Public Comment

Protect Westside Zoning Rules

By Daniel Knapp
Thursday January 15, 2009 - 06:29:00 PM

Russ Mitchell may be a “long-time journalist,” but he didn’t bother to fact-check his Jan. 8 hit piece on West Berkeley and Urban Ore (“Berkeley is About to Blow It Again”). He says that Urban Ore is a “cool place,” and I agree, but when he says future kids will be “stuck taking over Dad’s job sweeping sawdust at Urban Ore” if all of West Berkeley isn’t upzoned for UC’s convenience, he got it wrong. We don’t cut or finish wood at Urban Ore. The amount of sawdust we generate in an average 10.5-hour day might fill a thimble. 

Maybe he was thinking of Artisan Burlwood, across Murray Street from us. They saw urban tree trunks up to five feet in diameter into slabs and chunks that become furniture and sculpture, which they sell over the Internet and at their showroom, which is also a cool place. Or maybe he had in mind Ashby Lumber, which joined with Urban Ore last year as we and many other businesses turned back an effort to upzone all commercial properties along the Ashby corridor from San Pablo to the freeway as suitable for auto dealers. Or how about Berkeley Mills, which makes high-end furniture a few blocks away? Or McBeath Hardwoods, which has a flourishing business catering to woodworkers just east of Artisan’s Burlwood? 

His “belt of junk shops and jewelry makers” is also a false image. The City of Berkeley publishes a directory of 300 second-hand stores in Berkeley and Albany; most are located east of San Pablo Avenue, although many get at least some of their inventory by shopping at Urban Ore. They generate a lot of sales tax for city coffers. 

What bothers me more about his piece is its nasty undertone of class and caste warfare. People who work with their hands doing noisy things and who occasionally even get dirty have just one duty: to roll over and play dead while the “modern” gleaming high-tech labs of the future displace us to—where? And any planning commissioner who questions this juggernaut is a chump, a romantic soul wishing for a utopia that will never come while “smoking 40-year old weed.” 

UC just sold a huge property in West Berkeley to a Midwestern developer for $39 million. Now the new owners are trying to figure out how to deal with dozens of toxic chemicals they discovered under the site. All these chemicals are “modern” too, and UC’s toxic legacy is a thoroughly “modern” problem that ought to give all of us pause. 

I believe the Planning Commission and City Council should not be stampeded or bullied into dismantling zoning rules that were worked out in transparent community meetings over a decade of serious work by a broad cross-section of Berkeley stakeholders.  


Daniel Knapp is CEO of Urban Ore, Inc.