Manufacturing businesses and vacancies on Carleton Street in West Berkeley/Photo: John Osborn

By John C. Osborn

The Berkeley City Council held the first of two public hearings Tuesday about proposed changes for West Berkeley that could drastically alter the landscape of the city’s economy in years to come.

The changes would relax protections that have been in place for years over what types of business the city are allowed within the West Berkeley industrial area, particularly those focused on research and development. But there are concerns that the proposed changes could lead to an expansion of residential development and could dramatically increase property values to the point of pushing out small businesses.

Citing remarks made at Berkeleyside’s Local Business Forum this week by Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson, Berkeley’s Mayor Tom Bates commented on the rapidly changing economic framework of the 21st century, where entire business operations can be organized online among a number of participants worldwide. He specifically talked about the need to tap the city’s greatest resources: UC Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. Both institutions are churning out talented and hungry entrepreneurs who are flocking elsewhere to start up businesses. LBNL is also scouting for a second campus site with West Berkeley as an outside contender for its choice.

“This whole thing is changing so rapidly and dramatically it’s hard to keep up with,” Bates said. “If you don’t change, you die.”

The changes being proposed have been more than three years in the making. The Planning Commission has held a number of meetings over the past two years to hash out recommendations on how facilitate development of large industrial properties and encourage growth for research and development, while ensuring that the small businesses currently located there don’t get pushed out.

Concerns have been over talent from the city’s education institutions leaving for places such as Emeryville and Palo Alto to found technology start-ups. Meanwhile, West Berkeley has not reached its projected employment of 3,100 as outlined in its plan; it has been losing jobs over the years, especially in manufacturing. The final product of these meetings was a set of proposals that would modify the zoning and plans for the West Berkeley area; the Planning Commission adopted the recommendations 7-2 on October 13, 2010.

Among the most significant changes being proposed are modifications to areas of West Berkeley currently locked into certain types of development. Currently, parcels are set up for manufacturing, mixed-use light industrial, mixed-use residential, and mixed manufacturing. Allowable uses include manufacturing, wholesale, warehouse, and material recovery, and protections exist to ensure that any business that doesn’t fit that mold cannot take root there.

The city gives out what are called Master Use Permits to dictate control over developments in West Berkeley. Similar to a conditional use permit, an MUP requires a public process before being approved, and it is used to negotiate certain terms for the project to be approved.

Under the proposed changes, the city would offer perks to developers in exchange for carrots for the community through these MUPs. Perks could include expanding the list of allowable uses within West Berkeley, relaxing certain space protections such as height limits, and allowing for increased development potential. Community benefits could come in the form of expanded job training and placement opportunities, development of non-automotive transportation systems, and preservation of the artisan community.

Although the plan proposes allowing five new uses in these protected areas, only one — research and development — has the greatest potential to encourage new business growth, and is also the source of the plan’s strongest criticism.

Berkeley’s Economic Development Director Michael Caplan said emerging technology is the face of the 21st century economy, and that the city had an R&D pipeline via the university and laboratory. He said the city is missing out, with between 15 to 25 licensed technicians trained in a variety of emerging techs — such as nanoscience or building material science — leaving every year to establish start-ups elsewhere throughout the Bay Area.

“This is very important for the West Berkeley economy,” Caplan said during the study session before the hearing.” (Emerging technology) is a classic high value-added industry.”

Rick Auerbach, a representative of the West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies, questioned whether the proposed changes would leave artisans without safeguards during the study session. He was concerned that the changes would deindustrialize the area over time, and raise rent prices to the point of pushing out businesses that couldn’t pay.

This comes from concern that R&D businesses are a mixture of office and industrial, and the nature of the business may increase property values in the areas where they are located.

Auerbach said there was plenty of space currently available to R&D companies, and that jobs not requiring college degrees are not meeting demand, while jobs requiring such degrees over over-employing.

“It’s completely unnecessary,” Auerbach said of the changes, “and destructive to our vital economy and equity.”

Chris Farlow, for the West Berkeley Property Owners, disagreed. During the study session, he explained how difficult it is to start and maintain a business in Berkeley, and that the changes could provide the incentives needed to attract new businesses. He added the city had a “monstrous opportunity” in trying to land the planned second Lawrence Berkeley Lab in West Berkeley.

“Protectionism has been one of the key barriers to Berkeley growth,” Farlow said.

At the regular City Council meeting, where about 45 members of the public lined up to speak on the issue, several West Berkeley business owners spoke of how existing zoning protections had helped them grow their companies. They included Michael McEwen of McEwen Lighting who is moving from Emeryville to a building on 9th Street, and Tom Adams of Adams & Chittenden Glass on 8th Street.

Meghan Pressman, Associate Managing Director of Berkeley Rep, which recently moved its main operations from downtown to West Berkeley, spoke of the theatre’s excitement about being part of such a vibrant community. She also stressed the need for the arts to be an integral part of the new plan.

Michael McBride, a pastor at The Way Christan Center, said this issue wasn’t about being anti-development or being pro-development, but about providing jobs and opportunities to the community’s most vulnerable families. And, as the process moves forward, he said there had to be clear and viable community benefits in whatever agreements are made.

“As a pastor I know,” McBride said, “the devil is always in the details.”

The second hearing on the West Berkeley plan will be on February 8. Visit the city of Berkeley’s website for agendas, videos and podcasts of Tuesday’s special meeting and the regular City Council meeting at which hearings were also conducted.

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