West Berkeley Zoning Battle Fills Planning Commission Seats

By Richard Brenneman
Friday January 30, 2009 - 05:14:00 PM

The struggle over the West Berkeley’s future brought a packed house of worried small business owners, craft workers and artists to the Planning Commission on Wednesday. 

Everyone who rose to speak had one overarching concern: a proposed change in rules that could reshape most of the city’s remaining land zoned for production. 

City planning staff have proposed a new process that would allow changes in the rules for development of more than half the acreage now zoned for manufacturing and light industry—all of it located in a compact 1.5-square-mile freeway-hugging belt. 

And adding to the complexity of the issue, although only mentioned in passing, is the city’s prediction that car traffic in West Berkeley is expected to reach gridlock conditions in seven years. 

“Cars will reach gridlock conditions by 2016,” said Debra Sanderson, the city’s land use planning manager. “They will overwhelm our local streets,” bringing more pollutants in their wake as well, she said. 

West Berkeley itself “is not very big,” Sanderson said. “It’s less that 10 percent of the area of Berkeley itself.” 

But it is a well-organized 10 percent, as commissioners learned once again during their Wednesday night session. 

One after the other, artists and owners of businesses ranging from recycling and industrial parts production to lumberyards, laboratory glassware manufacturing and printing rose to protest changes in the Master Use Permit (MUP) process that would be allowed on all parcels of two or more acres. 

Rick Auerbach, advocate for the West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies (WEBAIC) alliance, said the proposal would cover between 52 and 60 percent of Berkeley's manufacturing and industrially zoned land. 

While the recommendations presented to the commission by city Principal Planner Alex Amoroso declared that revisions would “revitalize and protect the three industrial districts (M, MM, MULI) with strong emphasis on manufacturing, warehouse, wholesale, and material recovery use,” audience members weren’t reassured. 

The MUP changes, Amoroso told commissioners, “are part of this flexibility we’ve been talking about.” 

So contentious has “flexibility” become that planning staff had previously changed the very name of their task from “West Berkeley Flexibility” to “West Berkeley Project.” 

The flexibility proposed would allow developers to deviate from established limits on uses, building setbacks, structure heights, parking requirements and other conditions in exchange for unspecified benefits to the city. 

Developers like the idea, including the company representing the owners of the area’s largest relatively undeveloped parcel, the old American Soil Products site, bordering the northern end of Aquatic Park. 

James Bohar of the international real estate brokerage Cushman Wakefield didn’t speak during the meeting, though he had sent commissioners a set of recommendations backing MUP revisions. 

Other developers in the audience didn’t speak, either, leaving the podium for the sole use of critics plus one lone speaker—Harvey Sherback—who urged commissioners to back his proposal to close at least one city street mornings and evenings for the use of cyclists. 

Sanderson told commissioners that anything allowed into West Berkeley would have to be clean, since the area already draws in, thanks to the prevailing winds, significant amounts of particulates from freeway and rail traffic. 

Development would also have to be “tight,” given that the area lies within a zone where the water level is high, the bay is rising and an earthquake could liquefy the soil. 

Amoroso said he envisions that changes will be made to two chapters of the zoning ordinance after “a period of extensive public review.” 

One change might allow for an increase over the current height limit of 45 feet, while others might allow greater flexibility in floor area ratios, required setbacks from property lines, and changes in allowable uses, including those allowed when a site sits astride zoning district boundaries. 

Amoroso promised further meetings with three stakeholder groups—WEBAIC and its allies, with a developer and land owner group, and with members of the West Berkeley Project Area Committee (PAC)—before a return visit to the commission later this month with a revised proposal. 

“We’re looking to see if the concept makes sense, and are we missing any major areas of specific concern,” he said. 

John Curl, a cabinet maker and WEBAIC activist, said he was concerned that city staff seemed to have pulled back in recent weeks from what had been “a very constructive relationship.” 

While staff has raised the minimum size for MUP projects from one acre to two, Curl said “three or three-and-a-half acres makes a lot more sense,” while still freeing up “almost a million square feet for development.” 

But the two-acre minimum “would have a devastating impact on West Berkeley,” accomplishing “just the opposite of what the West Berkeley Plan set out to do,”, he said. 

Bernard Marzalek of Inkworks printing said the proposal threatened businesses like his worker-owned shop, which has been in the city since 1982. “We’re not some big box retail that’s here today and gone tomorrow. We’re a stable, sustainable business.” 

