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Where in the World is West Berkeley? (News Analysis)

By Toni Mester
Friday September 07, 2012 - 04:32:00 PM

At a League of Women Voters meeting, convened in late July to discuss the West Berkeley Project and other ballot measures, a member asked for a definition of West Berkeley. Where exactly is West Berkeley, she wanted to know, west of Sacramento or San Pablo Avenue? The location matters, because when it comes to real estate, geography is fate.

For the purposes of the master use permit ordinance, now known as Measure T, West Berkeley refers to the manufacturing zones (M zones) west of San Pablo Avenue. The ordinance, a revision of the 1993 West Berkeley Plan, relaxes zoning restrictions there to allow for 75 foot buildings of greater mass (floor area ratio) on sites of 4 acres or more and permits new uses like R&D, biotech labs, offices, and denser residential development.

Mayor Tom Bates and other supporters of the measure say it will bring jobs and revenue while opponents believe that the up-zoning will spur land speculation and degrade existing homes and businesses. The environmental report commissioned by the City found that the main impacts will be worsening traffic congestion including ten failing intersections or freeway ramps. 

These conditions will affect the nearby fifty block residential area that is a mix of small apartments buildings, duplexes, and single family homes, many of them historic houses that date back to the 19th century when the area contained small farms and light industry. It’s common to find the shafts of old wells in backyards. 

University Avenue divides the residential areas that lie between 6th Street and San Pablo Avenue into the Rosa Parks district to the south and Ocean View to the north. They are the most diverse neighborhoods in the City, still working class to the core despite a steady pace of gentrification. The outcome on Measure T will have a profound effect on the more than 7200 people who call West Berkeley home. 

The 2010 census shows that the median income of West Berkeley households is estimated at $45,169 in contrast to Berkeley as a whole at $58,617 while the mean is $64,710 compared to $88,216 city-wide. The median indicates the figure where half of the households have a lower income and half higher, and the mean is the arithmetic average. Half the households in West Berkeley live on incomes less than $45,169. The percentage of families living below the poverty level is 10.5%, compared to 6.7% for the entire city. 

The city-wide figures include lower income areas, which skews them downwards. Comparison with representative residential tracts in wealthier areas of the city shows a sharper contrast. The income levels in south and west neighborhoods are roughly similar, but the income disparity widens to the north. A typical hills district reveals a median household income of $109,018 with an average of $138,805 while a flatlands area in the vicinity of Sacramento and Cedar shows a median of $85,645 and an average of $112,632. 

In Berkeley, income rises with elevation. 


Who lives in West Berkeley? 

The area west of San Pablo Avenue is comprised of three census tracts, the most populous being Rosa Parks with a total of 2,794 at the last count, followed by Ocean View with 2,685. A surprisingly large number of people (1,756) reside in the manufacturing zones, many in live-work dwellings, and a small community of 113 live aboard boats at the marina. 

The ethnic mix is diverse with 45% white, 22% black, 11% Asian, a smattering of other groups and 26% Hispanic/Latino spread across the races. In the decade between the last two census counts, West Berkeley lost 429 African Americans, about 21% of its black population, similar to reductions in other integrated neighborhoods. This trend has not generated the public discussion it deserves. If Berkeley wants to retain diversity, officials should address the economic pressures on the African American community that can only increase if Measure T is approved. 

What has caused the black exodus? An initial investigation, including word on the street and discussions with realtors, officials, and affected families reveals a combination of determining factors. The foremost is historical. With the aging and death of home owners who immigrated from the South to work in the shipyards and related industries during World War II, families have sold their homes to cash out on the increase in value, using the money to pay off medical and other debts. Some elders have moved to smaller rentals. Many families are relocating to Hercules, San Pablo, Richmond, and other outlying cities where they can buy a larger and newer house for less than the price of their old Berkeley cottage. 

Some African-Americans, like others, got caught in the jaws of the 2008 financial crisis, losing jobs and forcing them to give up houses that had second mortgages incurred to make repairs and meet other expenses. Faced with foreclosure, they sold. As lending ceased, other owners, saddled with deteriorating properties and no available capital, have sold to flip artists who buy low, renovate, and sell high for a considerable profit. 

West Berkeley properties are in demand. A beautifully restored 1906 large craftsmen with a bungalow in the back on Tenth near Channing recently sold for $815,000 an astounding $141,000 above the asking price. The house had been the home of an African-American family who moved to the city of San Pablo. It’s no wonder that realtors roam the streets, knocking on doors. 

