West Berkeley ‘Fast-Track’ Proposal Draws Fire At Planning Commission

By Richard Brenneman
Friday June 26, 2009 - 02:26:00 PM

West Berkeley residents and business owners voiced their concerns to the Planning Commission Wednesday (June 24) about proposals to ease development rules on larger parcels in Berkeley’s only industrial area. 

The efforts of commissioners and city staff to implement the City Council directive to make zoning rules more flexible along the city’s western edge have sparked resistance from a growing coalition. 

Latest to join the critical ranks are residents of the sectors zoned for mixed use—mostly areas near the San Pablo Avenue eastern border of the district. 

After asking for recognition as a stakeholder during the commission’s June 10 meeting, Principal Planner Alex Amoroso has held one meeting with the group and more are planned to bring them up to speed on proposed changes. 

As with past meetings on West Berkeley, there were speakers aplenty ready for the public comment section of the discussion—enough that chair David Stoloff imposed a 90-seconds-per-speaker limit on remarks. 

Amoroso, who has been heading the staff effort to formulate zoning code revisions for the area, opened the discussion with the four specific changes he was proposing in response to the City Council’s directive to fast-track at least some code changes. 

Three of the proposed changes did not generate any significant controversy from either commissioners or the public: 

• Allowing existing businesses in the Mixed Use Light Industrial zone (MULI) to allot up to 10 percent of their space to a retail shop to sell products manufactured on site through an administrative use permit (AUP), an action which doesn’t require a public hearing before the Zoning Adjustments Board. Currently businesses are barred from adding shops unless they do so at the time their original permit for the property is obtained. 

• Allowing the interchangeability of the currently protected manufacturing, wholesale, warehouse and recycling businesses (“material recovery enterprises”), clarifying an issue which is currently a legally gray area. 

• Replacing the Standard Industrial Code (SIC) classification system now used in the city zoning code with the more contemporary North American Industrial Classification System, which includes a wide range of business categories not in existence at the time the SIC was created. 

But the fourth proposal, “Demising of space in existing buildings,” generated substantial kickback from John Norheim, one of West Berkeley’s leading real estate brokers, and from members of West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies (WEBAIC), which represents existing businesses and the areas artists and crafts workers. 

“Demising” means subdividing space within a single site into smaller parcels 

Amoroso’s proposal to reduce subdivisions which require a use permit with a public hearing before ZAB to a staff-issued AUP has raised concerns among West Berkeley residents who fear excessive subdividing of the small percentage of Berkeley land zoned for making things. 

WEBAIC offered their own counterproposal, which would allow subdivision of existing sites for two to five uses with an over-the-counter zoning certificate, an AUP for division into six to nine spaces, and a full use permit with a public hearing for 10 spaces and up. 

“Obviously it’s a bad idea to allow any large building to be demised into a large number of spaces without a public hearing,” said John Curl, a woodworker and one of the original organizers of WEBAIC. 

“We agree with WEBAIC,” said Norheim, who has worked in West Berkeley for more than 25 years. He and partner Don Yost worked with WEBAIC to develop their counterproposal. Norheim said he and other West Berkeley people had worked for 13 years on the West Berkeley Plan, the document which sets the current development parameters for the area. 

In the end, commissioners agreed to consider the WEBAIC proposal along with the staff suggestion when they conduct a public hearing on the fast-track items during their July 22 meeting. 

Commissioners didn’t get to discuss the potentially most explosive proposal on their West Berkeley agenda during Wednesday night’s meeting—a revised master use permit (MUP) that would allow sequential development and new rules for large parcels. 

Just how big those parcels would be—and how many—pose thorny problems for the commissions, with developers seeking smaller parcels and more of them that WEBAIC and its allies. 

WEBAIC seeks to confine the MUPs to a few of the areas largest parcels, while developers have said they don’t want caps on number or size. 

Susanne Hering, who operates a West Berkeley laboratory that develops methods for measuring airborne particles, said that allowing interchangeable uses “effectively shuts down any lab use,” because the generators needed to keep operations working during power outages could cause noise problems for office and residential tenants. 

Other critical issues include allowed uses, with the staff proposing changes that could allow office-only buildings and high-rises of up to 90 feet, twice the current height limit for the area. 

In addition to critics from WEBAIC, those proposals have drawn fire from members of the new residential stakeholder group, who fear tall buildings would shadow their homes and create traffic gridlock. 

“To me, the biggest issue is height,” said Judy Dater, a West Berkeley photographer who relies on natural light for illumination in her studio.  

“If a tall building were built next to my studio, I’d be out of business,” she said, literally overshadowed by the high-rise.  

“I’m not opposed to development if it’s within the existing height and zoning limits,” said Jack Van Euw, another resident. 

Commissioners will take up the MUP minefield during their next meeting on July 8.