Public Comment

City Proposals Threaten West Berkeley Industry and Arts

By John Curl and Rick Auerbach 
Thursday October 29, 2009 - 09:27:00 AM

The West Berkeley Plan, created through a democratic community process and adopted unanimously by the City in 1993, has kept the area stable and affordable over the last two decades, facilitating the thriving of over 320 industrial production, distribution, and repair businesses—most small to mid-scale—7,500 living wage jobs, and almost 250 art and craft studios with around 1,000 artists and artisans. Another 7,500 West Berkeley jobs are thriving in private, government and University-related professional and scientific services, as well as a variety of office and retail uses. This is a mix that has worked well, but all the stakeholders agree that the time is now ripe for some judicious fine tuning. In particular the city identified six large sites which formerly housed manufacturing as “development opportunity sites,” and a spirited debate has flared over how best to facilitate their reuse. More about that later. 

A critically important Planning Commission community workshop on West Berkeley rezoning proposals is scheduled for Wed., Nov. 4, 6:30 p.m. at the North Berkeley Senior Center, 1901 Hearst and MLK. If you can come to only one meeting this fall, come to this one. This is the final phase of the city’s West Berkeley Project. The moment of decision is fast approaching. Please attend, learn about the rezoning proposals and weigh in on policies supportive of the future of arts and industries in Berkeley. 

One area of change that has unanimous support is a proposal to allow artists and artisans to locate in existing, affordable space previously used by warehousing and manufacturing. When the West Berkeley Plan zoning was put in place in 1996, arts and crafts were originally expected to be part of the industrial protected, interchangeable use category, but were inexplicably left out. Our organization, WEBAIC (West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies) has long worked to correct that mistake. Now, after 13 years of prohibition, city staff has finally agreed to put arts and crafts studios into the protected uses category. These new studios would however not be subject to the special protections afforded arts and crafts studios established by 1989. If the Planning Commission and City Council pass this constructive proposal, endorsed over two years ago by all stakeholders and sponsored by Councilmembers Maio and Capitelli, it could help facilitate a cultural rebirth in West Berkeley by making new affordable arts and crafts studios available for the first time in 13 years. That’s the good news. 

The bad news is that staff has also proposed significantly weakening and removing the central mechanisms created by the West Berkeley Plan to maintain the existing robust diversity of uses, the industrial protections. In a report to the Planning Commission on Oct. 14, staff proposed making about 42 percent of all industrial space eligible for conversion to Research and Development (R and D) uses under the new Master Use Permit (MUP) process with a 4-acre eligibility threshold, and opening up the other 58 percent of all protected industrial space through reclassifying R and D as a protected use. Together these policies add up to gutting 100 percent of the industrial protection policies of the West Berkeley Plan. This demise of protections would result in rising rents, intense displacement of both industry and arts, and loss of numerous jobs. Long-standing manufacturers, artists, craftspeople, warehouses, wholesale trade, contractors, auto repair, industrial and construction suppliers, food processors, and recycling/reuse enterprises would be under pressure to be pushed out by being forced to compete with R and D uses, which are able to pay much more for rent.  

WEBAIC is working within the City’s rezoning process to help create positive changes. WEBAIC’s consistent position has been that these R and D uses (many which already exist) are desirable and should be able to locate more easily in West Berkeley by (1) making more space available for R and D, and (2) easing the permitting process for their location. Common sense and our long experience with West Berkeley tells us that accomplishing these goals does not require the gutting of industrial/arts protections and the unleashing of the forces of displacement. 

When staff began their West Berkeley (rezoning) Project two years ago, they promised to respect and uphold the goals and policies of the West Berkeley Plan. That now appears to have been a false promise. Industrial protections are at the heart of the West Berkeley Plan, and are the central implementation mechanism of those goals and policies. 

Staff claims this land grab is necessary to accomplish their goal of accommodating clean/green/biotech startup uses. But millions of square feet of space are already available for development for these uses on (1) the six sites the city originally identified as “development opportunity sites” and targeted for its Master Use Permit; (2) the large amount of existing non-protected space; (3) new non-protected space that’s been created in the last 13 years; and (4) the 25 percent of all existing protected space that is already allowed to be converted to non-protected (R and D) uses. 

