Push For West Berkeley Zone Changes Linked To University, Lab Startup Firms

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday March 03, 2009 - 10:15:00 PM

UC Berkeley, already the instigator of a new plan for downtown Berkeley, is leading the effort to reshape West Berkeley as well. 

Mayor Tom Bates is pushing Berkeley’s role in the East Bay Green Corridor, a developing alliance of mayors that is pressing for the region to take a leading role in development and manufacturing of so-called “green” technology. 

However, the initial shove came not from Bates nor from his fellow mayors, but from UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, who summoned them for a luncheon at his university-owned residence. 

And the university official who heads the marketing effort to commercialize UC Berkeley-generated patents with the private sector was on hand to pitch the virtues of tech-friendly zoning to city planning commissioners last week. Michael Cohen, that UC official, may be better known to Daily Planet readers as Michael Alvarez-Cohen, a member of the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board. 

A speaker who favors Power Point presentations laced with words starting with the same letter, Cohen led the lineup of speakers assembled by Michael Caplan and Dave Fogarty of the city’s Economic Development Department to pitch the planners on the virtues of zoning flexibility. 

“Most communities could only dream of having this kind of opportunity,” said Cohen, acting head of UC Berkeley’s Office of Intellectual Property and Industry Research Alliances [http://ipira.berkeley.edu/]. 

Every year, he said, UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) sends out 10 to 20 start-ups created to exploit technology developed at the two public institutions, he said.  

Cohen, whose university job responsibility is “New Technology Management and Commercialization,” works out of an office on Shattuck Avenue. He said he had worked on more than 100 start-up companies. Of those which had started in Berkeley, most eventually left, even though they might have preferred to stay in Berkeley, he said —with the screen behind him lit up with logos of university-spawned corporate start-ups. 

“We have to take a look at our core assets and leverage them in ways that other parts of the community cannot,” he said.  

Caplan said that there are signs that Washington may become involved in creating new “innovation zones” to foster emerging clean energy technologies in cities with either universities or national laboratories specializing in the field. 

Then-Sen. Barack Obama praised Pennsylvania’s Keystone Innovation Zones during the presidential primary contests last year and promised $200 million a year in matching funds for state and local governments to develop regional economies.  

Now, with President Obama in the White House and the head of a national lab—LNBL’s Steven Chu—as secretary of energy, both UC Berkeley and LBNL are engaged in just those pursuits Caplan cited. 

For Caplan, the ideal outcome would be “incentivizing what we want and getting what we want” to develop what he called a “cradle to scale technology,” to allow high tech startups to evolve from garage labs to full-scale manufacturing plants. 

The changes, he said, would allow the city to specialize in developing new sources of energy and “green and clean technology that will lead the transformation of our era.” 

The goal of the initiative, according to the presenters at last week’s planning commission meeting, was to revise West Berkeley zoning to make it easier for tech startups to begin and stay in the same city that produced the patents they’ll be using. 


Flexible MUPs? 

The problem, according to the zoning change boosters, is a flaw with the city’s regulations for its master use permit (MUP), a process that allows for sequential development of sites. 

Commissioner Gene Poschman noted that in the last 10 years since the commission looked at zoning for the area, “somehow it’s never come to the planning commission that there’s something screwed up about the MUP.” 

“I can’t tell you why it didn’t happen,” said senior planner Alex Amoroso, the city staffer who has been handling the West Berkeley rezoning. 

“We’ve had no applications for an MUP since then,” said Debra Sanderson, the city’s land use planning manager. “There has to be a five-acre minimum, thus the size problem.” 

Sanderson said the existing MUP regulations wouldn’t allow some of the uses previously allowed. Other concerns include development standards that wouldn’t allow some proposed uses.  

The “size problem” refers to possible moves to reduce the size of allowable master-planned developments, a matter that worries many West Berkeley small businesses and artisans. They say they fear that lowering the size of MUP sites would lead to expansion development which would result in escalating land and lease prices that could drive small operations from their last toehold in the community. 

Amoroso said three primary obstacles to development remain: allowable uses, bans on elimination of manufacturing space and protected uses. 


