Now It’s West Berkeley’s Turn to Be Colonized

By Becky O'Malley
Wednesday April 01, 2009 - 09:32:00 PM

During my midlife career break, which lasted about 18 years, we ran a small software development group. We started on Telegraph in the late 1970s, upstairs in the brick building which now houses Rasputin’s at the corner of Channing. At that time the building was owned by a southern California cheap- clothing chain which absolutely didn’t get Berkeley. They attached no value to the upstairs offices, so we were able to rent vast spaces with high ceilings, big windows and crown molding for about 30 cents a square foot, with no lease. We bought some used metal desks and a big table, and we were in business. 

Then as now, Telly was mighty funky. Weird people, noisy people, rude people—and that doesn’t even cover the dogs. The people commonly known as homeless, mostly “substance abusers” who slept outdoors and begged for a living, were as abundant then as now. As always, the alcohol addicts were mostly pleasant and polite, but those who had chosen crack or meth were sometimes nasty.  

Some merchants blamed the ambiance for their lack of success, even the ones whose merchandise targeted disaffected and surly youth in attitudinal poses as customers. These kids tended toward mari-juana, with their anti-social activities usually no worse than making themselves look ugly and blocking the sidewalk, with an occasional graffiti excusion. Graffiti and litter abounded then as now.  

For us, it was a great place to do business. The seedy setting kept the rent down. There were at least five bookstores and three cafes in a two-block stretch. Staggeringly brilliant computer science graduate students dropped in regularly from the UC campus to do a bit of programming. It was an easy walk from our house, and our kids could stop on their way back from Berkeley High to do their homework. From my desk, I had a glorious view of the hills.  

But the 1989 earthquake made it necessary to think again about our choice of location. Our unreinforced building shimmied and shook in a truly scary way, and the landlord showed no interest in fixing it. We decided to move, and, since we couldn’t find anything as large or as nice around Telegraph, we looked next at West Berkeley. 

We found a suite in a converted pump factory on Sixth Street. There was no view, but there were flowers and a café in the courtyard. Aquatic Park was a short walk for a picnic lunch. We couldn’t walk to work from home, but there was an ample parking lot, and even free street parking. We were moving from strictly R&D to tasteful licensing, and we could entertain foreign customers there without frightening them. Since we were still not making much in the way of profits, the comparatively reasonable rent helped us make payroll for 15 or 20 people. 

Besides low rents, West Berkeley in those days had other advantages. Chief among them were the sky, the air and the sunshine. Once in a great while some industrial venue (Pacific Steel?) produced a smell like burning Bakelite, but there was usually a fresh breeze from the bay. There were also quite a few private homes around, several with gardens featuring old roses and wisteria, inhabited by multiethnic families.  

There were no bookstores in our south-of-University neighborhood, but there were numerous galleries, craft workshops and artists’ studios to visit. Vik’s Distributors opened an Indian grocery and then a popular Indian lunch spot. Lots of interesting things were going on in West Berkeley, including other small businesses like ours. 

Our landlords, the Abrams-Millikan architectural firm, had cleverly adapted the pump plant for modern use, and were well on their way to converting part of the historic and charming Ocean View neighborhood to Berkeley’s most successful shopping area, which now produces millions of dollars in sales tax revenue for Berkeley every year. It had barely escaped redevelopment’s wrecking ball—dead-stupid city planners in the ’60s thought West Berkeley would make a nice office park, something like Dublin, perhaps. 

I was working much too hard to follow local land-use politics, but unbeknownst to me civic-minded souls were working on the West Berkeley Plan, designed to stabilize and protect what seemed to be an optimally effective situation. From the plan summary: “Because West Berkeley is a successful area, the Plan seeks to guide its evolution, rather than radically reshape it.” After years of work and many compromises, it was adopted by the City Council. 

That was then, this is now. Now the stupids are at it again. A number of rapacious forces are eager to, as our government used to say in Vietnam, “destroy the village in order to save it.” University of California energy researchers envision West Berkeley’s wide open spaces as ideal for a new—you guessed it—office park, this time cum laboratory space. Never mind that San Francisco is awash in empty high-rise offices at the moment—Berkeley needs its own version, they think, close to the freeway for the convenience of the bridge-and-tunnel suburban commuters, which many of them will be. 

This group has entered into a marriage of convenience with a few property owners who have amassed big parcels in West Berkeley, supported by builders who hope to profit from massive projects on these sites. And our dingbat city planners, once again, are egging them all on. From our story on the last planning commission meeting: “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.” Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? 

Not surprisingly, currently successful West Berkeley businesses and residents are appalled. The politicians on the City Council, at least those elected thanks to big-time builders’ bucks, are not likely to bite the hands that fed them, so it may already be a done deal. So much for charm . . . and don’t believe the “jobs” mantra either. Construction jobs typically don’t go to Berkeley residents, and the anticipated businesses will employ more Ph.D.’s than working-class people, count on it. And with no sales tax revenue… 

Soon, if we’re not careful, there will soon be no place for small businesses like ours to get started in Berkeley, and there will be no room for the kind of retail shops which are so successful on Fourth Street. Rents on Telegraph are now sky-high, resulting not in more businesses but in more empty spaces. Central Berkeley is rapidly being colonized by the University of California, with more and more buildings being taken off the property tax rolls for UC offices and big sites being built out as what are effectively luxury private dorms for UC students. And now West Berkeley is being turned into a plantation for the university’s British Petroleum-dominated energy industry schemes.  

Can anything be done to reverse these trends? In theory, the Planning Commission has the authority to plan Berkeley’s future, but it’s been packed by council appointments of people who work in the building business, so don’t count on them to do the right thing. The City Council is more of the same, a majority of councilmembers are beneficiaries of big campaign contributions, loans and favors from builders and their allies.  

Eternal vigilance, as always, could make a difference. FYI, the Planning Commission meets at 7 p.m. on some Wednesdays (usually alternate but not always) at the North Berkeley Senior Center. Meetings are listed and usually previewed in this paper. If their vision for the future of Berkeley is different from yours, go there and tell them about it before it’s too late, or write them a letter. Can’t hurt, might help.