In an exhaustive UC Master’s study on this subject, the authors declare that even assuming Lawrence Berkeley Lab’s highest projections for spin-off start-ups come true, only 175 jobs are to be expected from this sector in West Berkeley in the next seven years—25 jobs per year. Even doubling these figures does not justify staff’s proposals. We all want to facilitate the location of new green/clean/bio tech uses in West Berkeley. Speaking for the stakeholders of the industrial and arts sectors, WEBAIC is agreeable to loosening existing industrial protections on a significant amount of property, more than enough to accommodate the projected demand for space by these uses. But does the city really want to push up rents on hundreds of companies and risk the loss of thousands of living wage jobs in this depressed economy, when accommodating these new uses doesn’t require anything like the proposed measures? Berkeley should not permit a wholesale gutting of protections that would displace a vital, interconnected economic and cultural ecosystem, and grossly violate the West Berkeley Plan. Less than four percent of Berkeley’s precious land is currently intended for industries and arts, and that land should remain protected. 

In addition, staff also proposes to enormously increase the height and massing standards for construction, which would promote huge new buildings. This proposal would degrade the workability/livability of the built environment and create enormous incentives for gentrification. These increased standards are the steroids of land speculation, and we don’t need them. If a company requires expanded heights for verified production needs, WEBAIC supports a specific mechanism to permit this. 

Why these policies, really? Since a relatively small number of the new, desired uses—typically requiring small spaces—are expected to locate in West Berkeley, why institute this enormous land grab, these radical industrial and arts removal policies? R and D Labs don’t need huge heights and there aren’t enough to need even a significant fraction of the existing industrially-protected space. So what is really behind these proposals? Following the logic of the proposed policies, removal of industrial protections coupled with industrially-unnecessary heights and massing, leads to a likely conclusion: condos and office parks on industrial land.  

The West Berkeley Plan recognized that a strong industrial base of production, distribution, and repair businesses is essential to maintaining a diverse, mixed-use economy providing revenue, goods, services, and a wide range of jobs, particularly “jobs for people without advanced education.” To achieve this economy, the Plan determined that any space devoted to manufacturing, warehousing, wholesale trade, or material recovery uses as of 1996 would remain in any one of those uses. Those uses could interchange, occupying space that any other protected use had previously occupied. Thus industrial uses in the same economic ballpark were put in competition for space with each other, but were protected from having to compete with highly-capitalized office, retail, or Rand D uses that could out compete them for space and tend to “deindustrialize West Berkeley.” To allow incremental change over time, a provision permitted conversion of 25 percent—hundreds of thousands of square feet—of all protected space to non-protected permitted uses. 

The Plan’s protections have worked, and we need to maintain them. West Berkeley is currently home to a vital network of local inter-related businesses in production, distribution, and reuse; a sustainable environment for working and living; a center of green collar jobs; a dynamo of economic and ethnic diversity; a stabilizing force in the city’s economy. Together, industry and arts and crafts are the historic and existing heart and soul of West Berkeley. Other uses are important, legitimate parts of the mix and they need to be here, but without vibrant industrial and arts sectors West Berkeley and the city itself would become economically, culturally, socially, and soulfully impoverished. We’re a town with great cultural depth and richness in our working life, and a vital part of it is centered in the industrial/arts/artisans districts of West Berkeley. West Berkeley Works is the motto of WEBAIC but to us it’s not just words - we experience it every day as a true, positive reflection of the part of town we call home. We believe we’re able to say these words largely due to the foresight of the area’s guiding policy document—the West Berkeley Plan. 

To move successfully into the future, WEBAIC believes the city is in the unique position to both preserve and encourage industry—with it’s growing green collar component—and arts, while at the same time encouraging more clean/green/bio tech uses. The city’s economic development policy should not be based on zoning proposals that would push out businesses and jobs, and unnecessarily dismantle the industrial and cultural zones, because WEST BERKELEY WORKS.  



John Curl is chair of West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies. Rick Auerbach is staff of WEBAIC. WEBAIC is an organization comprised of over 70 enterprises with approximately 1,000 employees, including manufacturers, artists, craftspeople, warehouses, wholesale trade, contractors, auto repair, industrial and construction suppliers, food processors, R and D labs, and recycling/reuse enterprises.