West Berkeley zoning changes and a dramatic public challenge rounded out a Wednesday night Planning Commission schedule otherwise dominated by the Downtown Area Plan.
At issue is what city staff calls “increased flexibility” that they say would ease the way for new projects in West Berkeley linked to research at UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL).
But the proposal has raised concerns among West Berkeley’s artisan community, who fear that what may be in store is a virtual demolition-in-place of the existing West Berkeley Plan.
Dave Fogarty of the city’s Economic Development Department said changes in zoning rules had become more crucial because of “the technology transfers that occur here” resulting from research at the university and LBNL.
Because of that, he said, it is less important that traditional manufacturing activities continue in the city’s only industrial and manufacturing zones.
But the loss of industrial jobs and their replacement by high-tech workers alarmed Bernard Marszalek of Inkworks and Rick Auerbach, who serves as the staff of WEBAIC, West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies.
Auerbach said the area’s current industries boast a workforce that is 65 to 70 percent African American, Latino and Asian, and the transition to high-tech jobs would offer jobs mainly to “highly educated white people.”
“It’s flabbergasting, really,” he said.
Auerbach said he was concerned that the commission’s mandate amounted to a virtual redrafting of the current plan, but Planning and Development Director Dan Marks said that the changes “would fit within the context of the [plan’s] goals and objectives.”
Allan Gatzke, the planner assigned to the project, said the proposals would evolve over the course of five additional meetings, beginning with a tour of the area and meetings with businesses and community members that will also be open to the public.
The tour will encompass six areas deemed suitable for major development projects: the Marchant Building, Macauly Foundry, American Soils, Peerless Lighting, Flint Ink and Fantasy Building sites.
The impetus for the commission’s look at West Berkeley was a June 13, 2006, recommendation from City Councilmembers Linda Maio and Laurie Capitelli.
That direction called for zoning changes “to allow for more rational use of space and enhance the ability of arts/crafts to locate in West Berkeley.”
City staff reported that developers have pulled out of attractive projects because of the complex rules for development, and Fogarty said that traditional manufacturing jobs have declined in the area as part of a national trend.
Because of high housing costs, he said, very few blue-collar workers employed in the area can afford to live in the city.
But Auerbach and Marszalek bristled at his suggestion that West Berkeley may not need manufacturing.
A more suitable model might be Bayer, the German company which operates a $100 million facility in West Berkeley that yields an annual production of chemical congeners that can be held in one hand.
Fogarty said companies like Bayer posed as much a threat of raised rents for WEBAIC members as an expansion of commercial and retail business—a contention immediately challenged by Commissioner Gene Poschman, who asked for hard data to support the claim.
“I don’t think Bayer raised the rent on adjoining property by a nickel,” he said.
Helen Burke said she wanted the commission to offer a way for stakeholders to participate in discussion of proposed changes, and at greater length than the three minutes usually allotted during the public comment period.
The meeting had kicked off with a dramatic challenge to the commission from Berkeley attorney Christopher Lien, who demanded to know if the City Council’s representative was present.
Meeting bemused gazes from commissioners and staff, he then cited city code Section 3.28.040.
That provision, the second paragraph of city ordinance setting up the Planning Commission, provides that the council “appoint one of its members to act as a liaison representative” to the commission, “to attend the meetings of said commission,” advise council colleagues about the reasons for commission actions, and on the request of any commissioner, to advise the commission of council policies and decisions that bear on items under consideration by commissioners.
“I don’t see this representative from the City Council here,” said Lien.
“They don’t come in every time,” said commission secretary Jordan Harrison.
“Was this ignored last week?” Lien asked. “Was it ignored the week before?”
Receiving no response, he added, “This apparently has been ignored for a long period of time.”
And a look through the Daily Planet’s archives shows no instance in recent years when the council has dispatched a member to regularly attend commission meetings.
Lien had another bone to pick with commissioners as well: Enforcement of Meas-ure L, the 1986 ballot measure requiring the city to acquire and open parkland at the rate of two acres for every thousand residents in each census tract.
When Commissioner Susan Wengraf told Lien his remarks were better directed to the council, the attorney responded, “And you have a right to demand that your city council liaison be here.”
He concluded with a threat to take every commission decision to a public referendum unless the commission complied with the ordinances.
Measure L, he said, was designation by voters as a high priority measure, and thus stands second only to the City Charter as a legal obligation of municipal government.