Corliss Lesser, an artist who lives with her family in a live/work studio at 800 Heinz Ave., said she worried that the process was threatening “something we are all being asked to move toward in this country: the small, the local.” 

It would be a crime, she said, to implement changes that would drive artists out of the city. 

“We should leave the West Berkeley Plan alone,” said Primo Facchini of Pacific Coast Chemical. “We shouldn’t change it for some capricious reason.” 

“I’m new to the full-on contact blood sport of Berkeley land use politics,” said Jim Mason, owner of the Shipyard, an artists’ space that has had its own problems with city regulations. 

He said staff should be looking at ways to make it easier for small scale activities to ensure the area’s “tremendous diversity of artisans and activities.” 

“I’m very concerned about the watering down of the West Berkeley Plan,” said Ashby Lumber owner Jeff Hogan, a business which he said employs more than 50 people, who receive living wages. 

Hogan, like most of the other speakers, urged at least a three-acre minimum for the MUP. 

Seth Goddard, chair of the West Berkeley PAC, urged the commission to figure out a way to address greenhouse gas emissions in whatever solution they devise. 

Dan Baker, owner of a business at Fourth Street and Channing Way that has fabricated industrial moldings for the last 55 years, said he was concerned that proposals on the table “would deny businesses like mine.” 

Adolfo Cabral, recently ousted from the West Berkeley PAC by City Councilmember Darryl Moore, said he feared the area was being sacrificed in a drive to bring more revenue and tax money into city coffers. 

“I don’t want a scenario where there will be more and more seven-story buildings blocking my view of the Bay or forcing out industries and artists,” he said. 

Cabral is the second appointee ousted by Moore in recent weeks. He also forced Roia Ferrazares off of the planning commission. Both had questioned some of the projects which a City Council majority seems intent on pushing through. 

Many of those who had come to the meeting weren’t familiar with the speaking process and hadn’t filled out cards. 

Chair James Samuels initially said he wouldn’t let anyone address the commission who hadn’t filled out one of the salmon-colored submissions, despite please from two commissioners.  

Comment had already taken up more than an hour, but after the break he agreed to give a minute to everyone else who wanted to speak. 

That left little time for commissioners at the end of the meeting. 

David Stoloff asked Amoroso if there were any other criteria in the MUP proposal than acreage. 

“The short answer is no,” said the planner, adding that others might be added as the result of further stakeholder meetings. 

Samuels asked city Economic Development Director Michael Caplan how long major development sites in West Berkeley had been vacant 

Naming the “largest, most obvious sites,” Caplan cited: 

• Flint Ink, a four-acre property, had been vacant since 2002. 

• The 8.2-acre American Soil site, which has one occupied 40,000-square-foor building, “has been vacant for years.” 

• The much more complex seven-acre site partially occupied by the Marchant Building. Though the main building is in Berkeley and partially occupied, the site also includes surrounding land in Berkeley, Emeryville and Oakland and could require a joint powers agreement between all three jurisdictions, Caplan said. 

• The now largely vacant 3.5-acre McAuley Foundry site, which includes 350,000 square feet of existing structures. 

• Finally, the Peerless Lighting factory site, a 5.5-acre property which lies astride two zoning districts, is “a huge opportunity site for West Berkeley,” Caplan said. 

Commissioner Patti Dacey called the MUP proposal “a radical rewriting of the (West Berkeley) Plan.” She asked Amoroso “why this is not an amendment to the plan and why wouldn’t it require an environmental impact report?” 

Amoroso acknowledged “there may be environmental impacts” which would be assessed once the direction of the changes is clear. 

Dacey said she was skeptical of any benefits that would be given the city after the MUP was issued, “because right now the city has 100 percent discretion whether or not to enforce a use permit.” 

Sanderson nodded agreement. 

“To me, this is cultural density bonus redux,” Dacey said, referring to the long battle before commissions, the City Council and the courts over use of space in the Gaia Building supposedly dedicated to cultural uses by in reality used primarily for private functions such as parties. 

“I don’t quite get how the MUP would benefit the M zone,” said Theresa Clark, who was in her second meeting at Moore’s new commissioner. 

Amoroso said M zones were included because they contained some of the sites that had been vacant for several years, and because the permit would “allow for different development patterns on those sites.” 

Some of the sites also include both the M (manufacturing) and MULI (manufacturing and light industrial) zones. 

By the end of the meeting, there were still questions aplenty, and even the minimum size for an MUP development was still in play. 

And one issue briefly mentioned still hangs over everything. Just how attractive will development remain in an area where traffic gridlock is predicted by the end of the decade?