The Council Majority Builds Fantasyland in West Berkeley

By Becky O'Malley
Wednesday February 23, 2011 - 08:56:00 AM

Well, I almost went to yesterday’s City Council hearing on the future of West Berkeley. For a retired serial entrepreneur like me, the glib discussion by the council majority and their complacent staff of the marvels of what we’re now supposed to call “spinout” businesses is galling. It makes it all sound so easy and natural, just take your campus research project, rent a cute little incubator space and voila! No figures sought or offered as to the probability of success of such ventures or their chances of producing long-term steady jobs for Berkeleyans (slim to none, I’d wager, based on experience). 

But I spoke at the last public hearing on West Berkeley about the folly of sacrificing a vital manufacturing area on the altar of high-tech speculation. It was possible to see the whole sad spectacle last night from the comforts of home, and as my co-watcher pointed out, everything’s been said on the topic already and nothing’s been heard. So I stayed home and watched online, and good thing, too, because my derisive shrieks at some of the more outrageous statements would have disrupted the council meeting. 

First up was a truly superb presentation by economist Linda Hausrath of her research showing an ongoing vigorous demand for industrial sites in the inner Bay Area. She showed convincingly that if such sites are converted to other uses, which is proposed for West Berkeley, industry will move to the fringes of the area, adding to sprawl and taking along jobs which inner city residents would gladly fill. 

The council looked bored, said nothing much. The only question was from Councilmember Gordon Wozniak, who seemed to have misheard or miscalculated a statistic on an early slide, so that he thought that the companies studied produced very few jobs as compared to the amount of space they used. He was off by a factor of ten, surprising in someone whose frequent posture is that of the most scientifically astute councilmember. I couldn’t help thinking of Doctor Science on the old Duck’s Breath Mystery Theatre (“I have a Master’s Degree—in Science!”) 

And it was downhill from there. A major feature of the proposed zoning changes is making it easy to convert warehouse space to research and development space. Amazingly, no one from either the Planning Department or the Economic Development Department had a convincing estimate of how much warehouse space is now available in West Berkeley, even though available warehouse space is a key component of the viability of manufacturing jobs. 

The discussion was a perfect illustration of how Berkeley (like, I fear, many other cities) cheerfully operates in a data-free zone. A new proposal was floated: to allow 80 acres of land to be made available for mixed use master permits covering a city block or more, but there was no agreement on what percentage of available land the number 80 represented—estimates ranged from five percent to 46%, a staggering gap. 

But this didn’t stop the council majority, the ones whose votes are controlled by the Mayor, from voting to give developers a blank check to convert as much space as they wanted to other uses. Max Anderson and Linda Maio made a timid proposal to enable 100,000 square feet to be converted and the results to be analyzed before the balance would be released for conversion, but it went down at the end of the evening in a classic 5-4 vote (Wengraf, Wozniak, Moore, Capitelli, Bates No, Anderson, Maio, Worthington, Arreguin Yes.) 

Oh, and what about the public hearing? Most of the many speakers, well over two-thirds or more, supported the compromise position advanced by the West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies (WEBAIC), the people who are currently operating successful ongoing enterprises in the area. The council essentially paid no attention to what they said, with the exception, of course, of Worthington and Arreguin, and occasionally Anderson and Maio. 

Nothing was mentioned about the private channel that the three Hills councilmembers (Wozniak, Capitelli, Wengraf) have set up for themselves with the Peak Democracy company. On the Open Town Hall ™ poll which the organization has established online, that reliable Berkeley citizen Semi-Anonymous, the lineal descendant of Spiro T. Agnew’s Silent Majority, gave an overwhelmingly positive endorsement to the question “Should the City Council amend West Berkeley zoning to allow conversion of warehouse and/or wholesale spaces to other uses including research and development (R&D)?” Presumably the sponsoring councilmembers were aware of this result, though they didn’t disclose it at the beginning of the meeting as they might have, and it possibly influenced their votes. 

To an old liberal arts graduate like me, the pathetically unscientific data-free comments of council and staff sorted themselves out into three academic categories: 

The literary version comes from Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men: “Tell me about the rabbits, George.” Councilmembers (except Worthington and Arreguin) desperately asked for someone, anyone, to hype the supposed virtues of the staff proposal in the face of abundant contrary evidence cited by the public speakers, to no effect. 

They did get one ridiculous answer from a nouveau entrepreneur, a guy who was once an economic development bureaucrat appointed by Gavin Newsom in San Francisco, who opined that West Berkeley could be another Mission Bay. Max Anderson acerbically pointed out that Mission Bay was a huge and mostly empty former rail yard, while West Berkeley is a lively, well-settled and much smaller industrial area. 

Then there was the anthropology comment, the cargo cult analysis. From Wikipedia: 

“A cargo cult is a religious practice that has appeared in many traditional pre-industrial tribal societies in the wake of interaction with technologically advanced cultures. The cults focus on obtaining the material wealth (the "cargo") of the advanced culture through magic and religious rituals and practices.” Cargo cult thinking was observable most often in the discussion of “community benefits”— the quasi-religious belief that if high tech development comes it will surely be accompanied by goodies like “jobs programs”, “training” and other vague un-quantifiables. The more astute councilmembers asked, repeatedly, if what would be gained would outweigh what would be lost, or if there was any way to measure benefits provided, but they got no coherent response from proponents. 

Finally, there was the film school category, mocked by one speaker opposed to the plan changes: “If you build it, they will come.” The quote is from the 80s sports fantasy movie Field of Dreams.  

Mayor Bates, an old college jock, seems particularly enamored of the dream vision. He and his developer buddies seem to fervently believe that changing building standards to allow construction of 75-foot buildings with 15 feet between floors will bring many new jobs into Berkeley, even though exactly zero evidence has been presented to support that proposition, and Linda Hausrath’s exhaustive data contradicts it. 

Oh well, it all turned out okay in the movie, so maybe it’s possible here. Fittingly, the most vocal proponent of revising building standards in West Berkeley is the spokesperson for Wareham Development, now the proud owner of the old Fantasy Films building. 

This quick and dirty overview is in the nature of a film review—for a more detailed and accurate analysis of what the council’s up to, check back later this week. Or if you’re a real glutton for punishment, the whole thing is now online—if you don’t believe that it could have been as bad as I’ve reported, watch it yourself, if you have nothing better to do. 

Note, if you do watch it, one councilmember’s muttered mention of Egypt, in the context of the very real probability of West Berkeley stakeholders deciding to resort to a referendum if their legitimate fears about some of these proposals are ignored. If our city continues to be run for the benefit of wealthy corporations like Wareham, it could happen.