Public Comment

Commentary: West Berkeley Plan and Sustainability Forum

By Rick Auerbach
Friday March 14, 2008

The future of West Berkeley’s 320 industrial production, distribution, and repair (PDR) businesses, their approximately 7,000 living wage jobs, and the 800 artisans and artists working in West Berkeley’s 225 studios is now being decided. The city’s Planning Department is proposing fundamental changes to the West Berkeley Plan, the area’s guiding zoning document, that would likely lead to the ultimate loss of many of these enterprises. 

To educate, spark discussion, and inform decision-making by the citizenry at this pivotal moment, a forum on the West Berkeley Plan and Sustainability: Economy, Environment and Equity will be presented by West Berkeley Artisans & Industrial Companies (WEBAIC) at 6:30 p.m. Thursday March 20 at the West Berkeley Senior Center (Sixth Street and Hearst Avenue). 

The following speakers with expertise in various aspects of sustainability will share their informed perspectives: 

• Karen Chapple, PhD., UC associate professor of city and regional planning, and director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Community Innovation, will speak on “The Industrial Land Debate: Arguments, Assumptions and Alternatives.”  

• Raquel Pinderhughes, PhD., SFSU professor of urban studies, author of The City of Berkeley’s Green Collar Jobs Report, will speak on “Green Collar Jobs and the capacity of green businesses to provide high quality jobs for men and women with barriers to employment.”  

• Abby Thorne-Lyman, senior associate with Strategic Economics, will speak on “Making The Case for Industrial Land: The Future for the Bay Area’s Industrial Lands.” 

• Kate O’Hara, community benefits coordinator for East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE), will speak on “Preserving Industrial Lands, Growing Good Jobs.”  

As municipalities across the United States (including Oakland) are coming to a deeper understanding and valuation of their industrial and artisan/artist sectors, the Berkeley Planning Department has fast tracked these rezoning proposals without the inclusive, meaningful participation of all stakeholders in the community that was the hallmark of the widely respected and innovative West Berkeley Plan process. The opportunity for collaborative public involvement is especially critical as these proposals could significantly alter the vital and unique economic and cultural mix of businesses, the ethnic and economic diversity of the workforce and population, and the environmental balance of the city and region.  

The comprehensive concept of sustainability is often discussed today as including “The Three E’s”—economy, environment, and equity. As such the concept can be understood as a way to actively move toward conduct that offers the Earth, its people, and the web of life the best chance for true, long-term viability. We would be so bold as to consider adding to the three E’s a C for culture. 

The West Berkeley Plan has provided the habitat for sectors comprising key elements of this sustainability to thrive. Those of us who live and work in West Berkeley know it as a successful, urban ecology of sustainable systems. A complex web of nourishing interrelationships provides needed goods and services (many of which contribute to environmental improvement), living wage jobs including green jobs (especially for the majority of the population without higher education, many of which are minorities and immigrants), a historically stable and significant source of revenue for the City, and that food for the soul that only the arts can provide a culture.  

In the industrial sectors, as parts move in multiple steps within West Berkeley from basic formulation in machine shop or lab to manufacturer to finisher to warehouser/distributor to finished product used by local business, and ultimately back to a recycler/reuser, this interdependent web begins to reveal itself, with its extensive economic multipliers and transportation advantages to the environment. These relationships among suppliers, producers, distributors, recyclers, repair/service providers, and end users form a web that works because the innumerable threads create a structural integrity supporting the whole, which is abraded at great risk to all.  

Recognizing that cities change and constructive improvements to zoning are desirable, WEBAIC in concert with local real estate professionals, jointly proposed changes almost two years ago that would institute a new and constructive flexibility in West Berkeley’s zoning. This constructive flexibility would benefit everyone by easily allowing the now-difficult subdivision of large spaces, allowing the now-prohibited interchangeability of industrial and arts/crafts uses, and encouraging a sensible streamlining of the permitting process. These changes facilitating positive development and utilization of space were forwarded by the City Council to the planning director where they have languished for almost two years. Meanwhile Berkeley has continued losing both new and existing companies due to lack of implementation of these no-nonsense proposals. 

Instead of acting on these proposals, the Planning Department is instead proposing an extreme, deregulated form of flexibility aimed at the very core of the West Berkeley Plan and its zoning. Targeting existing “permitted uses, protected uses, purposes of the districts, development standards, and definitions” as containing “obstacles,” the staff proposals would almost certainly put industry and the arts in the sure-lose position of being in direct competition for land with high-end office, retail, R&D, and possibly housing. This new staff direction turns upside-down the core West Berkeley Plan understanding and policy that to maintain the economic and social “goods” that flow from vibrant industrial and artisan sectors, the land base these uses rely upon should be buffered from the vagaries of the latest market trends and real estate fads. That this many enterprises and jobs in these sectors still thrive in West Berkeley is testament to the wisdom and success of this policy that is now on the chopping block.  

As a counterbalance to the projected loss of this land base, companies, and jobs, the city proposes to “harvest” monies from development fostered by these proposed changes that would theoretically go toward securing permanent, affordable space for the arts and industry. Leaving aside the “hypothetical” aspect of this proposed carrot, this concept is akin to allowing clear cutting of the ancient North Coast forests to generate funds to preserve a few specimen groves like Muir Woods. We have the privilege of now living in a time with West Berkeley’s sustainable, urban ecosystem still largely intact. And we have been given the honor and rare opportunity to begin to fully understand its value before doing irreparable harm. Will we be guided by our collective wisdom and vision of the common good or by our shortsighted bottom lines? Please join us on March 20 to explore the evolving understanding of how economy, environment, equity, (and culture) can come together to create an inspiring and viable path toward a sustainable future for our city and society.  


Rick Auerbach is writing on behalf of West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies. Auerbach is a WEBAIC staffer, a West Berkeley resident and a business owner.