Workers at Artwork Foundry on Heinz fill casts with molten bronze/Photo: John Osborn

By John C. Osborn

After three marathon public hearings, a narrow majority of the Berkeley City Council supports lifting protections on zoning in West Berkeley.

The council voted 5-4 Tuesday night to have staff report back on impacts within 30 days once 100,000 sq. ft. of protected warehouse and manufacturing space have been converted to new uses. Four members — Jesse Arreguin, Max Anderson, Kriss Worthington and Linda Maio — opposed the measure, seeking instead a plan that would set a cap of 100,000 sq. ft. for changes to currently protected properties. The impact study — supported by Mayor Tom Bates, Darryl Moore, Gordon Wozniak, Laurie Capitelli and Susan Wengraf — was an attempt to answer concerns about changes.

The vote last night is the first of many stages that will lead to a council vote on a final ordinance.

The council has been hearing testimony on whether to modify the West Berkeley Plan to allow a greater number of uses on protected industrial spaces, most controversially research and development, and to change rules on Master Use Permits (MUP), including allowing buildings to be up to 75 feet high, increasing limits on floor area ratio and relaxing parking restrictions in return for community benefits. A number of artisans and manufacturers in the district have opposed the changes, concerned that potentially rising rents could push them out. Business interests want to allow for broader development and less regulation, particularly encouraging emerging technology start-ups.

One of the empty industrial sites in West Berkeley/Photo: John Osborn

The councilmembers representing West Berkeley are divided on the issue. Darryl Moore, who represents District 2 which covers Southwest Berkeley, said he couldn’t support an arbitrary cap on how much protected space should be opened. He wants to reach the 100,000 sq. ft. “milestone” and evaluate what effects lifting protections has on the district.

“We can see whether the bogeyman has chased all the businesses out of West Berkeley,” Moore said.

In contrast, Maio, who represents District 1 in Northwest Berkeley, said she was not a fan of opening all of the protected zoning, particularly when key data on the district is missing from the debate.

“How do we get to making a rational decision about moving ahead without all the data?” Maio asked.

The data in question pertain to how many square feet of protected zoning there is in Berkeley, and how much industrial zoning is actually warehouse space. There is confusion over records the city maintains and data supplied by property brokers.

The move by the council falls short of what one vocal stakeholder group — West Berkeley Artisan and Industrial Companies (WEBAIC) — have been pushing for: only lifting a quarter of the protected zoning as a way to safeguard their small businesses from potential consequences of R&D entering the district.

Rick Auerbach, who represents WEBAIC, said that there is plenty of space available for R&D without lifting any protections in what is called the six Legacy MUP sites, which include the American Soil Products site along Aquatic Park and the Zaentz Media Center on Carleton and 10th Streets. He is also concerned about expanding MUPs.

“Opening up all protected warehouse and wholesale trade space and vastly expanding the MUPs beyond what is agreed to is unnecessary and destructive,” Auerbach said.

Councilmember Laurie Capitelli said although he respects WEBAIC, its call for compromise ignores the years of debate and negotiation in the Planning Commission over the proposed changes.

“There have been many compromises along the way,” Capitelli said. “There aren’t these two extremes.”

Dan Banker of Poly Seal Industries, a company that makes molded rubber products, argued that the protections proved successful for his business, which had its best year in 2010 and has market presence in 12 countries. He’s concerned about the effects of lifting those protections.

“[West Berkeley] will lose economic diversity,” Banker said, “and the opportunity to participate in innovation.”

Deborah Oropallo, a West Berkeley resident and artist, criticized what she calls “stonewalling” by WEBAIC, recalling the years-long battle over Berkeley Bowl West, which is now a fixture in the community. She supported the proposed changes.

“There’s clearly two groups here,” Oropallo said. “There are the ones that represent the past, and the ones that represent the future.”

There are a number of issues still before the council, including Aquatic Park, residential units in MUPs and how to approach community benefits from MUPs. The council returns on March 22 to begin the long process of hashing out the specifics, and figuring out what language will be drafted into an ordinance that could ultimately change the landscape of West Berkeley.

But the task before the council is complex, and many councilmembers expressed their interest in striking a balance between the businesses there now, and the businesses that could be there tomorrow.

“How do we preserve what we have that is working,” councilmember Max Anderson said, “and how do we lay the groundwork for innovation and entrepreneurship? How do we do it without doing violence to [businesses] in West Berkeley?”

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