Developers can buy property in West Berkeley, jack up the rents and force out long-time tenants and nobody can stop them.
While there may be little recourse for the filmmakers who work out of the Fantasy Building—recently purchased by Wareham Development—Economic Development Director Michael Caplan says there may be a way for the city to help artists in the long-term and control development in West Berkeley.
A tool city planners might use to bypass current area zoning requirements would be “planned district zoning,” which—if approved by the City Council—would allow the city to negotiate with developers for uses restricted under current zoning rules in return for community advantages.
“You could have a project that reflects broad community values,” Caplan said.
The idea could benefit artists and West Berkeley residents who want a voice in the development of the area in which they live and work, said John Curl, a woodworker who works in West Berkeley and co-chairs West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies, which advocates for artists and local businesses in West Berkeley.
But the planned district zoning also could be just another way of giving developers what they want, he said.
As part of a $500,000 economic development package approved by the City Council in February, a six-month planner will be hired for $85,000 to write the new more flexible zoning laws that will eventually go to the council for approval. The planned district zoning described in this story is just one possible change that could be recommended by the new city employee, likely to be hired in two months or so.
In negotiations with a developer, the city could get permanently affordable artist studios, protection of historie resources or “green” building, Caplan said.
The question, however, is whether such negotiations will work in favor of the community as Caplan describes it—or of the developer, whose goal is profit.
Such “horse trading” is not unknown in Berkeley. One example is its use at Berkeley’s downtown Gaia building: the developer was allowed to build two stories higher than zoning permitted in exchange for the community gaining “cultural uses.” That project, however, is heading to court due to a dispute over the extent to which the agreement requires cultural uses.
Caplan said fears that West Berkeley’s negotiated projects would end up as the Gaia project has are unfounded. The projects proposed for overlay zoning “would have to be highly vetted,” he said.
Curl said it is a positive thing if community needs are taken into consideration. “The goal [in the West Berkeley Plan] is to maintain a mix of uses” and maintain the diversity of the community—economically, socially, racially and ethnically, he said. The current zoning was written to prevent overdevelopment of the area.
“The purpose of zoning is to moderate market forces so that they don’t have a destructive impact” such as gentrification, Curl said.
One cannot judge in advance what the advantages or disadvantages of planned district zoning will be. “You have to see what the actual proposals are,” Curl said.
The planned district zoning, however, precludes a proactive approach on the part of the community. “People can only be reactive,” Curl said. What the community would get from the developer would have to be fought for project by project.
How this kind of zoning actually plays out is “where leadership is important,” Caplan said. And that, in part, is what Curl worries about.
Does staff have the community or the developer at heart in negotiations? Because of their training, “staff works closely with developer,” Curl said, adding, moreover that Mayor Tom Bates has opened the door to development in West Berkeley.
While in the 80s, developers pushed for office space, today they want to promote residential and retail, he said. Laboratory space is also in demand. Pressure to develop could lead to gentrification and a complete social and economic change that would affect the entire city, he said.
Both Caplan and Planning Director Dan Marks pointed to the proposed Douglas Herst development at the 5.5 acre former Peerless Lighting at Allston Way and Fifth Street as the impetus for planned district zoning. In a recent commentary published by the Planet, Curl pointed to initial attempts at trade-offs with Herst’s proposed development:
“Herst … want[s] to change the West Berkeley zoning ordinance so they can replace recently [vacated] manufacturing space with seven-story corporate and residential buildings. They want to ‘blur’ the distinctions between residential, office, commercial and industrial. As a ‘trade-off’ for changing the zoning code, Herst said, he would include 20 percent low-income artist live/work housing, along with 80 percent of the units at market rate for anybody. And here’s the kicker: The city already requires 20 percent inclusionary low-income in all housing projects, exactly what Herst is proposing.”
New residential projects are not now permitted in much of West Berkeley. “Gentrification is the guiding development policy of this administration,” Curl wrote.