised.  

Consider, then, that this Wednesday, at the direction of the council and above all the mayor, the Berkeley Planning Commission will begin considering potential amendments to West Berkeley zoning with the express aim of increasing flexibility—that is, permitting more non-industrial uses. “Limited” means that they’re not going to throw out the industrial zoning all at once. But as the recent history of the nation’s credit and housing markets indicate, investors’ expectations are crucial. In the case of West Berkeley, even a little “flexibility” will have a ripple effect that’s likely to squeeze production, distribution and repair out of town.  

In his February speech, Bates tried to finesse the issue. “For the most part,” he said, “the heart of West Berkeley is not appropriate for major new office parks and housing development.” But in the same speech, the mayor alluded to Doug Herst’s plans to put a biotech corporate headquarters, a seven-story condominium building, space appropriate for software companies—which is to say, office space—and, to sugar the pill, an art gallery on the 5.5 acre site of the former Peerless Lighting factory at 2246 Fifth St., a location arguably in the heart of West Berkeley.  

The biggest elephant in the room, however, is the BP Energy Biosciences Institute. The mayor’s press release touting the Green Corridor noted that Berkeley was “recently ranked as one of the top five cities best situated to lead the ‘Clean Tech’ economy.” What the press release didn’t say is that the ranking, made by Sustainlane, was based on British Petroleum’s decision to give UC $500 million to create the Energy Biosciences Institute. The Institute itself will be on campus, but a BP spokesman told Sustainlane that the giant multinational’s “technical scouting members will be making relationships with start-ups and small companies in the field.”  

Sustainlane acknowledged that “the city of Berkeley’s participation in the institute is in the planning process.” In other words, the city proper had little to do with the project on which its “Cleantech” ranking was based. But it’s easy to imagine how our local officials could greatly expedite the BP venture: The council could rezone West Berkeley to accommodate those off-campus “start-ups and small companies in the field.”  

Leaving aside the big questions being asked about the scientific feasibility, moral integrity and environmental effects of the BP biofuels project, there’s the issue of rational economic development. Year after year, quarter after quarter, West Berkeley manufacturing and warehouse space has had among the lowest vacancy rates and highest asking prices per square foot of any East Bay industrial market. To quote the slogan of West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies: “West Berkeley Works!” So why destroy it? 

Three big industrially zoned West Berkeley properties are currently vacant or close to it: the Peerless Lighting site(Doug Herst still has an office there), the Macauley Foundry (811 Carleton) and the Flint Ink facility (Fourth and Gilman). How these parcels are developed will shape the future character of the district and, indeed, of the entire city. I’ve already noted Herst’s gentrifying proposal for the Peerless Lighting property. Bates, proceeding as a virtual one-man planning department, has very different plans for Fourth and Gilman: He wants an auto dealership there, as a first step to commercializing all of Gilman west of Ashby.  

I invite Mayor Bates to explain how replacing the dozens of production, distribution and repair businesses in the west Gilman neighborhood with freeway-oriented retail, including a huge car dealership (the Flint Ink parcel measures 4.78 acres), would contribute to a green economy? How would it help achieve Measure G’s goal of radically reducing greenhouse gas emissions in town, 47 percent of which come from vehicles driven within the city’s limits?  

The questions are not academic: The council agenda for today (Tuesday) includes the mind-boggling proposal, backed by the mayor, to permit auto sales at the Flint Ink site and at the property occupied by Berkeley’s major recycling facility, the city transfer station, located at Second and Gilman. From an environmental perspective, the idea is preposterous: If anything, the city should be working to expand Berkeley’s renowned recyling and reuse enterprises. That means preserving, indeed extending, the industrial zoning that keeps land values at levels those businesses can afford.  

In the second half of this column (to be printed in an upcoming issue), I’ll tell how heeding the latest expert advice and building on industrial Berkeley’s distinctive strengths could foster an economy that’s radically green, sustainably prosperous and far more democratic than what we have now or what we will have if the Bates version of the East Bay Green Corridor comes to pass.