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West Berkeley Speakers Plead for Industrial Jobs

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday March 25, 2008

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 and 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. 

With their final draft due to the City Council for action in June, Curl said, the process bears little semblance to the process that created the West Berkeley Plan, which involved lengthy deliberations among stakeholders. 

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 has been using as justification for its push for changes. 

Raquel Pinderhughes said green-collar businesses offer the one sure job category that could provide living wages for those with minimal education and 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 tour for commissioners sponsored by the city Planning Department which looked 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 in her report unequivocally matched the city report’s high-tech criteria, manufacturing jobs related to large-scale production of appropriate technologies. 

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

Another panelist, Karen Chapple, a UC Berkeley associate professor of city and regional planning, 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 uses, all of which command higher values when property is leased or sold 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, another speaker, is a planning consultant with Strategic Economics, a consulting firm now working on industrial land policies in several California cities. While there is often a push to change land uses to allow more intense 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, she said. 

Kate O’Hara of the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, a workers’ rights advocacy organization, 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, a key non-manufacturing use of industrial land, offer a median wage of $19.85 per hour. In the East Bay, 65.9 percent of the positions offer health care benefits, and many are union jobs, she said. 

The other major use, food manufacturing and processing, offers lower starting wages but rises 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 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. 


Shades of green 

In his opening remarks, Curl said that one reason for the push for zoning changes in West Berkeley was the East Bay Green Corridor Partnership, an alliance of East Bay mayors who hope to attract “green tech” companies to their cities. 

“Who could disagree” with the idea of a cooperative effort to lead the world in environmentally friendly technology? Curl asked rhetorically. 

However, he said, there are already proposals afoot to have Berkeley industries relocate to Emeryville and Oakland, while West Berkeley would be opened up to offices—which other speakers noted would exert inflationary pressures on property prices. 

Bernard Marszelak of the Inkworks cooperative printing firm in West Berkeley addressed the same issue one week earlier during a public forum on fuels derived from farmed crops held by critics of UC Berkeley’s $500 million Energy Bioscience Institute, funded by BP (formerly British Petroleum).  

Marszalek said he was concerned how the push of agrofuels “affects all of us in Berkeley.” 

He described West Berkeley as a habitat threatened by BP, agroindustrial giant Cargill “and other multinational giants that are trying to take over our zoning regulations in West Berkeley.” 

Marszalek said he was concerned that the rush by Mayor Tom Bates and other regional political leaders to transform the East Bay coastline into a green tech corridor may displace the area’s smaller scale artisans and industries. 

One company heavily involved in the farmed fuels program is now moving its labs from West Berkeley to Emeryville. Amyris technologies, headed by UC Berkeley professor Jay Keasling, has leased space downstairs in the same building that houses the Joint BioEnergy Institute, funded by the Department of Energy. 

Critics of the biofuel programs say that will result in the displacement of small landholders from large areas of the Third World to make way for plantations of genetically engineered crops tailored to produce fuels for the cars and SUVs of the First World. 

If critics of the West Berkeley rezoning push are right, the first to be displaced in the rush to synthetic fuels may be much closer to home, in the artists’ studios and small shops of West Berkeley. 

Debra Sanderson, the city’s land use planning manager, told critics who spoke to the Planning Commission that there has been no move to change the plan itself. 

But West Berkeley critics say that the kinds of changes to the zoning regulations now before the commission would have the same effect.