Flexibility fans 

A procession of developers and landowner representatives summoned by the city staff spoke to the commission, urging changes in the way the development game is played in what Caplan called “the economic development frontier for the city.” 

Steve Goldin, a major property owner and the second speaker in Caplan’s lineup, identified himself as a majority West Berkeley property owner with first-hand experience of zoning issues. 

“You can tinker around with these problems only so much,” he said, urging commissioners to tweak the rules and definitions to ease the way for tech startups to evolve into full-scale manufacturing facilities that would stay in Berkeley. “One source of leverage we have is that the more you can intervene to help a business grow before they make any money, they will be very beholden and grateful.” 

Michael Ziegler, an industrial developer (who is also a rabbi who leads monthly musical services at Berkeley’s Jewish Community Center), said he had helped develop more than five million square feet of development space—including the Temescal Business Center at 7th and Heinz streets, which city staff has held up as a model of the MUP process. 

One site that “effectively could not be developed as flexible space,” he said, was the Flint Ink site, on the 1300 block of Fourth Street. Ziegler also said some tenants chose other locations than in Berkeley because “it takes many, many months just to determine” if their project fits with the city’s list of acceptable uses. 

Jim Morris and Peter Waldt of development consultants Cushman Wakefield are part of the team representing the owners of West Berkeley’s largest potential MUP site, 8.2 acres located adjacent to Aquatic Park. Morris presented his own Power Point pitch, complete with “psychographic” charts of potential workers at high tech companies. The owners hope to develop the site, once the site of American Soil & Stone Products Inc., as an incubator host to startups connected with the university and lab. 

Darrel de Tienne spoke on behalf of Douglas Herst, who is proposing a project called Peerless Greens at the site of the Peerless Lighting plant in West Berkeley, which occupies most of two blocks, all of it currently occupied. 

In addition to attracting conventional tenants, de Tienne said Herst hopes to create separate work and living spaces for artists, with the goal of housing half of the site’s 1,700 project daytime employees. 

“Obviously, we need an MUP for this to take place,” he said. 



Commissioner Patti Dacey was the first critic to sound off, telling staff (alluding to Orwell's Animal Farm) that while she appreciated the information, “I really object to the way we treat some animals as more equal than others.” 

Advocates of the zoning changes “get to actually present cohesive, well-developed thoughts without anyone interrupting,” she said, unlike public comment speakers,. who are strictly timed. “I find that offensive.” 

Dacey said advocates of other views should be allowed to make their pleas in a similar forum. “This needs to be a more open process with us sitting down with different stakeholders,” she said. 

And with that, public comments began. 

George Chittenden runs an existing manufacturing business in West Berkeley, Adams & Chittenden Scientific Glass. He said the exuberance about green tech reminded him of the since-deflated dot-com euphoria, and he urged commissioners not to “throw the baby out with the bath water. Leave space to make things in West Berkeley,” he urged, warning that too many zoning changes could keep similar firms out of the city. 

“We were a start-up in the 90s and relocated to West Berkeley. A lot of the companies presented here tonight are our clients,” he said. 

West Berkeley’s biggest developer wasn’t part of the staff’s list of speakers, but he conveyed the same message. Chris Barlow of Wareham Properties said his company owns 22 buildings in West Berkeley.  

“This is not the dot-com story,” he said, urging rules that would ease mixed-use site development to accommodate changes in the tech world. 

“No one knew what biofuel was two years ago,” he said. “An MUP is an important tool that would allow the developer to work with the city for the benefit of the city as a whole.” 

George Martin, who owns a business that straddles the Berkeley/Emeryville border, urged commissioners to keep the community stakeholders involved in the process of shaping new zoning rules. “Keep us involved, don’t push us out,” he said.” We’ve been here for 60 years.” 

Other speakers who called for restraint in zoning changes included some of the leading figures in West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies (WEBAIC), a stakeholder group representing existing businesses and the area’s sizable arts community. 

WEBAIC doesn’t oppose zoning changes to allow for more flexibility in assigning use on parcels, but members have urged restricting major changes to the largest development sites, with five acres often mentioned as the minimum.