Public Comment

West Berkeley Project Worries Environmentalists

By Toni Mester
Sunday February 06, 2011 - 09:44:00 AM

As the planning effort to revise West Berkeley zoning approaches its second public hearing before the City Council on Tuesday February 8, the environmental impacts of increased development on Aquatic Park, the aesthetics of scale, traffic, and air quality are emerging as community concerns. 

At the end of the first hearing on January 25, Councilman Kriss Worthington voiced the rising alarm among neighbors, visitors, and ecologists that the beauty and health of the 100 acre park, its lagoon and open space, will be compromised by buildings that could rise to 75 feet along its eastern edge. 

The Council should be concerned, he said about “how close and how much is going to happen” if the current building allowances are approved, and added “We should be very careful about what impacts we have on Aquatic Park.” He suggested that language protecting Aquatic Park be “separated out” as a special focus. 

The DEIR (Draft Environmental Impact Report) for the West Berkeley Project, executed by the consultants Lamphier-Gregory of Oakland, ignored Aquatic Park, which features a play area for children, picnic sites, boating facilities, and a hiking and biking path for the human population as well as home and migratory abode for ducks, grebes, egrets, terns, herons and sandpipers, according to a 2004 study of the bird population by Avocat Research for the City. 

In response to my DEIR comments, the consultants admitted to the following potentially significant impacts on Aquatic Park: change in visual character, project-specific shadows falling onto public open space or recreational areas, possible exposure of sensitive receptors to toxic air contaminants and particulate matter, odors, and excessive noise levels. They did not elaborate. (FEIR page C&R-89) 

Architects Cathleen Quandt and Patrick Sheahan, a married team who have voiced the concerns of the MUR (mixed use residential zone) property owners, submitted numerous photos of the houses in the MUR as well as simulations of the impacts of 75 foot buildings on the visual character of West Berkeley, including changes to the aesthetics of Aquatic Park. The MUR, where small business and houses co-exist, runs along Fifth and Sixth Streets and some blocks south of Dwight Way; it is usually characterized by planning staff as “a buffer zone” between the purely residential blocks (R-1A) and the manufacturing zones. 

In a letter that accompanied their numerous pictures, Ms. Quandt told the Council that such buildings “are simply too tall and out of scale” with the surrounding neighborhoods. The current development standards for the MUR are a height of 35’ and a maximum FAR (floor area ratio) of one-and-a-half and for the manufacturing zones, a height of 45’ and an FAR of two. 

The floor-area ratio controls the mass of a building, the building floor area, parking excluded, related to the area of the lot; the higher the FAR the more massive the building. An FAR of two, the current standard in the manufacturing zones, means the building is allowed twice the area of the lot. 

The proposed building standards for the potential nearby MUP (Master Use Permit) sites would be 75 feet, increased from the current height in the manufacturing zones of 45 feet, and an FAR of three. Sites that would qualify for MUPs must be four or more contiguous acres or a complete block under single ownership. Most West Berkeley blocks are approximately three acres. 

Ed Moore, a West Berkeley attorney and long-time activist in waterfront and other planning issues, echoed concerns about aesthetics of scale at the public hearing, asking the Council to consider what the area would “look like in one hundred years because that’s how long the buildings are going to last.” 

The effects on air quality from construction pollutants and emissions from increased traffic have been noticeably missing from the public discussion to date. So too has the EIR’s voluminous traffic study that details vehicle use along residential streets such as Dwight Way, 6th Street, Allston Way, Hearst, and Delaware, as well as the major arteries of Gilman, University, Ashby and San Pablo Avenues, which are already congested at peak hours with several “ failing” intersections that have unacceptable delays. The traffic study shows at least a 20% increase in evening traffic up Ashby Avenue and Dwight Way within the next twenty years. Traffic along San Pablo Avenue, measured at Virginia Street, will more than double in that time, even without the project. 

West Berkeley neighbors will be most impacted by the increased traffic, as most streets are residential. According to the 2000 census, approximately 1300 people resided in the MUR and another 5600 lived in the R-1A zones west of San Pablo Avenue that are surrounded by the manufacturing zones. 768 minors under 18 and 369 elders over 65 lived in this diverse working class neighborhood that has become a magnet for young people. 

We are awaiting the new census figures to assess the changes that would indicate gentrification, a trend that could be accelerated by the West Berkeley Project. The old figures indicate a mixed-race neighborhood with 39% white, 29% African-American, 14% “other” (Hispanic), 9% Asian, and the rest native, mixed race, and Pacific Islander. A marked increase in the young white population in West Berkeley could contribute social pressure towards conversion of warehouse and manufacturing to R&D and other uses that require a higher education. 

Whatever its demographic changes, this community as well as neighborhoods to the east of San Pablo Avenue will be most affected by the environmental impacts of increased development. It remains to be seen whether neighbors will have the opportunity to learn more about the proposals and to respond. No hearings have been held in West Berkeley such as the special session that the Council held at Emerson School to consider the controversial BRT (Bus Rapid Transit). Many of the participants fear that the public hearing will be terminated this week and further discussions held in private meetings. 

The final compromises would then be hashed out behind the scenes in a process that has been criticized by many participants. Whereas the original West Berkeley Plan was crafted in sessions when all the players – developers, employees, business owners, and residents - sat at the table together, in the West Berkeley Project the constituent groups with their various interests have held separate discussions with City planners in what was termed “stakeholders’” meetings, mostly West Berkeley commercial property owners and developers and WEBAIC, the West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies, whose staffer Rick Auerbach has been the chief spokesperson for retaining the industrial protections of the West Berkeley Plan. 

Residents were excluded from this process until last year when the inhabitants of the MUR insisted on being included. Those who live in the R-1A were never invited to participate in the stakeholders’ process or even noticed about the proposed zoning changes. Those of us from residential West Berkeley who attended the West Berkeley Project tour and the subsequent Planning Commission meetings were given mere minutes to voice our concerns. 

If you too feel excluded from this process, please attend the public hearing on Tuesday night, voice your concerns, and ask for the hearing to be continued so that the public can catch up on the nature of these zoning changes and their impacts, which will be felt throughout Berkeley, not just on its western edge. 


Toni Mester represented the Sierra Club in the Waterfront zoning effort and the Bayer Development Agreement.