Conflicting Agendas Over West Berkeley Project

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday July 31, 2008 - 10:04:00 AM

The effort to change West Berkeley zoning regulations has produced an unusual show of amity after an initially tense confrontation between city staff and neighborhood activists. 

Woodworker John Curl said that while he had been concerned that a push for regulatory revisions would cause dire impacts in West Berkeley’s embattled community of artisans and small industries, “staff has really been talking with stakeholders.” 

Curl and others in the West Berkeley Alliance of Artisans and Industrial Companies (WEBAIC) initially perceived the push for change as “something that came from the top, like orders to shake things up.” 

The initial title given the effort, “West Berkeley Flexibility,” had raised fears that the program would displace the smaller- scale producers as the city rushed to embrace major corporate projects. 

But Curl said city staff “have really moderated their stance and become more realistic and are not proposing changes to the goals and policies adopted in the West Berkeley Plan.” 

Darrell de Tienne, a San Franciscan who often represents Berkeley developers in negotiating the city regulatory process, said he hopes some flexibility will result—at least enough for retired Peerless Lighting President Doug Herst to build his two-square-block, 5.5-acre project. 

The site, which includes the former Peerless manufacturing plant, would include most of the two blocks between Fifth Street on the east and the Union Pacific train tracks on the west between Allston and Bancroft ways. 

To make the plan work, de Tienne said, the city would have to rezone half of the eastern block so that it all fit in the MUR zone, which allows for both residential and mixed uses. 

The rezoning would allow for creation of a new form of live/work space, where living and work sites are separated so that toxic compounds are separated from living spaces, de Tienne said. 

“For instance, oil paints are now considered toxics because of the fumes,” he said, citing the case of one West Berkeley artist who lives in her studio and had to switch from oils to acrylics after her child was born. 

With the rezoning, artists could have their studios in the block zoned for manufacturing and light industrial uses (MULI) and live across the street in the block rezoned for residential, he said. 

“In reality, it’s just a scheme to try to change the zoning ordinance so that they can put residences in a zone where you can’t put residences,” Curl said. 

“John just doesn’t want the line to move because God put it there 20 years ago,” quipped de Tienne. “In reality, we’re actually going to be increasing the amount of manufacturing space.” 

Peerless, co-founded 116 years ago by Herst’s grandfather and his two brothers, closed its manufacturing operations in the city two-and-a-half years ago, moving them to Mexico and Indiana, and Herst sold his interest in the firm, retaining the Berkeley property. 

Herst unveiled his ideas for the site at a special meeting of the Civic Arts Commission in September 2006, when he asked for a redefinition of the city’s statutory description of art to include the products of digital software as well as oil, canvas, marble and pen. 

While the commissioners responded with a proposed redefinition, the City Council still hasn’t acted, de Tienne said. 

Planning commissioners have been hearing arguments from all sides, and their July 23 session was devoted to the topic, with de Tienne, Herst and Curl all in attendance along with WEBAIC’s Rick Auerbach, who is working temporarily with the city to help draft the proposals that will go to the commission. 

One major concern of WEBAIC activists is what they call “land-banking,” where owners hold onto vacant or underutilized sites in hopes that regulatory changes will enable them to reap the rewards of higher prices. 

“We want the city to come out with a stable zoning ordinance so that property owners won’t try to create a crisis” to force changes, Curl said. “In reality, West Berkeley isn’t any more underutilized than any other part of town.” 

For his part, de Tienne said that Herst isn’t land-banking. 

“The site is already fully occupied,” he said, “so Doug doesn’t have to have it developed right now.” 

But Curl said Herst “is proposing a project that is totally against the zoning regulations because he, like a lot of big property owners, thinks that the City Council, the Planning Commission and the Zoning Adjustments Board will just go along with any project that offers greater revenues to the city coffers.” 

“Doug really wants to create an artists’ community,” said de Tienne. “This is the most exciting project I’ve seen in a long time.” 

While part of the space would be dedicated to the arts, much of the rest would house what de Tienne called “large-scale but not heavy manufacturing,” citing as an example the building at 725 Potter St. developed by another of his clients, Wareham Properties. 

Herst also wants to create small-scale “incubator” spaces of 1,500 square feet or less to accommodate product development projects. “We are calling them small-scale manufacturing,” he said. 

The idea of incubators also surfaced briefly during discussions of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee. 

So far Herst hasn’t submitted any formal plans to the city, and he, de Tienne, Curl, Auerbach and many others are closely watching the effort now under way before the Planning Commission.