West Berkeley Skyline Could Sprout If Planning Staff Proposal is Approved

By Richard Brenneman
Friday March 27, 2009 - 07:11:00 PM

City planning staff have dropped a bombshell on anxious West Berkeley activists: a proposal that would double the height of new buildings and potentially open the area to office complexes. 

The staff proposal, if enacted without changes, could mean a West Berkeley skyline studded with 90-foot-tall office towers—a host of buildings as tall as the area’s currently dominant high-rise, the Fantasy Records Building. 

Even some of the more developer-friendly commissioners had questions after Assistant Planner Claudine Asbagh presented the concepts, which are the latest round of a City Council-mandated effort to ease development rules in the only part of the city zoned for light industry and manufacturing. 

The area in question lies roughly between the city’s northern and southern boundaries and between the eastern side of San Pablo Avenue and Interstate 80. Development rules for the area were spelled out in the West Berkeley Plan, which was adopted by the city 16 years ago. 

The council’s directive to ease zoning alarmed some of the area’s small manufacturers, who range from makers of scientific glassware to an assortment of green businesses, including the owners of Inkworks and Urban Ore. 

Staff proposals target not only the handful of large sites specified in the 1993 plan, but would provide a new development procedure for all sites that are either three acres or more or comprise a full city block. The revised master use permit (MUP) process would allow developers to develop sites incrementally and alter use configurations as tenants change and expand. 

UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have their sights set on West Berkeley as the home of startup labs and businesses generated by the inventions of their scientists, a focus backed by Mayor Tom Bates, who is promoting the area as part of the “Green Corridor” first proposed by UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau in a meeting of mayors at his official residence. 

One powerful voice of support for more flexible zoning rules is Wareham Properties, the area’s largest developer and dominant landlord of high-tech facilities and landlord to UCB facilities in both Berkeley and Emeryville. Wareham is currently the owner of the Fantasy building. 

Chris Barlow, a Wareham principal, has been a regular at Planning Commission meetings on West Berkeley, and was present again at the latest session, Wednesday, March 25, where staff put forth their latest and most controversial set of proposals. 

Barlow is a strong advocate of the revised MUP, while members of West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies (WEBAIC) say they have strong reservations. 

WEBAIC members turned out in force Wednesday night to register their concerns at the latest staff proposal, one which could radically alter the shape, skyline and economics of the last area of the city to welcome their businesses and members of the city’s endangered arts community. 

Bernard Marszalek of Inkworks, a West Berkeley printer that uses recycled paper and environmentally friendly inks, said the staff proposal to double the floor of lot area ratios for new construction would mean “millions of square feet” of additional development. 

Another concern, he said was the notion of possible waivers of parking requirements for new construction. 

“Traffic is a real issue, and so are greenhouse gasses,” Marszalek said. “Doubling the density of development the way they want is just ridiculous.” 

Barlow said he also wants the city to reject any thought of drafting a regional environmental impact report (EIR) that would evaluate the cumulative impacts of new development on streets the city has already acknowledged could hit gridlock within the next decade. 

But developers weren’t united in opposition to the regional review of traffic and air quality impacts of development. Darrel de Tienne, who spoke as a representative of Douglas Herst, owner of one of the area’s largest sites, said he favored the broader, “programmatic” EIR. 

Mark Gorrell, of the Ecology Center, said “it was fascinating to hear how staff wants to protect West Berkeley by having people come in, cut it up and change it.” 

The staff proposal would also allow developers to turn MUP properties into office parks, if the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board agreed—opening the area to a use specifically banned in the existing MUP. 

“This would mean we’re rewriting the whole plan,” said commissioner Patti Dacey. 

George Beier, who was sitting in for absent commissioner Harry Pollack, said he needed to see more information on possible sites as well as estimates of the impact of parking if waivers were granted. “I would like to see who the real winners and losers are in all this,” he said. 

Commissioner Victoria Eisen asked if offices would be allowed only as part of manufacturing or industrial uses. “I would like that clarified,” she said. 

“It’s discretionary,” Asbagh said. “It goes before ZAB and it’s appealable, but, yes, if ZAB approves 100 percent offices on the site, it’s a possibility.” 

Another concern for some WEBAIC members came from a Barlow plea to the city to include “a workable but practical definition of artisan and artist” to apply to any protections given for artisan space in the regulations. 

“We strongly believe this category should reflect those who earn their living from art and than any privileges should be tied to a requirement to regularly produce a portfolio of work that would be peer-reviewed.” 

That notion drew eye rolls from one member of the audience and a scowl from Rick Auerbach, who is WEBAIC’s staff member. 

Staff will report back to the commission with more details when the proposal comes before the commission in May, following an additional meeting with West Berkeley stakeholders.