Public Comment

Rezoning = Business Gentrification in West Berkeley

By Mary Lou Van Deventer
Thursday January 15, 2009 - 06:29:00 PM

In his Jan. 8 commentary, “Berkeley Is About to Blow It Again,” Russ Mitchell sees high-tech research and development and the traditional model of college-town-and-research-park as the sole hope for West Berkeley. One obstacle, the intent of a citizens’ plan drawn up by people who live and work there, has to be kicked aside. He insults it first. 

But if density increased and land values roses, many longtime locally-owned businesses could be booted out through the economic bullying of business gentrification. These departures would leave behind a transition of boarded-up blight. After the big makeover, the research entities wouldn’t hire the blue- and green-collar labor they displaced. There would be batches of fresh unemployment claims.  

Then, although research is prestigious, it could be ephemeral. In the long run the labs would rely on the kindness of governments and multinational corporations, which chop research budgets in tough times. Everybody could lose.  

A more innovative reindustrialization will develop local production using now-wasted materials. Berkeley’s strategic position is enviable. The city is paid to receive 400 tons a day of already-refined resources in the same neighborhood where correctly-zoned lands await productive development. Until recently the city-owned regional transfer facility at Second and Gilman, where users pay $115 a ton to dump, has been a reliable cash cow. The city has regularly drunk from its 15 percent profit.  

Now the city is planning to redo this aged infrastructure, and overseeing citizens will expect it to implement zero-waste policy for recovering resources. A natural follow-on will be recycling-based production.  

Mr. Mitchell says preserving Urban Ore “by itself won’t stall economic development.” As only one business Urban Ore converts about 17 tons a day of discards into merchandise; generates 34-38 green-collar jobs; puts $140,000 in real cash dollars into citizens’ hands; collects $200,000 a year in sales taxes; pays property tax; and provides regular folks and homeowners with household goods and building materials to improve their quality of life and maintain property values. That’s pretty respectable economic development.  

Imagine enough businesses to handle 400 tons a day. What sizes would they be? What products could they make? Berkeley already lost the Vetrazzo company which, frustrated with the city’s indifference, moved to Richmond to make its high-end countertops from old glass. The Alameda County Recycling Board says entrepreneurs asking for help starting their recycling-based production businesses can’t find locations. Meanwhile Berkeley has Mr. Mitchell’s “weedy lots.” Some belong to landowners waiting for upzoning so they can sell big parcels to big developers.  

Instead, imagine Berkeley developing a network of enterprises that would generate city income, reduce city expense, reduce greenhouse gases, generate green-collar jobs, prevent toxic landfilling, and make useful products locally without relying on international trade. That’s what recycling-based development will look like.  

What stops the city from connecting resources to production? Yesterday’s elitism. It’s unproductive.  


Mary Lou Van Deventer is president of the Northern California Recycling Association.