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West Berkeley Zoning Tour Reveals Land-Use Tensions

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday March 04, 2008
John Curl, a West Berkeley woodworker and land use activist (right), leads planning commissioners on a tour of the Sawtooth Building during Saturday’s “West Berkeley Zoning Flexibility” tour.
By Richard Brenneman
John Curl, a West Berkeley woodworker and land use activist (right), leads planning commissioners on a tour of the Sawtooth Building during Saturday’s “West Berkeley Zoning Flexibility” tour.

Crammed into two standing-room-only buses, planning commissioners, city staff, business owners and interested citizens set out for a five-hour tour of West Berkeley Saturday. 

Designed by city staff, the outing was crafted to highlight the need for zoning ordinance changes supposed to ease the way for new businesses to set up shop in the city’s only industrial and manufacturing zones. 

Among the participants were City Councilmember Darryl Moore, whose district includes all of West Berkeley south of University Avenue, Calvin Fong, chief of staff for Mayor Bates, Planning and Development Director Dan Marks and a host of city staff. 

The only planning commissioner missing was Gene Poschman, away on a previously scheduled vacation. 

The outcome of the tour and subsequent hearings and discussions by the Planning Commission will be a set of zoning change proposals that some feel could threaten the city’s last redoubt of small manufacturers and artisans. 

By the end of the day, divisions were clearly drawn between a city staff and council intent on attracting high technology jobs and smaller businesses concerned that the resulting pressure would destroy a delicate economic ecology and an area plan they want to protect. 

The majority of questions from planning commissioners seemed sympathetic to the proposed changes, and the tour was heavily weighted towards companies seeking change. 

It began inside a building owned by West Berkeley’s increasingly dominant landlord, Wareham Development. 

As commission chair James Samuels convened the meeting inside the lobby of 717 Potter St., one Wareham tenant briefly listened in. Jay Keasling, a UC Berkeley/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory scientist, lingered a few minutes before walking up to his own private genetic engineering company, Amyris Technologies, which has a lab on the building’s second floor. 

Keasling was also a major figure in landing UC Berkeley its $500 million research program funded by BP, the British oil giant, and currently heads the federally funded Joint BioEnergy Institute, which is housed in another Wareham property in Emeryville—where Amyris is also relocating. 

Wareham owns more than 16.5 acres of property in West Berkeley, which houses 530,000 square feet of building floor space. The company specializes in rentals to companies in the life sciences industries and is currently in the market for more properties in West Berkeley.  

Asked by commissioner Harry Pollack where Wareham is looking, Barlow replied, “Anything from University Avenue to Ashby.”  

Barlow said Wareham’s issue with city zoning codes didn’t involve the overall zoning—Wareham’s local properties are in the MULI (manufacturing and light industrial) zone, which exists only in West Berkeley. 

The problems arise more with specifics of the code governing integration of streets, utilities and other infrastructure into a single industrial park setting. 

Zelda Bronstein, a former mayoral candidate who has been active in challenging proposed changes in West Berkeley zoning, was successful in persuading Samuels to allow public questions during the tour, rather than only at the end as city staff had proposed. 

Her first question focused on rents Wareham charged, and Barlow responded that the company charged $850 a month to artists in the live/work units of the Durkee Building. 

Rents at buildings with biotech labs were higher because of the high costs of building improvements, including air filtration systems, and depending on how much of the costs for improvements tenants were will to pay themselves. 


Marchant Building 

After a few minutes on an AC Transit bus, tour participants arrived at the second stop, Sun Light and Power, which is located across Folger Avenue from the Marchant Building, recently purchased by Redico, a Michigan-based real estate development and management firm. 

Craig Willian said his firm had purchased the Marchant Building from UC Berkeley, which still runs its printing plant inside the 6701 San Pablo Ave. building, along with an adjacent parking lot. 

Ownership of the property poses unique problems, since the building itself straddles the Berkeley/Oakland city line, which divides the structure almost in half. The adjacent land Redico bought falls within a third jurisdiction, Emeryville. 

Willian said the building is solid, but “25 years behind the times.” Redico plans to spend millions on renovations to bring the interior up to contemporary lab and office standards, while maintaining street frontage commercial uses. 

Commissioner Roia Ferrazares asked if the university will continue as a tenant, and Willian responded, “We hope so.” 

Jerry Gerber of Sun Light and Power started his business in 1975 in Point Richmond and moved to Berkeley in 1981, where it currently occupies sites in several buildings. 

Gerber said he has faced two zoning issues. First, the limitations on office space in an industrial facility, and second, the difficulties in combining a number of different uses into a single project. 

Gerber has teamed with Oakland real estate broker Paul Valva to develop a proposal for a green business park, which would combine a range of enterprises operating in an environmentally sustainable way. 

However, he said, current regulations would bar some types of business because they are not permitted in the MULI zone. 

“What you’re envisioning would be a mixture of retail, offices, manufacturing, processing and warehouse uses,” said commissioner Larry Gurley. 

“But 25 years ago Berkeley already had an eco-park,” said public participant Fred Dodsworth. “It’s now called Fourth Street.” 


