West Berkeley Speakers Say Keep Industrial Jobs

By Richard Brenneman
Friday March 21, 2008

Posted Fri., March 21—Workers, residents and small business owners gathered Thursday night to hear planners and labor activists offer evidence and arguments for exercising restraint in making any zoning changes in West Berkeley. 

Organized by West Berkeley Artisans & Industrial Companies (WEBAIC), the meeting challenged proposed zoning changes now before the city's Planning Commission. 

“The (city) staff has put everything on the table ... on an extremely fast-track basis,” said WEBAIC Chair John Curl, a woodworker with his studio in the Sawtooth Building, a West Berkeley landmark. 

Sitting in the back of the room and listening attentively throughout the session was Allan Gatzke, the city planner who drafted the proposals and presentations under attack from Curl and the panelists. 

While the push for “zoning flexibility” comes from the City Council, with Mayor Tom Bates taking a prominent lead, one of Thursday night's cautionary critics was the author of a report the city is using as justification for its push for changes. 

Raquel Pinderhughes said so- called green collar businesses offered the one sure job category that could lead to living wages for those with minimal education or criminal records. Her word should carry some weight with the city, since she is the San Francisco State urban studies professor who authored the city's green collar jobs report. 

While the city planning department tour for commissioners looking at the proposed zoning changes focused on high- tech companies, most of the business categories in Pinderhughes' report are lower tech, with college degrees optional for most jobs. 

Businesses cited in her report range from landscaping and bicycle repair to energy conservation retrofits, recycling and public transit jobs.  

Only one category unequivocally matched the high-tech criteria: manufacturing jobs related to large-scale production of appropriate technologies. 

The mayor and leaders in other East Bay cities have targeted high-tech jobs that could result from two major “green fuel” projects now underway under the aegis of UC Berkeley and its Department of Energy-sponsored national labs. 

Karen Chapple, a UC Berkeley associate professor of city and regional planning who has lived in West Berkeley for the past decade, said that zoning offers the best tool “to preserve the fragile industrial ecology” of the area from the economic pressures of housing, offices and retail, all of which command higher values than industrial and light manufacturing. 

She called for a more focused approached to specific areas within West Berkeley, rather than an implementation of broader measures. 

Abby Thorne-Lyman, a planning consultant with Strategic Economics, a consulting firm working on industrial land policies in several California cities, said while there is often a push to change land uses to allow more users that command higher prices, some cities are drawing the line because of the role industrial land plays in providing jobs with better pay and benefits than are offered in the commercial sector. 

Kate O'Hara of the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy said her organization did some of the basic work that paved the way for Berkeley's living wage ordinance and advocates for worker rights. 

Trade and logistics businesses, a key non-manufacturing use of industrial land, offers a median wage of $19.85 per hour, and 65.9 percent of the positions in the East Bay offer health care benefits, and many are union jobs, she said. 

The other major use, food manufacturing and processing, offers lower starting wages but raises at middle levels to a median pay of $20.40 an hour. 

These industrial uses provide the main opportunities for workers with no higher education and even past brushes with the law to find work that pays wages a adequate to support a family, she said. 

All of the speakers urged the city to tread carefully before disrupting policies that offered the chief opportunities for minorities and those who are striving to rise out of poverty.