The Berkeley Planning Commission’s usual majority resorted to skullduggery on May 19. They had to, to override the opposition. The only interest groups on their side are realtors and big-property-owning developers. They have money but not many votes. The opposition are a large group of active residents, the Ecology Center, the Sierra Club, the industrial interest group WEBAIC and various of its members, and the Northern California Recycling Association. The votes may be on the opposition’s side, and the city may get the chance to see if they are.
The overall issue is the future of West Berkeley – again. This time the Planning Commission majority came into the well-attended special meeting with a pre-written resolution to allow research and development into spaces now protected for manufacturing, warehouses, and Material Recovery Enterprises. The recycling industry is expanding, and the county recycling agency reports that startups have a hard time finding industrial sites. Berkeley industrial property has an extremely low vacancy rate; some empty properties are simply awaiting hoped-for zoning changes.
The commission took public comment for awhile, then interrupted the comments to pass their resolution by 10:00 PM without explaining the time urgency. Then they resumed testimony so the public could weigh in even though the issues had just been voted on. A few people picked their jaws up off the floor and walked out. Others stayed and shook their heads.
The commission pointed out that this vote, like others, was a “straw vote.” The audience laughed. The vote gives direction to staff, whose job is to develop zoning language to implement the expressed will.
This action effectively removes industrial zoning protections. It piles on top of the majority’s “straw votes” to increase building heights (from 4 stories to 7-9) and masses (a fourfold increase); reduce parking requirements; and allow developers to get a single Master Use Permit (MUP) covering many tenants if they can buy up whole blocks or assemble large parcels that aren’t even contiguous. There could be an unlimited number of MUPs. The combination of changes could produce what one set of architectural analysts have called a nine-story “West Berkeley Wall” along North Waterfront Park.
The commission hasn’t officially adopted the overall plan yet, and staff haven’t finished writing zoning language. But the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) is already in. It projects multiple “significant and unavoidable” impacts. Comments were due by March 10. The Planning Department’s website page on the West Berkeley Project says “The work program seeks incremental changes to the zoning ordinance, not wholesale changes to the West Berkeley Plan.” But the Planning Commission is driving a whole new vehicle under the radiator cap. Staff also say they are finished meeting with stakeholder groups, so public participation may be as over as testimony presented after a decision. People can show up for the meetings anyway, of course.
The West Berkeley Plan became part of the General Plan years ago after citizens and industrial stakeholders finally agreed on it after eight years of wrangling. One of its chief purposes was to establish protected areas in an industrial preserve so industry wouldn’t be displaced by wealthy competitors such as offices, condos, retail, and research facilities. Industries and artisans need large spaces at low per-square-foot prices, but they were deemed to be valuable to the community because they offer good blue- and green-collar jobs. They add diversity to the economic ecosystem, preventing disaster from boom-and-bust cycles, such as the dot-com bust that damaged nearby cities economically. They also make equipment and supplies for other local enterprises. Rising property values and rents could force them out.
But in today’s new regime the base tension is financial, and it’s industry versus anything else that that might bring more tax revenue to the City. Council Member Darryl Moore once told WEBAIC “Yes, it’s all about the money.” Mayor Bates once told WEBAIC that even though “some people don’t want to acknowledge” that the University is at the heart of the city’s economic structure, he thinks it is. The Planning Commission’s West Berkeley proposals would enshrine that opinion.
A couple of years ago the drive was to build condos, and up they rose. They generate property and transfer taxes. They’re not all full though, and at least one major unfinished project is for sale. Bad timing. Then there was the drive for retail along Gilman and Ashby to produce sales taxes. This move was largely stopped to protect industry and prevent overwhelming traffic, and besides there’s already some retail there, and now people aren’t shopping as much anyway.
Next there were the zoning overlays to let auto dealers locate in the industrial zones, or Berkeley would lose current sales tax revenue. The overlay in South Berkeley was prevented. But the one centered around the Gilman freeway exit was approved, except for the recycling and garbage transfer station’s nine acres. After the fight, though, the car industry fell into the Great Recession’s pothole, and the push has stopped. Bad timing again.
Undaunted, this time the Planning Department wants to make way for research and development. This is part of the stampede to provide space for spinoffs from university research, including biofuels funding from BP and the Department of Energy and any other wealthy funders that researchers can find. BP, of course, may soon be less wealthy depending on fines and penalties from the Gulf disaster.
The West Berkeley Project has been moving at an ever-quickening pace since before January 2008, and now the Planning Commission is laying down railroad track aggressively. Cranky West Berkeley residents and industries have talked before about an initiative. If they were to qualify one for the ballot, it could hold up all implementation until a citywide vote. That might be on the same 2012 ballot as the next mayoral election.
Mary Lou Van Deventer is Operations Manager of Urban Ore, which is a member of WEBAIC, and she is on the board of directors of the Northern California Recycling Association. Urban Ore’s property value would rise if the proposed changes went through.