West Berkeley Zoning Changes Stir Concerns from Neighbors

By Richard Brenneman
Monday June 15, 2009 - 10:49:00 PM

With changes in West Berkeley zoning rules on the Planning Commission’s slate, residents of the area say they want a seat at the stakeholders’ table. 

Several residents of the city’s only area zoned for manufacturing and light industry appeared at the June 10 commission meeting to say they wanted their own representation in discussions that could lead to a new process for building on larger parcels. 

Another 50-plus members of the Fifth & Channing Neighborhood Group signed a petition questioning some of the proposals floated for the permit process to ease development on larger parcels. 

Two trends have emerged from speakers who have addressed the commission with alternative visions of the rezoning process, which aims to make it easier to shift and rearrange uses within existing developments and to allow stage development through a master use permit (MUP) process. 

While James Bohar of the international real estate brokerage Cushman Wakefield argued that the city should not limit development to a fixed number of sites, Rick Auerbach and other activists from West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies (WEBAIC) said that opening up all plots of three acres or more to the MUP process could decimate existing and future manufacturing businesses. 

Auerbach said 25 or 30 three-acre parcels would consume 40 percent of the existing land zoned for manufacturing (M, MM and MULI). 

The existing West Berkeley Plan only calls out six parcels, described by city staff as so-called “legacy sites.” 

One concern that has worried neighbors is a proposal to allow parcels developed under the MUP process to house buildings of up to 90 feet in height, which members of the Fifth & Channing group described as “excessive” and “grossly out of proportion.” 

Their other concerns included proposals to reduce the setbacks between new structures and existing residences, waivers of parking and a call to double the floor-to-area ratio of new structures, which would significantly increase building mass. 

The City Council, which is behind the push for what was originally dubbed “West Berkeley Flexibility,” has also pushed the commission to “fast track” some aspects of zoning in advance of the longer-term project of defining the MUP and its application to West Berkeley. 

Among the possibilities presented to commissioners were opening up manufacturing and industrial zones to child care facilities with a staff-issued administrative use permit (AUP), approval of incidental retail in MULI zones with an AUP, allowing for interchangeability of manufacturing, warehouse, whole and recycling uses of existing and newly constructed spaces and reducing parking requirements. 

“We’re very concerned about the scale of what you’re projecting,” said 30-year West Berkeley resident Edward Moore. “You’re going to change the whole character of what people have built.” 

Jim Morris, another Cushman Wakefield representative, said that while “I sense a lot of fear from many people,” the system would maintain “a broad level of discretion which the city can inflict on any developer.” 

But WEBAIC activist John Curl, a woodworker, said “the process has taken a wrong-way turn when at least 25 parcels have already been identified” as possible MUP sites, “and more all the time. It would be a disaster for industry in West Berkeley.” 

Commissioner Victoria Eisen said she was concerned that “we don’t always get the sense of what the stakeholder groups have said until they come here.” The stakeholders, to date primarily property- and business-owners, have been meeting with city planning staff. 

Eisen said that while discussion had gone “far beyond those six sites, the one Berkeley plan I have heard the most support for is the West Berkeley Plan. 

Commissioner Patti Dacey said that while the city could not limit development to specific sites, it could limit the total number of MUPs allowed, which would be one way to preserve existing manufacturing space and the city’s growing recycling industry. 

Commissioners are scheduled to take up proposed fast track zoning language at the June 24 meeting and the staff and stakeholders are slated to meet again June 29 and July 2 to discuss both the fast tracked changes and recommendations for defining the MUP.