Details Bedevil Planners’ West Berkeley ‘Project’

By Richard Brenneman
Monday December 08, 2008 - 10:43:00 AM

Berkeley Planning Commissioners struggled last Wednesday with the fate of West Berkeley in a session that raised more questions that answers. 

The City Council has tasked the nine-member body with working out new policies toward the only area of the city to provide a haven for both manufacturing and Berkeley’s dwindling population of artists and craft workers. 

Eager for businesses that will generate more jobs and tax revenues and told by UC Berkeley officials that high tech start-up companies may be forced to locate elsewhere if rules aren’t relaxed, city officials have faced resistance from those who feel most threatened. 

The irony is perhaps best captured in the conflict between the “Green Collar” jobs widely promoted in the city-commissioned study by UCSF urban studies Professor Raquel Pinderhughes and the pressure from campus and major landowners to ease the way for high tech companies. 

In a city which prides itself on greenness, exemplified by the jobs touted by Pinderhughes and the alliance of West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies (WEBAIC), the city government is emerging as the champion of those equipped with another kind of green, the folding kind designed to fit into wallets. High tech green, the kind associated with costly labs that can cost $1,000 a square foot and more to build, is pitted against green-collar green, which uses much less expensive facilities. 

One example of green-collar green is Urban Ore, which has built a business on recycling castoffs from construction and upgrading programs, while Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is the ultimate high tech tenant in West Berkeley. 

High tech green often requires advanced degrees, while green collar jobs are geared toward those with less education, including men and women struggling to emerge from poverty. 

John Curl, Rick Auerbach and others from WEBAIC have argued for policies that respect the existing community of companies and workers who they say could be priced out of their last toehold in the city. 

Developers like Wareham Properties and Doug Herst, who owns the old Peerless Lighting plant property, are pushing for rules that will make it easier for them to build to suit the needs of agrofuel labs and high tech startups. 

High tech typically requires new construction, giving an immediate boost to municipal tax coffers in the form of permit fees and new taxes, while green tech jobs can often be housed in existing buildings that could continue under their existing tax-capped values, thanks to Proposition 13, which limits tax increases to two percent a year and only allows reassessment when buildings are sold or extensively remodeled. 

Looming over the whole issue is the threat of economic collapse, and the question of whether any rule changes would result in any new construction. 

Any changes would impact the existing West Berkeley Plan, but only one commissioner—former UC Berkeley development executive Dorothy Walker, sitting in the seat of Susan Wengraf, whom voters elevated to the City Council last month—proposed scrapping the current plan at the meeting. 

Walker also repeatedly resurrected a term which planning staff had dropped because of the concerns it had raised among the artists and green collar folks—“flexibility.” 

After Auerbach and others voiced their fears, Principal Planner Alex Amoroso changed the title of the staff effort from “West Berkeley Flexibility” to the more neutral “West Berkeley Project.” Amoroso also began the ongoing meetings with three groups of stakeholders:  

• Property owners, developers and large scale manufacturers; 

• Artisans, recyclers and small industries and manufacturers, and 

• A subcommittee of the city’s West Berkeley Project Area Committee. 


Child care 

Just how complex the issues before the commission have become was readily apparent at the commission meeting, when commissioners were able to make it through only three of the six topics Amoroso had raised for discussion, forcing delay of consideration of the others until January. 

First up was child care, and the questions of where and how it should be allowed in West Berkeley’s manufacturing (M) zone—and, if so, whether as a stand-alone business or only as an incidental use by an existing business. 

Commissioner Patti Dacey said she was concerned about impacts to the health of young children who might be exposed to dusts, plant emissions and exhaust fumes from the nearby freeway. 

“In Berkeley we talk about the precautionary principle,” she said. “Children are much more influenced by noise, and the closer to freeways they are, the greater their chances of getting asthma.” 

The exposure to employees' children to dust from a nearby cement plant, Amoroso acknowledged, had been the chief reason athletic snack-maker Clif-Bar had planned to move out of the city. 

Commissioner Gene Poschman said that because planning commissioners “know less about child care than anybody else,” he wanted to know about relevant state regulations, practices in other cities and about the actual demand for facilities in the area. 

“There are a huge number of questions,” he said.  

“It sounds to me that what you’re proposing is that as the level of use in the M zone increases, you increase the level of review,” said Chair James Samuels. 

“That’s essentially what we’re proposing,” Amoroso replied. 

“We don’t need to be experts about child care,” said commissioner Harry Pollack. “The state comes up with the regulations.” 

The real question for the commission, he said, was that if a company wants to provide in-house childcare, “do we want to allow it, and if we do, what are the standards of review.” 

“Incidental child care doesn’t have to be on-site,” said commissioner Larry Gurley. “Manufacturing companies could provide child care outside of the M district but within a short distance from work.” 

What about Bayer, the area’s largest employer? asked James Novosel. 

Darrell DeTienne, a consultant who often works with West Berkeley developers, said the firm planned to create a facility outside their plant but within the manufacturing and light industrial (MULI) district. 

To make child care profitable, he said, operators needed to be able to take in a mix of children, since caring only for infants was more expensive. 

So should companies be able to open their child care to children whose parents work at other companies, asked Gurley? 

“I can’t respond,” said Amoroso. 

“It’s in the city’s interest to have child care associated with employment as much as possible,” said Walker. “It’s a very worthy goal. The issue here, is do we trust the state standards?” If we do, she said, “then we should be as flexible as possible.” 

Dacey said she wanted both to see the state regulations and to hear from the city’s own health officer. 

Commissioner Roia Ferrazares said, “I am very dubious if it’s appropriate to have it even as ancillary use in the manufacturing district. We should not be in the business of putting children at risk.” 

Amoroso promised to come back both with the state regulations and with a report from the city’s health office. 


Other issues  

Next up was mini-storage, facilities that allow residents to stow their extra stuff in rented facilities to unclutter their dwelling spaces. 

The problem, Amoroso said, was that mini-storage units provide very little revenue to the city and few jobs while tying up valuable land that could be used for businesses that generate much higher revenue for the city and create more and better jobs. 

While some stakeholders wanted to eliminate them, other wanted merely to block creation of any more, and to mandate additional uses on the sites. 

“Our focus is on keeping them from expanding,” Amoroso said, adding that the business is “very profitable for the owners.” 

Walker said she preferred a policy that barred mini-storage unless it was part of a multi-story development, citing the UC Storage facility on Shattuck Avenue as an example. 

“I’m not sure it’s in the city’s interest to provide storage for Berkeley residents,” said Gurley, who said facilities were available nearby in other communities. 

“We can’t outright deny the use in the city,” Amoroso said. 

Don’t deny the use, suggested Poschman. Just don’t allow any more. 

Pollack suggested increasing fees to give owners an incentive to find other uses, and when the discussion ended, that was the policy Amoroso was left to explore. 

The last issue was quickly disposed of: so-called incidental retail. 

A manufacturer in the MULI zone can sell some of what they make on-site, but only if they do it from the day they open. Under current regulations, no change of use is allowed. 

Commissioners quickly agreed that existing businesses should be allowed to do the same, under same conditions that apply to new construction, limiting retail space to 10 percent of the building. 

The debate’s certain to continue, with some of the thorniest issues ahead. 

The city’s website on the project, which features a variety of reports and map on the issues facing the commission, is here: http://www.cityofberkeley.info/ContentDisplay.aspx?id=10764 

The Green Collar Jobs report is here: http://bss.sfsu.edu/raquelrp/documents/v13FullReport.pdf