The Planning Commission is asking the City Council to save crafts and manufacturing jobs in west Berkeley by enacting a moratorium on the construction and expansion of office space.
The moratorium would prohibit for one year any new office space in what is called the Multiple Use Light Industry District in west Berkeley. Supporters say the increase in office development violates the spirit of the 1993 West Berkeley Plan and is gentrifying what has traditionally been the most economically diverse neighborhood in Berkeley.
The commission approved the recommendation Jan. 24 by a vote of 5-4 with Commissioners Susan Wengraf, Mary Ann McCamant, Betty Hicks and Tim Perry voting in opposition. The City Council is scheduled to consider the moratorium on March 13.
Commissioner Zelda Bronstein who wrote the recommendation with Commission Chair Rob Wrenn, said the moratorium will give the city a chance to examine the West Berkeley Plan and determine if it is being adequately applied to zoning decisions in the MULI.
She said high rents usually paid for office space is encouraging commercial property owners to convert industrial and manufacturing space into offices. In addition she said the lion’s share of new construction has been office space.
According to Bronstein, the trend toward new offices in the MULI has also had a negative impact on traffic in the area because there is a more concentrated work force in offices than in manufacturing.
The effect she said will be for Berkeley to lose a good part of its traditional blue collar character. “Artists, artisans cabinet makers, textile and metal workers, these people can’t pay office rents,” Bronstein said.
Commissioner Susan Wengraf said she voted against the moratorium because she doesn’t believe it’s necessary. She said that the MULI may be losing traditional blue collar jobs, but that the new offices are creating jobs.
“The loss of manufacturing jobs is a regional problem. That’s nothing little Berkeley is going to be able to solve,” she said. “And as far as traffic goes you have to decide, do you want jobs? Well, you’re going to have traffic.”
Berkeley’s zoning map shows the MULI as an S-shaped area that winds through west Berkeley between San Pablo Avenue and Interstate-80. The roughly 70 block area has traditionally been made up of small manufacturers, retail, light industry and office space, punctuated with pockets of residential areas.
According to a Jan. 10 report by Commissioners Bronstein and Wrenn, there was an increase of 330,000 square feet of new and converted office space in the MULI between 1997 and 2000. According to a report by city planning staff, offices are pushing out other uses. “Given that west Berkeley office rents are three times the rents paid by west Berkeley industry, further office development in the MULI can only unduly interfere with light manufacturing.”
Bronstein said an integral part of the West Berkeley Plan was to maintain “good blue collar jobs that would be available to people with little education, which usually have higher pay and better benefits than office jobs,” she said. “The increase in office space clearly threatens those jobs.”
But according to a Jan. 24 staff report, there has been 418,000 square feet of office space created in the MULI since 1993. That is only 61.5 percent of the amount projected in the West Berkeley Plan for 2005.
“The West Berkeley Plan took nine years to put together and was truly a consensus document,” Wengraf said. “If the commissioners think there’s a problem they should call together the stakeholders. Don’t call an emergency, crisis moratorium.”
Dennis Cohen is one of the partners in the Parker Plaza, which consists of offices and light industry. He was involved with the creation of the West Berkeley Plan and said he would support a moratorium if there were evidence that arts and crafts and light industrial businesses are being displaced. “A moratorium is called for in an emergency situation and I don’t think there is any evidence of that.”
Stephen Swanson, a long-time resident of west Berkeley, said there has always been a delicate balance between work space and housing in the area, with many of the people who work there also living there.
“West Berkeley is being pushed towards office use because of its location next to the freeway and because offices make more money,” he said. “The result is going to be gentrification and we don’t want west Berkeley to be like every other no-name freeway stop.”