Flexibility Out, New Numbers Needed As West Berkeley ‘Project’ Continues

By Richard Brenneman
Monday June 16, 2008 - 04:55:00 PM

Forget flexibility: It’s now the “West Berkeley Project.” 

City staff has renamed the zoning modification effort now underway before the Planning Commission, in part because the phrase “West Berkeley Flexibility” evoked fears in the hearts of artists and craftsfolk who worry about being priced out of their last remaining refuge in the city. 

The City Council has directed commissioners to come up with a plan for easing some of West Berkeley’s zoning restrictions, and even supporters of the current system say they’d like to see some changes—but not radical revisions that could force them out of the city they love. 

No one denies that West Berkeley zoning regulations, created to complement the West Berkeley Plan, contains flaws that could use some legal tweaking. But critics feared that the “flexibility” approach could lead to sweeping changes that violated the spirit of a plan which sought to achieve accommodation between artists, crafts shops and major industrial tenants. 

West Berkeley’s MU-LI zone—for manufacturing and light industrial—is the city’s last bastion for artists and craftworkers priced out of Berkeley’s commercial zones. 

And even in West Berkeley, arts and crafts space has dwindled with the closing and demolition of the Drayage and the eviction of the Nexus collective. 

At the same time, biotech labs are claiming ever more space, and the Green Corridor initiative of East Bay city and county governments is working to bring in more corporate facilities that would complement and commercialize agrofuel and other high tech research now underway at UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. 

“We are calling it the West Berkeley Project because the ‘flexibility’ word was scary and didn’t necessarily suggest all we’re trying to do,” said planner Alex Amoroso. 

As part of the redefinition process, the city has hired Rick Auerbach, an activist with West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies (WEBAIC), to survey the MU-LI zone to find out what companies and studios are actually there, both on ground floor street frontages and on the floors above, said city Economic Development Director Michael Caplan. 

Dave Fogarty of the city’s economic development staff said that while the 1992 West Berkeley Plan anticipated 1.54 million square feet of new construction by 2005, only 475,000 square feet was actually built by 2005, most by Bayer HealthCare Pharmaceuticals on its 43-acre campus. 

Still, the total of 10.8 million square feet of total space in West Berkeley reported last year was close to what the plan has projected, “but the distribution was very different from what had been expected,” Fogarty said.  

“The main difference was the addition of a relatively large amount of manufacturing space,” developed at a time when, nationally, manufacturing “was not doing all that well,” he said. 

And while jobs had been expected to increase 20 percent from the baseline of 15,809, the actual growth was only 4 percent, to 16,454, he said. 

Caplan said the greatest job growth was at two industrial facilities, Bayer and Pacific Steel Casting. 

The area also lost three of its largest business: Flint Ink, McAuley Foundry and Peerless Lighting, though plans for a major mixed use research and live/work development at the Peerless site have been proposed by owner Douglas Herst. 


Unexpected growth 

Where West Berkeley did see growth was in areas not anticipated when the plan was developed, Caplan said, in part due to the advent of Internet retailing—which has allowed, for example, the opening of a wine retailer which does on-line business from a West Berkeley warehouse. 

But some critics question the numbers cited by planning staff, including Auerbach, whose hiring as a temporary consultant may help clarify a contentious issue. 

When commissioner Susan Wengraf asked Caplan for data on the number of self-employed artists and artisans who work in the area, Caplan said, “We’ll be able to show you in coming months,” citing Auerbach’s project, which is now underway. 

Auerbach said his work had shown that at least 787 individuals are working in at least 210 studios. 

“The main attraction is affordability,” he said. “West Berkeley used to be affordable.” 

Fogarty said the only numbers the city maintains have been derived from the business licenses all self-employed arts and crafts workers are legally required to obtain-though compliance may be less than universal. 

“Rick was able to get about 90 percent of them to say where they are located,” Caplan said. One challenge for the future will be figuring out “how to preserve these clusters and enhance them,” he said. 

Commissioner Roia Ferrazares said she was concerned that the city find a way to keep those jobs in West Berkeley that offer a path to a decent income and benefits for workers without college degrees and advanced training. 

Caplan said Green Corridor governments have been talking to community colleges and organizations to develop procedures for training a workforce for growing economic sectors-“a vocational education model that looks at energy technologies.” 

“Lab tech jobs are a good example,” he said. “You need training, but not a whole lot. Bayer is the model. For 15 years they have interacted with the school system to create training programs for lab technicians, and on their own initiative.”  

In that same period, he said, jobs have nearly doubled, from 600 to 1,775 today, “and a lot of the new employees are lab technicians, recruited locally, and many are high graduates.” The result, he said, “is the only large-scale success in West Berkeley.” 

Wengraf noted that as part of the conditions for Bayer’s use permit, planning commissioners had negotiated a Bayer-backed biotech training program at Berkeley High School. But, she said, “there were only 16 or 17 slots, and my concern was that we could have negotiated a lot more.” 

Still, she said, “it’s a great model to use in any future development agreements.” 


More questions 

Commissioner Harry Pollack said he wanted more information on the changes in the category of uses. “We need to understand that a little better ... because we have certain categories in our zoning ordinance that don’t seem to match up with 21st Century realities.” 

Mary Lou Van Deventer of Urban Ore told commissioners that some of the sites listed for potential development had already been used, and said that her recycling business had almost doubled in sales and added seven new employees in recent years and was planning on further expansion. 

She and others have noted that recycling is as much a “green” form of business as the high tech ventures targeted by the Green Corridor partnership. 

John Curl, a woodworker and WEBAIC activist, said the statistics cited by the city staff “are very questionable and need to be adjusted,” especially given the two different sets of classifications used.  

Auerbach agreed that existing date “is kind of questionable.” 

“It all comes down to the question, Is West Berkeley a successful area in terms of jobs, equity and other issues?” he said. And many of the apparently vacant spaces are being land-banked, he said, kept from development now by owners who are hoping for an increase in land prices.” 

By the end of the meeting, commissioners had few firm answers, but lots more questions for city staff to answer when they next take up the issue on July 23. 

The Planning Department’s page on the project-still labeled “West Berkeley Flexibility”-may be found at http://www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/ContentDisplay.aspx?id=10764.