The City benefits from these transactions through the property transfer tax, which dropped precipitously between 2007 and 2009 but is on the rise again. The tax is 1.5% of the sales price, a volatile but important revenue source that the current city budget predicts will top $10 million by next year. In addition to other economic benefits from development, the City has a vested financial interest in raising land values. 

The proposed zoning changes are not yet responsible for real estate trends in the residential neighborhoods, where existing demand has been driving prices up for decades. But some observers and business owners, like Dan Baker of Polyseal Industries, complain that speculation has already begun in the manufacturing zones. The critical determinant in commercial real estate valuation is the “highest and best” use. The more you can build, the more the underlying land is worth. The uses that generate the greatest income are office, market-rate housing, and lab space, with Emeryville as the model. 

Some factors remain constant for all of West Berkeley, and as they say in the trade, the top three are location, location, location. 


Bull’s Eye West Berkeley 

Both the promise and the problem of West Berkeley lie in its central location within the network of Bay Area roadways. It’s a driver’s dream or nightmare. Living here, I can get to Point Reyes or Pescadero Beach in less than 90 minutes, San Jose, Mill Valley or Danville in 45 if traffic allows. When I first moved to West Berkeley 33 years ago, I used to commute by car to many places in San Francisco. As traffic worsened, I consolidated my destinations, and now I only take transit to work. 

It is traffic that clouds the horizon of potential development and the environmental impact report (EIR) of the West Berkeley Project that belies its promise of smart growth. After spending more than $200,000 on the EIR, which includes an exhaustive traffic study, most of the City Council has chosen to completely ignore its dire findings. The significant and unavoidable impacts total 33, and 23 of them are traffic, mostly unacceptable delays at intersections and freeway interchanges that include dangerous back-ups into the I-80 mainstream and spillovers onto arterials like San Pablo and Ashby Avenues. Ignorance is bliss or as T.S. Eliot wrote, “human kind cannot bear very much reality.” 

Instead the Mayor and his supporters continue to beat the drum for growth and envision an idealistic future scenario in which clean bio-technology labs blossom, its worker bees happily crowd into compact 600 square foot apartments, everybody walks or takes public transit, and West Berkeley thrives like a green and tidy mini-Copenhagen or Manhattan. 

This is not what the EIR projects. Between now and the time they cast a vote on Measure T, the citizens of Berkeley should actually read the study they paid for, at least the summary of the CEQA findings, and then they can echo the words of Leonard Cohen, “get ready for the future: it is murder.” 

In reality, the traffic on the four mile stretch of I-80 through Berkeley is the thickest congestion in the Bay Area, and it’s only going to get worse, with or without the West Berkeley Project. The State does not have the money to build much needed new interchanges at University and Gilman. There is no way to adequately improve the congestion on Ashby Avenue, which like San Pablo is a State highway, short of widening it by first taking private homes by eminent domain, and nobody has the money for that. 

In contrast to what a League of Women Voters officer told me, families do not want to live in tiny apartments like they do in Manhattan, a person by the way who lives in a 2500 square foot single family home in the hills valued over $1m. Families want to live in houses, and because they do, commute traffic from the suburbs into West Berkeley will increase with development. The African-American exodus has contributed to this flow because many have kept their jobs in town as well as church and other social connections. 

Public transit is poor in West Berkeley, especially east-west. The buses on University and San Pablo do not run to the suburbs, and BART shuttles, though important, only provide service for those commuters who live near BART stations. 

West Berkeley cannot be built like Manhattan or even like our own downtown because it lacks an underground system of transportation. The risk of creating dense housing in West Berkeley is that nobody can predict or dictate where its residents will work. The centrality of the location attracts drivers who need to reach multiple work destinations: carpenters, salespeople, actors, artists, consultants, and independent contractors of all kinds. 

The census tells us that almost 1500 West Berkeley residents commute by single occupancy vehicle for an average of 25 minutes. The geography of the East Bay– like the conflicted Middle East at the crossroad of continents – insures that this number will only increase with development. 

West Berkeley is a target, but not a moving one. It is a fixed bulls-eye within waves of ever-widening and worsening traffic, and the impacts of that traffic will be felt by residents with few financial resources to fight back. 

Toni Mester is a resident of West Berkeley.