West Berkeley Land Battle Heats Up Near Finish Line

By Richard Brenneman
Friday October 16, 2009 - 04:04:00 PM

With the battle over West Berkeley zoning nearing an end, planning commissioners Wednesday night focused on the list of uses that would be allowed in areas where they had been previously barred. Acting under orders from the City Council majority, the commission has been hammering out a list of uses and definitions which could change the face of the city’s only haven for industry, manufacturing and artisans.  

The goal of the council is to make West Berkeley a friendlier place for startup companies created to develop new technology patented by researchers at UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. 

“The manufacturing base of the future is going to depend a lot on the technology now being developed,” said Michael Caplan, the city’s economic development manager. “We want to capture some of that so they don’t leapfrog out of the community, especially in the area of green technology.” 

While the city is banking on capitalizing on the green revolution in environmentally friendly products promised by the university, many of West Berkeley’s existing companies and artists fear that a land boom generated by new ordinances could drive them out of the city. 

The debate pits landowners, developers and some business owners against members of West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies (WEBAIC), which represents many existing firms, coops and West Berkeley artists. 

Planning commissioners appear split along the usual lines that have formed on development issues, with the commission majority pitted against Gene Poschman and Patti Dacey, two of only three of the nine commissioners who haven’t derived their livelihoods from the development sector. 

“We’re not acting as a planning commission but as a economic development commission,” Poschman told his colleagues. 

“I feel like I’m operating in the dark,” said Dacey, who feared the changes would set off a “and bonanza” in West Berkeley. 

But chair David Stoloff said the proposed changes “represent an opportunity that we don’t want to let slip through our fingers.” 

At issue Wednesday were proposed a zoning ordinance that would change uses in areas zoned for manufacturing, warehouses, wholesale and recycling which are currently restricted to land zoned for manufacturing and light industry. 

The proposed changes would allow retailers who sell by phone, catalog or online, product development firms and companies specializing in solar-generated electricity or water heating and energy conservation to operate in the previously restricted zoning areas. 

Another proposed new category, companies conducting research in physical engineering and the life sciences, would not be allowed in the protected zones. 

The changes would also ease the permit processes for the changed uses, with staff-issued certificates or administrative use permits for companies occupying smaller spaces and full use permits, which require a public hearing before the Zoning Adjustments Board, only for the largest operations. 

The proposed changes were developed by Alex Amoroso, a city staff planner, working with inputs from the commission and from meetings with a series of West Berkeley stakeholder groups. 

Commissioners decided to devote their first November meeting to a four-hour session with all the stakeholders, which will follow their Oct. 28 meeting devoted to fine-tuning a new master use permit process that would allow incremental development of larger West Berkeley sites. 

Wednesday night, as with all the previous meetings featuring West Berkeley, drew a large turnout, with the majority of the audience drawn from the ranks of WEBAIC and its allies. 

Also on hand were several developers and their representatives. James Madsen of Orton Development, the new owners of the Flint Ink property, said that “while we certainly respect the idea of protected spaces, we also see a lot of unemployment,” and said that a balance between protection and the need for jobs would create a more vibrant local economy. 

“Get a grip, folks,” said Darrell DeTienne, representing landowner Doug Herst, in urging the commission to combine research and development and product development into a single category. 

“We have to have a much more dynamic approach if we are going to bring manufacturing in,” said Steven Goldin, a West Berkeley manufacturer and landowner.  

But the voices from the other side have been more numerous.  

John Curl, one of the founders of WEBAIC, urged commissioners to go slow. “Wait and deal with the whole picture, or it will lead you to conclusions that are not good for West Berkeley,” he said. And no discussions could be complete, he said, without understanding the full implications of the master use permit (MUP) revisions. 

Rick Auerbach, WEBAIC’s spokesperson, said commissioners were in danger of subverting the intent of the West Berkeley Plan. 

Auerbach said that a UC Berkeley had projected a maximum need of 2.5 million square feet for new industries, a figure he said could be easily accommodated within the six MUP sites originally proposed by the city and existing zoning. 

“A lot of land in West Berkeley is not protected, and a lot of space never was protected. You don’t have to open up protected space to accommodate what you want,” he said.