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Traffic, Noise and Air Quality Impacts Seen in West Berkeley Zoning Changes

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday August 13, 2009 - 10:59:00 AM

Zoning changes proposed for West Berkeley could have significant impacts on area noise, air quality and traffic, according to an environmental initial study (EIS) released by city staff. 

The 38-page document concludes that a full “program level” environmental impact report (EIR) is needed, but only to address three of the 17 categories examined in a full EIR. 

In the final section of the EIS, “Mandatory Findings of Significance,” the document acknowledges that the proposed changes “could result in increased development relative to what would be anticipated under the current zoning regulations. This could have potentially significant cumulative traffic, air quality and noise impacts.” 

The document, prepared by Oakland-based consultants Lamphier Gregory, is available at the city Planning and Development website at 

The proposed zoning changes, which would ease development rules on larger parcels and allow constructions of taller, more massive buildings than currently allowed, have generated considerable controversy, with the main challenge coming from members of West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies (WEBAIC). 

The City Council has called for easing development rules, with the goal of attracting new companies created to market patented technology developed by scientists at UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. 

Most of the development would occur on large parcels developed under a new master use permit process, which would allow for phased construction, with projects built in stages as need arises. 

The EIS presumes that over the course of 20 years, an additional 3.5 million square feet of new development would be added in West Berkeley sites currently zoned for manufacturing, warehouse and light industrial uses, some of which could rise to 90 feet—twice the height currently allowed under the existing West Berkeley Plan. 

With a program-level EIR, developers would not be required to prepare individual EIRs on each project, so long as a development fell within the parameters spelled out in the city’s master document. 

In its written response to the environmental initial study, WEBAIC contends that the proposed changes would allow “removal of industrial protections on 42 percent” of land zoned for manufacturing and industry, effectively voiding the plans’ call for protection of existing industrial uses. 

And while the city has proposed granting master use permits for 10 sites over the first five years after zoning changes are approved, WEBAIC urges a six-permit maximum over a 10-year span.  

And while the city would allow master use permits on sites of four acres or one city block, WEBAIC proposes a 4.5-acre minimum, which would preclude city blocks of smaller size. 

WEBAIC also asks the city to keep the current floor-to-area ratio of two, rather than the 3.5 proposed by planning commissioners. 

While the EIS assumes the changes would have no impact on city land use and planning issues, WEBAIC argues for inclusion of the relevant section in the EIR, alleging that by removing existing protections on industrial uses, the plan conflicts with the existing plan, 

WEBAIC also argues that the EIS contention that existing city policies would render any impact on aesthetics to a less-than-significant level is wrong, since the new height and building mass standards pose a significant adverse impact to scenic vistas and would degrade the existing character of the neighborhood. 

The EIS does concede that the new rules could lead to potentially significant impacts on air quality, including possible conflicts with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District’s Clean Air Plan, with increased vehicle traffic leading to yet higher levels of air pollutants in a district where levels of automobile-caused emissions already exceed air district limits. 

Those impacts too would be addressed in the EIR. 

In the third category to be addressed in the environmental review—noise—the many sources of sound pollution would be increased traffic generated by employees of and visitors to the new developments and the potentially loud sounds generated during construction. 

The projects could also lead to increased levels of traffic that would burden the area’s roadways, the EIS concedes, and could also result in levels that would exceed those set by the Alameda County Congestion Management Agency. 

In all three areas where the EIS concedes that development could produce significant impacts—noise, air quality and traffic—the EIR must propose mitigation measures, and if those fail to reduce the problems to a less-than-significant level, the City Council must make a finding that overriding public interests trump the ensuing impacts. 

Members of the public have until Monday, Aug. 17, to tell the city what they would like to see addressed in the draft EIR. Comments may be mailed to Deputy Planning Director Wendy Cosin, 2120 Milvia St., Berkeley 94704 or e-mailed to 

Comments must be addressed in the draft EIR.