More than 60 people lined up in City Council chambers Tuesday to talk about proposed zoning changes in West Berkeley. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

So many people came to the City Council meeting Tuesday night to talk about a new plan that could put 100-foot towers in West Berkeley that they could not all fit into the chamber.

Artisans, manufacturers, businessmen, large developers and long-time residents thronged into the main room, stood in the hallway outside, and gathered on the ground floor around a remote projection of the meeting until 10:30 pm. More than 60 people testified about the proposed changes to the area of Berkeley west of San Pablo Avenue.

The City Council last considered the West Berkeley plan — which aims to expand the area’s manufacturing base to include more green businesses, R&D, and housing uses — in June 2011. At that time, councilmembers instructed planning staff to study height limits, residential density and other issues more closely and prepare a supplemental environmental review.

The main thrust of Tuesday’s discussion had to do with “MUPs,” or Master Use Permits, for swaths of land as large as five acres or one city block. There are at least nine such areas in West Berkeley, including the Fantasy site on 10th Street, the Peerless Lighting property on Fourth Street, and the old American Soil property on Bolivar Drive. The planning staff has created a plan that will allow developers flexibility in how they use the tracts in exchange for providing more benefits to the city, Wendy Cosin, a planner, told the council.

Councilmembers listen to planner Wendy Cosin (on computer screen) talk about proposed changes to West Berkeley. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Many of these large tracts straddle different zoning areas (such as a manufacturing-only area, one that only allows residential, one that is mixed use light industrial.) The new plan would permit developers to sort of mix and match where they place housing and new manufacturing.

Most of West Berkeley currently has a 35-foot height limit. The new plan would raise that to 75 feet in certain areas, and allow developers in the large tracts to build structures as tall as 100 feet, but only if they are absolutely needed for manufacturing or production purposes, according to Cosin.

In exchange for this flexibility, the developers would have to provide benefits to the community, such as retaining or building affordable workspaces for artisans, providing job-training programs, and upgrading the area’s transportation network.

More clarity and protections

Cosin told the council that this version of the West Berkeley Plan and the supplemental EIR, which will be released to the public at the end of the week, provides more clarity and protections than earlier versions of the plan. For example, the SEIR specifies that any project “will not unreasonable create shadows upon, degrade the existing visual quality or character of, or access to Aquatic Park.”

When a developer wants to build out his tract, he or she will still have to go through the entire review and public hearing process, which will give the city additional opportunities to shape a project, said Cosin.

A number of developers and representatives from the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce urged the council to adopt the plan, saying that the changes will put Berkeley in a position to attract more green and technology companies. They also said that concerns about the incompatibility of housing and manufacturing sitting side by side are overstated because that already happens in West Berkeley.

“The world is changing and Berkeley has everything it takes to be at the center of it,” said Trina Ostrander, community relations’ manager for Bayer.

But the vast majority of the speakers opposed the plan as written. They expressed concern that an influx of high-priced housing would drive up property values, which could threaten the livelihood of 7,000 workers and 1,000 artists. Only 4% of Berkeley is reserved for industrial and arts production, and it is important to reserve some area for manufacturing, they said.

The plan, critics argued, would increase neighborhood tension, since putting manufacturing and housing side-by-side is incompatible. Traffic, already bad, would become unbearable.

“Every bit of West Berkeley is in play here,” said Cathleen Quandt, an architect on Fifth Street. “Using green to describe massive zoning changes is pure marketing.”

Adolfo Cabral holds a rendering of buildings towering over Aquatic Park, which he fears will happen in new plan. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

“What you have here is a one-size fits all MUP,” said Toni Mester, a resident. “It’s not going to work. It’s putting us all on edge. People are talking about selling their houses. It’s creating conflict that is not necessary. Please, bring us together again.”

Some felt the plan had been handcrafted to serve the needs of developers rather than residents.

“People have attempted to delegitimize the voice of the residents and businesses of West Berkeley with patronizing statements that we are afraid of change,” said Barbara Bowman. “We are not afraid of change. We are afraid of the devastation of our neighborhood.”

At the end of the two and a half hour public hearing, City councilmembers asked a number of questions of planning staff. The councilmembers will get answers to those questions May 8, as well as an opportunity to review the supplemental EIR. The City Council will vote on this portion of the West Berkeley plan on May 15, said Mayor Tom Bates.

The increase in residential density and allowing housing in manufacturing zones were issues that troubled some council members. The Planning Commission, which vetted the plan in March, voted 7-1, with one abstention, to turn down planning staff’s recommendation to allow 75-foot residential towers MUP projects. The Planning Commission thought that new housing should instead be concentrated along San Pablo and University Avenues, according to Jim Novosel, a co-chair of the commission. Some city councilmembers seemed to agree.

“Death knell of industrial sector”

“It will create tremendous market pressure to create residential units with great views that will essentially spell the death knell of the industrial sector,” said City Councilmember Linda Maio.

Councilmembers Susan Wengraf and Darryl Moore said they wanted the plan to be more specific about what community benefits developers would have to provide. Moore is interested in adding details about hiring locally, paying a prevailing wage, and funding job training.

Kriss Worthington said the community opposition seemed so strong and that there were so many troubling elements of the plan that it should be sent back to the Planning Commission for further review.

“How did we get to this strange position?” said Worthington. “How did we get to this position where the overwhelming majority of the residents of West Berkeley have come here to say ‘don’t do this this way’. How did we get to a position where the overwhelming majority of small business owners in West Berkeley said ‘don’t do this to me,’?”

Citizen groups sue city over West Berkeley proposals [05.13.11]
City takes first step towards adopting West Berkeley plan [03.24.11]
Slim Council majority for West Berkeley zoning [02.23.11]
Council considers dramatic changes in West Berkeley [01.25.11]

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...