Public Comment

Berkeley Is About to Blow it Again

By Russ Mitchell
Wednesday January 07, 2009 - 06:23:00 PM

Take a walk through Berkeley’s West Side manufacturing and light industrial district, north of the fancy Fourth Street retail strip where the swells go to shop. You’ll see a few industrial plants puffing their last breaths, and plenty of weedy lots surrounded by chain link fences with plastic bags blowing around inside. 

Berkeley’s Planning Commission is now debating how the city should control development in these zones. The city’s efforts thus far have led to a sorry lack of development and a dimunition of the revenue that comes with thriving business and job growth. Property taxpayers are expected to fill the gap. 

Even as the world economy crumbles, fortune is smiling on Berkeley, offering a chance to develop the city into a world class center of alternative energy research, development and production. The University of California-Berkeley already does top-notch work in this area, as does the federal government’s Lawrence Berkeley Labs. The labs’ director, Steven Chu, is about to be named Energy Secretary in the Obama administration, and if it plays its cards right, the City of Berkeley could reap an economic bonanza, seeing the creation of new private-sectors jobs and filling the dwindling coffers of the city, the school district, and other governmental entities. 

All signs indicate that Berkeley is about to blow it. The Planning Commission’s recent deliberations over the so-called ‘West Berkeley Project’ is the latest manifestation of the reality distortion field that subverts high-technology economic development in Berkeley and sends companies to fleeing to Emeryville and elsewhere. 

In most cities, setting policies to move high-tech research from a nearby university into the local economy would be a no-brainer. Our planning commmission is frittering its time debating whether child care centers should be allowed in industrial zones near the freeway (zones that are the same distance from the Interstate 80 as Rosa Parks Elementary School) and whether mini-storage businesses should be kicked out. 

Activists who are now pushing to preserve these zones for artisan crafts and “green collar” jobs like those provided at Urban Ore are stuck longing for a utopia that will never exist. Urban Ore is a cool place and if the city wants to preserve it, fine; that by itself won’t stall economic development. But those who think that a belt of junk shops and jewelry makers will in any meaningful way improve Berkeley’s economy and employment rolls are smoking 40-year-old weed. 

Other Berkeley residents, those who complain about the city’s activist fringe and its control of local politics, share the blame for the city’s failure to grasp economic opportunity: if you want the city to become world class center of high tech green technology development, and lower your property taxes, too, you’d better get involved, now. 

There is always talk of economic justice when industrial zoning issues are debated here. The best cure for poverty is jobs. Social justice activists should be cheering on modern economic development in West Berkeley, while pressuring government, industry and the university to provide money, time and talent to Berkeley’s struggling schools. Then kids might grow up with the chance to become a high-paid scientist at one of West Berkeley’s alternative energy laboratories, instead of being stuck taking over Dad’s job sweeping sawdust at Urban Ore. 


Berkeley resident Russ Mitchell is a longtime journalist covering business, economics, technology and science.