Prime West Berkeley Property Headed for the Marketplace

By Richard Brenneman
Monday December 15, 2008 - 04:37:00 PM

Berkeley’s largest private development site—8.2 acres adjacent to Aquatic Park—is coming on the market, and the owners want the city to ease the rules. 

Their target market would be startup companies created to commercialize technology developed at UC Berkeley and the lab that gave the United States its Secretary of Energy. 

James B. Bohar, a development executive with international brokerage firm Cushman & Wakefield, recently told planning commissioners that the owners are looking for “flexibility,” a word so polarizing it had led the city planning staff to drop it from the title of their look at a change in zoning rules for West Berkeley. 

The site, bounded by Bolivar Drive on the west and the Union Pacific right of way between Aquatic Park between Addison Street and Bancroft Way, is owned by a family which has hired the brokerage to analyze and market the property. 

“We have been able to release the potential of this wonderful marquee property,” Bohar told commissioners, describing development as “a powerful new opportunity you must support.” 

“We met with the technology transfer people at Haas [School of Business] two weeks ago, and we heard that there were 20 companies in play. We heard that they would take off for Silicon Valley or Alameda because of the difficulty of the entitlement process here,” Bohar told the planning commission. 

“Incubators are risky and costly,” he said, and best “thrive as part of a large, dense business park.” 

UC Berkeley had planned to create a business park at its Richmond Field Station, but plans were shelved in part because of delays caused by the forced implementation of a new cleanup regime to remove hazardous waste from the site. 

The site has been home to American Soil & Stone Products Inc., which still stores materials at the site though its main operations have moved to Richmond and San Rafael. 

Bohar said the property has been owned by members of the Jones family since 1978, and his firm has been retained to develop a proposal for putting the property on the market. 

Despite the market collapse and chaos in the financial sector, “now’s a good time for a very large project, because it will take a long time to study the options and then put it on the market.” 

Once a proposal is assembled, more time will be needed while the developer goes through the entitlement process, winning all the governmental permissions needed before the first shovel of earth can be turned. 

“We are a marketing company, and we are now doing the research to determine what will be the optimal development,” he said, looking at needs, market conditions and what the city itself would like to get out of the site. 

“We want to know what the real opportunities are,” he told planning commissioners. “What are the transportation issues? What kind of companies would be interested?” 

He said he was looking to have “a much more informed marketing package in February.” 

Berkeley’s newest planning commissioner, Dorothy Walker, is an unabashed fan of the word “flexibility,” which had raised such concerns among West Berkeley’s artists and artisans that “West Berkeley Project” replaced “West Berkeley Flexibility” as the title of their work on a proposed zoning update. 

Walker, a former university development executive and a member of the strongly pro-development minority of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee, recently told her colleagues that it was time for a new West Berkeley Plan, something not even city staff has been willing to propose. 

Introduction of the Jones property into the mix, a site already marked out by the city staff as a key West Berkeley development property, dovetails with the City Council-directed effort to loosen zoning restrictions in the city’s only sector zoning for light industry and manufacturing. 

Rick Auerbach, who works for WEBAIC, the West Berkeley Alliance of Artists and Industrial Companies, has been leading the effort to retain the existing plan’s protections for artists and for the industries which he said are as major source of living wage for the cities. 

West Berkeley is the local focus of the East Bay Green Corridor initiative by mayors to attract so-called green businesses, including companies capitalizing on technology developed at the university and its affiliated national labs. 

“I went to a Green Corridor meeting up at the university recently, and at the end of the day, there weren’t that many companies, and they were very small,” Auerbach said. 

WEBAIC hasn’t looked at the Jones family property in detail, he said, other than to note that there are other businesses than American Soil which occupy parts of the property. 

And then there’s the unspoken question: Just how much development is likely, even with the most flexible of standards, given the current state of the economy?