On January 25, the council will twice consider sweeping changes to West Berkeley zoning will be that would open the district up to high-rise, high-density, Emeryville-style development. In the works for three years, the proposed changes will come to the council for the first time at a 5:30 worksession. Then they are the subject of a public hearing at the council’s regular meeting, which starts at 7 pm. Both meetings will take place at Old City Hall, 2134 Martin Luther King, Jr., Way.
The changes originated in a council directive that asked city staff and the planning commission to devise ways to facilitate the development of six large industrial sites in West Berkeley. But what the planning commission approved 7-2 last October with virtually no discussion goes far beyond the original directive: It would allow housing in West Berkeley’s manufacturing zones, stand-alone offices in the Manufacturing Zone, unlimited expansion of master use permit sites, and open up all wholesale trade and warehouse space in the Mixed Use-Light Industry and Mixed Manufacturing Zones to research and development.
The planning commission also recommended increasing maximum building heights from 45 to 75 feet (the Fantasy Building at Parker and 9th is 75 feet high; the new Berkeley Bowl at Heinz and 9th is 40 feet) and increasing building mass and bulk by 50%: there could be three Fantasy Buildings on the same size site.
If approved, the proposed changes would drastically transform all of West Berkeley. Not only would the whole area lose its low-density character, with modest bungalows finding themselves next door to towering offices, condos and labs: the deregulation of land use would drive up land values and drive out West Berkeley’s small and medium manufacturers, wholesalers and warehouses, destroying the city’s vital industrial economy.
It’s highly unusual for the council to hold a public hearing on a complex matter on the same day that the matter first comes before it at a work session. West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies (WeBAIC), which represents Berkeley’s industrial businesses, is questioning the legality of the public hearing. Public hearings require a two-week advance notice; this one, scheduled for January 25, wasn’t even officially finalized until January 18. Moreover, the City has never noticed all West Berkeley businesses and residences about the sweeping changes that are under consideration.
This fast-tracking is consistent with the way in which the planning commission and City staff disregarded the scores of West Berkeley residents and businesspeople who over the past three years attended many meetings and repeatedly spoke out against the inflation of the council’s original call for change. Let’s hope their voices get a better hearing at the council.