West Berkeley Zoning Struggle Heats Up as Deadline Nears

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday July 16, 2009 - 10:57:00 AM

The fate of large-scale West Berkeley developments—pushed by both Mayor Tom Bates and officials at UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory—continued to preoccupy city planning commissioners Wednesday. 

Proponents of the project once called “West Berkeley Flexibility” say significant zoning code changes are needed to accommodate high-tech businesses spun off from patents generated by scientists at the university and its federal lab complex. 

But current residents, including artists, crafts workers and many business owners, have been skeptical of a push they fear could drive them out of their only foothold in the community. 

The central issue before the commission is a redefinition of the city’s master use permit rules governing development of larger sites in West Berkeley—the only part of Berkeley zoned for industry and manufacturing. 

As chair of the East Bay Green Corridor alliance of cities, universities and community colleges, Bates has led an alliance of public bodies who hope to attract green tech businesses to provide new revenues and jobs. 

That effort has sparked resistance from Berkeley’s low-tech green businesses, including the principals of Urban Ore, which specializes in selling recycled materials. Many existing business, as well as West Berkeley’s sizable community of art and craft workers, say they fear that pricey labs will lead to spiraling rents and property values, which could force them out of their last refuge in the city. 

Planning commissioners were unanimous during their July 8 session that retaining artists should be one of the incentives new enterprises could use as leverage to win approval of their projects. 

But what other incentives might be used to win approval of master use permits remained an open question by the end of the meeting, with some commissioners voicing fears that offering too many choices would reduce their cumulative impacts on higher priority objectives. 

“Be careful of Christmas trees,” said Alex Amoroso, the city planning staffer who has been leading the effort to draft new zoning rules. “If you water down your benefits, you get a couple of trees and an artist.” 

Commissioner Victoria Eisen, a private-sector transportation planner and an avid cyclist, said she’d like to see more bicycle improvements, including the completion of links between existing bike routes. 

“I would like to add something about support for open space and the arts,” said Commissioner James Novosel, an architect. He’d also like to add preservation, “because it’s going to cost developers a lot of money to preserve these buildings.” 

“I would like to add both green buildings and green manufacturing, said chair David Stoloff, a retired planner. 

Eisen said she’d like staff to investigate Emeryville’s shuttle system to find out what makes that program work as a possible incentive to create a similar system in West Berkeley to link employees with transit and reduce reliance on cars. 

Deborah Sanderson, the city’s land-use planning manager, said the key to Emeryville’s success was the shuttle’s connection to BART. 

“How do you get to the commensurate aspect of this,” asked Gene Poschman, the commission’s resident policy expert. How, he wondered, would the city place a value on granting exceptions in increased building mass and height in exchange for benefit? How do you set a price on mass, 90-foot buildings and reduced parking, he asked. 

“At this point we don’t have any way to put a value on these,” he said. “I don’t see any meat on these bones.” 

West Berkeley’s 692 acres constitute about a tenth of Berkeley’s land mass. The area is bounded by city limits on the north and south, and stretches from San Pablo Avenue to San Francisco Bay, including the 99 acres of water in Aquatic Park. 

By way of comparison, the city’s University of California campus, a politically separate entity, totals 1,232 acres, not including off-campus university-owned properties. 

According to the Land Use Element of the city’s General Plan, only 4 percent of the city is zoned for manufacturing, and all of it is in West Berkeley. “In 1977, industrial uses occupied virtually all of West Berkeley aside from its residential areas. Since then, industrial activity in the area has decreased substantially, and office and retail uses have occupied a portion of the former industrial area,” the document declares. 

That same document states that “Approximately 24 percent of all Berkeley jobs are in West Berkeley, where manufacturing and wholesale jobs account for 41 percent of all jobs, service jobs for 30 percent, retail jobs for 16 percent, and other jobs (construction, transport, etc.) for 13 percent.” 

The West Berkeley Plan specifically calls for retention of manufacturing in the area, and the current debate centers in part around definitions. 

The area is zoned for manufacturing and light industrial uses—the M, MM and MULI zones—and for mixed-use residential—MUR. 

The zoning code prescribes uses allowed in each zone, and one of the issues the commission has already tentatively resolved is a change in the documentation used to describe permitted use. While the existing code uses the Standard Industrial Classifications, or SIC code, to define business types, commissioners have already indicated they favor switching to the North American Industrial Classification System (NAICS), which incorporate high tech business types that didn’t exist when the older code was drawn up. 

A second issue that may be close to resolution is the ability of property owners to reconfigure uses within a site as business uses change, though some dispute remains over the level of oversight of the needed permits. 

But other issues have generated more contention, especially the definition of sites that could apply for a master use permit. 

One issue is size: Should they be restricted to a few pre-existing and named sites or to any parcels of a given size? And what should be the minimum size? Three acres? Four? Five? A city block even if it is smaller than the agreed-upon size? 

And should they be pre-existing parcels or should a developer be allowed to buy contiguous parcels until the minimum size is reached? 

This, perhaps the thorniest of the issues, has generated heat between would-be developers, West Berkeley residents and members of West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies (WEBAIC). 

While Amoroso said staff has focused on a four-acre minimum, WEBAIC has pushed to confine master use permits to a limited number of sites. The commission majority has often sided with developers in the past, ensuring that WEBAIC and its allies have filled the great majority of seats in meetings devoted to the issue. 

Rick Auerbach, WEBAIC’s lone staffer, told commissioners that while the group was willing to settle for a four-acre minimum, “unlimited consolidation does effectively change the West Berkeley Plan because it changes the mix of uses sought in the plan.”  

Commissioner Patti Dacey, with Poschman a member of the minority on many votes, has been strongly critical of the staff’s handling of discussions with West Berkeley stakeholder groups, urging her colleagues to spend more time listening to critics and asking staff to let the groups meet jointly in an effort to come up with a consensus proposal. 

“You’re just raping the West Berkeley Plan,” Primo Facchini of Pacific Coast Chemical told commissioners. 

The commission is pushing forward with its work and will hold a critical discussion July 22 when it will vet tentative language on zoning code changes. 

After the August break, commissioners will be back to vote on the first measures to be sent to the City Council, which is expected to approve the final package in January.