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West Berkeley Plan Changes Raise Questions for City

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday December 18, 2007

While the proposed new zoning standards for West Berkeley are officially dubbed “relaxed,” that adjective didn’t necessarily apply to area business owners and developers addressing the Planning Commission Wednesday night. 

Funded by the city’s Economic Development Department, Principal Planner Allan Gatzke has developed a proposal for easing developments and leases in the city’s only industrial region. 

Gatzke’s proposal included allowing the Zoning Adjustments Board to grant developers who agree to provide for community benefits: 

• Two new “Master Use Permits,” with one for sites larger than one to two acres, which would streamline the application process. 

• More flexible application of city development standards and protected and permitted uses to parcels where developers grant benefits, including parcel size, setbacks, building height and parking. 

• More discretion in uses allowed on manufacturing sites, but not including residential uses. 

• Increased flexibility for development projects on properties that are either disconnected or in two different zoning districts. 

Gatzke’s proposal listed six possible sites for large project Master Use Permits: the landmarked Flint Ink site, Peerless Lighting (already the subject of a proposed large-scale project by owner Doug Herst); the long-vacant McCauley Foundry, the Marchant Building (which is on a site that includes Berkeley, Emeryville and Oakland) and the former site of American Soil Products. 


Mixed reception 

“For six or seven years my partner and I have been ragging on Mayor Bates over the Byzantine way” the West Berkeley Plan is administered, said Don Yost of Norheim and Yost. 

Rick Auerbach and John Curl of West Berkeley Artisans & Industrial Companies (WEBAIC) asked about the fate of proposals they had submitted to city Planning and Development Director Dan Marks through City Councilmembers Linda Maio and Laurie Capitelli in June 2006. 

“We went through this process, and we went to the City Council, and then it fell into a black hole,” said Curl. 

Yost had been one of the authors of those proposals, which the councilmembers had asked to be submitted to the Planning Commission. 

Responding to a question from commissioner Susan Wengraf, Acting Land Use Planning Manager Deborah Sanderson said the proposals had been sidelined because other concerns had received higher priorities. 

With the new push for changes in West Berkeley, Sanderson said, she will consider the earlier proposals “as we consider these other things.” 

The “other things” were contained in Gatzke’s 36-slide PowerPoint presentation, which focused on the notion of preserving uses enshrined in the existing plan—especially existing residential neighborhoods, manufacturing and workspace for artists—by granting economic incentives to owners and developers though “greater flexibility in the application of development standards.” 

ZAB member Jesse Arreguin, speaking from the audience, said a key question was “flexibility for who?” 

For John Norheim, Yost’s partner in West Berkeley’s leading real estate firm, the solution wasn’t simply flexibility. “The plan needs to be reworked in its entirety,” he said. “It’s an absolute quagmire.” 

Yost likened the “eloquent” proposals before the commission to “treating cancer of the hand with a manicure.” 


Staff weighs in 

Michael Caplan, the city’s economic development director, said he had been troubled by stories he’d frequently heard from Norheim and Yost about the difficulties businesses faced when trying to get permits to operate in West Berkeley. 

“Our relationship with the planning department gets strained” because of snafus over implementing provisions of the existing plan. “The process runs up against entrepreneurial goals,” he said. 

Any measures to “unlock some of the value of the land in West Berkeley” would have to offer developers incentives in return for preserving the district’s existing artists and artisans, Caplan said. As it is, he added, there are “acres and acres of long-term non-performing real estate.” 

WEBAIC has waged an ongoing effort to keep retail out of the area, except along the east/west Ashby/University/Gilman corridors and along San Pablo Avenue, the district’s eastern border. 

But Dave Fogarty, who works in Caplan’s department, said that some forms of retail might be appropriate for the area, citing the case of Internet marketing companies. 

Those business, like, create more truck traffic than typical retailers, and “ship out of warehouses, not stores.” 

Caplan said that while critics implied the intent of the plan was to destroy manufacturing, “much of the space is taken up by mini-storage warehouses.”  

“I do not know why we pretend everything is healthy in West Berkeley when this type of enterprise has been able to thrive in West Berkeley where auto dealers belong,” he said 

A recent push by Caplan’s department, backed by Mayor Tom Bates, has already produced a partial rezoning of West Berkeley—adopted by the commission and by the City Council—to allow car dealerships to locate closer to the freeway, based on the pleas of local dealers who say manufacturers need them “freeway close.” 

For John Curl, the fault is not with the plan, but with the Zoning Ordinance, which he called “a big mess.” 

He urged commissioners not to change the plan until they had convened a small committee of stakeholders to work with city staff.  

“We need a process where the community can work with the staff, you and the council so we don’t have to constantly go through these street fights,” Curl said. 

One such fight flared over the car dealership rezoning, leading to the exclusion of the southernmost area proposed by city staff—which would have included the sites of both Urban Ore, the city’s leading recycling business, and Ashby Lumber, a leading retailer. 

Urban Ore co-founder Mary Lou Van Deventer said she worried about the impact of changes on West Berkeley’s recycling business, a key element in the city’s plans to reduce Berkeley’s waste output to zero. 

While many recycling businesses want to locate in Berkeley but already aren’t able to find suitable sites, “flexibility would make it unaffordable to recyclers,” she said. 

“We are one of the biggest operators of our kind in the country, and I am so tired of fighting for our survival,” Van Deventer said. 


Mixed review 

Commissioners gave the proposals a mixed review. 

While David Stoloff said he needed to see more data, he also said he didn’t think the idea of workshops offered a workable solution. 

Helen Burke said she wanted to see stakeholders involved, and wanted the staff to come up with proposals for community involvement in developing changes to the plan—though she said a review of both the plan and zoning ordinances were in order after 14 years. 

Harry Pollack said that coming up with changes will take time, but “hopefully it won’t take too long.” The commission should take the issues raised and focus on improving the ordinance “within the context of the functions of the plan.” 

Planning and Development Director Dan Marks told commissioners, “The underlying strategy is ‘giving to get.’ In exchange for flexibility in zoning, the city needs to get something of value.” 

While the current plan has kept West Berkeley land values down and preserved some uses, he said, “over time, the market tends to have its way. Our concern is to get permanent or long-term protections for uses we want in Berkeley.” 

Commissioner Susan Wengraf said, “It would be very helpful to lay out a chart of what we would give and what we would get.” 

Marks said one possible gain might cover a gap in the existing plan, which affords some protections for space used by artists while failing to provide for its affordability. 

“The issue is to make things long-term that work,” he said. “It starts with the Planning Commission telling us what tradeoffs they want.” 

“Whatever process we come up with, I urge you to have a formal community involvement ... and not a top-down process,” said commissioner Patti Dacey. 

Commissioners will be working on the proposal in the coming months. 

The city staff proposal is available online at 


Photograph by Richard Brenneman 

The 5.5-acre Peerless Lighting plant site at 2246 Fifth St. is one of six sites the city planning department is considering for new permits that would allow developers “flexibility” to stretch the limits of the West Berkeley Plan in exchange for providing benefits to the community.