Public Comment

Commentary: Seeing the Positive Reality of Change in West Berkeley

By Steven Donaldson
Tuesday April 01, 2008

West Berkeley, according to a West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies (WEBAIC), John Curl, Rick Auerbach and their host of experts at a recent meeting on the West Berkeley Plan and Sustainablity Berkeley, is a thriving industrial area in balance with the economy and the environment, supporting artists and living wage jobs.  

They claim there are 7,000 well-paid industrial jobs in West Berkeley. This portrayal of West Berkeley is far from accurate. What little facts they had did not represent the real employment figures or land use in West Berkeley. The presentation was glaring in its lack of specifics and in ignoring the real uses and changes going on in West Berkeley. 

What’s the nature of this change? The simply reality is that in the last 20 years, large-scale blue collar industry has disappeared from West Berkeley and much of the Bay Area, making way for new well-paying jobs across many sectors that are changing the face of the Bay Area economy and the economy of Berkeley particularly. The change and potential of new manufacturing businesses in West Berkeley—pharmaceutical processing, lab and research along with innovative and unique small manufacturing companies such as Timeworks and Berkeley Mills, Swerve, Meyer Sound, Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker, Trumer Pils—all reflect specialization, smaller scale and a focus on unique, highly valued products with a national or international customer base. 

According to the figures from the City of Berkeley, the total number of jobs in West Berkeley’s zip code 94710 went from 16,321 to 15,540 between 2001 and 2007—a small decline of 5 percent. But digging into the statistics reveals a bigger story— where jobs are growing and where they are shrinking. In the manufacturing sector, jobs declined from 5,003 to 3,880—a decline of 22 percent—and warehousing jobs went from 65 to 0. The remaining manufacturing jobs are mostly with Pacific Steel which has 700 well-paying jobs and the others are mostly at Bayer with over 1,600 well-paid technical folks in the pharmaceutical manufacturing line reflecting the single largest manufacturer in Berkeley. What does this really say? Most of the old manufacturing jobs are leaving or have left Berkeley. So, where did the other growth come from? In areas across the board in wholesale trade, professional/scientific jobs (almost 2,500 total jobs in 144 businesses) office related occupations, construction, arts and entertainment. These stats show West Berkeley in the midst of change with a diverse influx of workers and skills. New jobs are going to be in a wide variety of areas and they do not displace industry they replace dying industries. What’s wrong with this? The reality is these businesses provide a range of employment for highly valued occupations that support the city’s economy. 

In addition, Berkeley has a unique position in both the Bay Area and the United States. We are home to a leading university. It’s pioneering research into alternative fuel technologies and performing leading biotechnology and bioengineering research that will lead to new creative start-ups in Berkeley—if they can get the zoning and space. Otherwise, these new businesses will move to Emeryville, Richmond or out of the area. The link between the University and the potential for West Berkeley is immense. It doesn’t stop there. Tippet Studios, a leading animation house, and the new Fantasy Media Center provide opportunities for new art and media companies to flourish with well-paying jobs that will support other businesses and support services in West Berkeley.  

The West Berkeley Plan was painstakingly laid out to basically reflect the uses of the 1940s and 1950s industrial era, when industrial manufacturing really peaked in the East Bay. Those businesses are gone reflecting large shuttered and abandoned facilities such as Flint Ink, MaCally Steal. The realities of this changing demand makes it a necessity for Berkeley’s economic well being to evolve the zoning to reflect new realities of work and industry. This should not be a battle between office and high-end residential on one hand and small business, artisans and residential on the other, as is so often portrayed. It’s about allowing a good mix of uses, small business and large working together to create a healthy and prosperous community with new opportunity. Yes, we need artists and plumbing supply houses and sheet metal fabrication shops and lumber yards. No one wants these to go away! 

But the old paradigm of industrial uses as the backbone of “livable wage” jobs is gone and not coming back. We are in an era of global change with new technologies and responsive, innovative creative small businesses like furniture manufacturers, artists studios and craft chocolate makers working side by side with new green fuel research labs, animation studios and bioscience laboratories. 

Yes, its time for a change. Let’s look at where the demand is coming from and support a variety of new truly green uses and mixed uses that will build a strong and viable Berkeley and Bay Area of the future. 


West Berkeley resident, property owner and business owner Steven Donaldson is a member of the West Berkeley Business Alliance.