Machine tools 

The next stop, at 2629 Seventh St., brought the tour to the plant where Swerve manufactures high-tech office equipment, using the latest in Japanese machine tool technology to create unique parts for the biotech industry while its software specialists create programs to run the high-tech hardware. 

Michael and Steven Goldin converted the old Berkeley Brass Foundry building into a state-of-the-art plant, and Michael Goldin said they “lost more than a year” going through the Landmarks Preservation Commission and Zoning Adjustments Board. 

They had bought the building in 1999 and obtained permission to convert the property into office uses, which was the key to their success later when they opted for manufacturing and were able to provide mitigations in exchange for the change of use. 

“Working with the city scares a lot of people in the business community,” said Steven Goldin, who also criticized “the craziness of our zoning regulations.” 

Peter Histed, vice president and general manager of Ellison Technologies, which is located in the same building and distributes machine tools, said companies were attracted to Berkeley because the university “probably leads the world in technology.” 

Eric Taylor, president of Integrated Analytical Solutions which performs testing services for biotech firms, said “West Berkeley has lots of space” but that regulations prevent its conversion, “which takes most possibilities off the table.” 

Taylor’s labs are located at 629 Bancroft Way. 


Sawtooth Building 

It was at the fourth stop, Berkeley’s venerable Sawtooth Building at Dwight Way and Eighth Street, where John Curl and Rick Auerbach of West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies (WEBAIC) were given a chance to raise their concerns. 

Curl, a woodworker, was one of the building’s first tenants, and he had high praise for owner Mel Dagovitz, who bought the distinctive landmark in 2001 and has been fighting to keep artists in residence. 

“I’m making every effort to make space available for artists,” Dagovitz said. “I am a real estate developer, but I would like to keep the building intact for artists.” 

Curl said West Berkeley’s success as a mixed community for large and small companies resulted in part because the city resisted pressures to convert industrial uses into offices. 

Both praised the West Berkeley Plan as the joint effort of a wide range of stakeholders, and said that problems started only after the city adopted zoning regulations five years after the plan had been approved. 

While the plan’s creators envisioned a simple process for subdividing large buildings, the subsequent ordinances “made it impossible,” Curl said, and the current code would have doomed a project like the Sawtooth, where a wide range of artists and their facilities share a common roof. 

“What we don’t want is deregulation,” he said. “From the time of Ronald Reagan we have seen the destructiveness that comes along with it.” 

Auerbach pointed to the 7,000 jobs created by West Berkeley firms, where minorities comprise 50 to 60 percent of the workforce. 

While city Land Use Manager Debra Sanderson said the city has no intention of changing the plan, others were sceptical. 

Urban Ore Operations Manager Mary Lou Van Deventer also urged preservation of the plan, adding that economic pressures were forcing her recycling business to fight simply to stay in place. 


Clif Bar 

The tour’s final stop was Clif Bar’s corporate headquarters at 1610 Fourth St., a site slated to be vacated unless plans for a move to Alameda fall through, said building owner Tom Graham. 

After participants dined on sandwiches, sweets, chips and bottled water paid for by the city, Graham said his own call for flexibility was spurred in part by the problems of owning a building which falls into two zones. One part falls in MULI, while another is in West Berkeley’s MUR (Mixed Use Residential) zone. As a result, some uses permitted under one part of the roof are forbidden in another. 

With the popular health snack business needing to expand, he asked, “how can we accommodate their needs when we have two zoning districts in the same building?” 

Bruce Lymburn, the firm’s legal adviser, said the company is a $200-million-a-year business with 200 employees, with offices in Berkeley and manufacturing facilities in Southern California. 

He said the company was back in the market, looking for an alternative site to the Alameda Landing project after Catellus Development Group was unable to commit to a construction starting date. 

Jessica Crow, spokesperson for Catellus, said Monday that the company was notified of the cancellation last Wednesday, in part because Catellus wasn’t able to commit to an occupany date. 

Lymburn said concerns with Berkeley zoning regulations included rules governing just what could and could not be done within the building’s theater space, which the company allows public groups to use for benefits and other meetings. While some performances are allowed, showing of films is barred. 

Another problem stemmed from the need to expand office space into areas currently limited to warehouse use, while parking was also starting to prove inadequate. 

As other problems arose and the company began to think about moving outside the city, Lymburn said Mayor Bates and Councilmember Linda Maio offered strong support, along with Dave Fogarty and Michael Caplan of the city’s economic development staff. 

But Asa Dodsworth, another community participant and Fred Dodsworth’s son, said that the same hassles cited during the tour were the reason Berkeley was able to have industrial uses. 

As for the zoning line dividing the Clif Bar building, “lines have to be drawn somewhere,” he said. 

Ted Garrett of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce said he was “looking for some flexibility so we can keep manufacturers here in the city.” 

Bernard Marszelak, the manager of Inkworks, a printing company with a union work force, urged preservation of existing businesses, whose employees are more likely to be drawn from the Berkeley community. 

Proposals for zoning changes will be heard by the Planning Commission over the next few months.