Diego Carreterero-Frades and his son Max in West Berkeley. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Diego Carreterero-Frades and his wife Irenka Dominguez-Pareto moved into their West Berkeley home 18 months ago. They were looking for an affordable space with a yard and a place to have a child.

Their son Max was born nine months ago and on Tuesday Carreterero-Frades was pushing his stroller throughout the neighborhood. As he walked, he passed 100-year old Victorian houses, newly renovated duplexes clad in corrugated steel siding, automobile shops, and industrial plants making a variety of goods.

“We like the mix,” said Carreterero-Frades, who is a software engineer at EFI in Silicon Valley. His wife is a PhD candidate in the UC Berkeley School of Education. “It’s an industrial area, but it’s transforming. There are small businesses, small lofts. We like this style. It’s affordable to us and it’s a nice neighborhood.”

The eclectic mix of uses in West Berkeley is part of its charm. The question of how to retain it or how to build upon it and make it better is at the heart of changes being considered for the area.

Tonight, Berkeley City Council will hold a second public hearing at 7:00 pm on the West Berkeley Project, a plan that aims to expand the area’s manufacturing base to include for a wider variety of uses, including R&D, and more housing.

On Fifth Street in in West Berkeley, a Victorian house sits next to a laboratory. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

The council adopted portions of the plan in March and June 2011 and is now considering 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, but two are drawing the most attention: the Saul Zaentz Media Center on 10th Street, owned by Wareham Development, and Peerless Greens on Fifth Street, owned by Doug Herst. Their owners are interested in developing the sites into a mix of housing and industry.

These two tracts straddle different zoning areas (such as a manufacturing-only area, one that is mixed-use 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 45-foot height limit. The new plan would raise that to 75 feet in certain areas, and allow the MUP developers to build structures as tall as 100 feet, but only if they are absolutely needed for manufacturing or production purposes. In exchange for this flexibility, the developers would have to provide benefits to the community, such as retaining or building affordable work spaces for artisans, providing job-training programs, and upgrading the area’s transportation network.

Critics of the plan contend that it would lead to more neighborhood disputes because industry is incompatible with residential areas.

“To minimize conflict, to protect inhabitants from noise, odors and pollutants, and to retain and attract recycling/reuse activities, green collar and manufacturing jobs, residential development should not be permitted in the industrial zones of West Berkeley,” said Igor Tregub, speaking on behalf of the Sierra Club.

But proponents of the plan say detractors are creating a smoke screen that is obscuring reality. Housing and industry have coexisted in West Berkeley for decades.

“If you look at how West Berkeley was created way back, it was all about housing next to industry, but it was smoke stack industry,” said Michael Goldin, a developer whose home and business, Swerve, is on Seventh Street. “It’s what the neighborhood has been since its inception.”

Goldin thinks that the plan’s detractors are the same people who predicted a terrible outcome if Berkeley Bowl West was built. And those predictions proved wrong, he said. There is ample parking and the grocery store has become an integral part of the community. At lunchtime you can see crowds of people streaming toward the Bowl’s café. The development has brought vibrancy to the neighborhood. Goldin thinks the development of Peerless Greens and other parcels in the area will do the same.

City councilmembers are still weighing whether to allow MUPs to mix up the zoning and put housing in areas that once were reserved for industry. Last week, after dozens of people spoke out against the plan, city council members asked  staff pointed questions about many elements of the plan. Staff will respond tonight.

The City Council is scheduled to take a final vote on the West Berkeley Project on May 15.

Dozens speak out about controversial West Berkeley plan [05.02.12]
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...