In West Berkeley, a Victorian house sits next to a laboratory. This kind of mix is what makes the neighborhood unique.Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

The Berkeley City Council heard close to four hours of testimony Tuesday night about proposed changes to the West Berkeley plan.

Around 90 people lined up in council chambers to talk about the impact of zoning changes in the industrial neighborhood. Those opposed to the plan said increased density and tall buildings would destroy the unique neighborhood, now a mix of old Victorians, small businesses and artisans, machine shops, laboratories, and heavy industry.  The large development proposed by a few would drive up property values, cast shadows and ruin views, and bring terrible traffic to West Berkeley, they said.

Those in favor of the changes had a radically different view on what the plan might bring. They see the large-scale development at the Peerless Greens site on Fifth Street and Saul Zaentz site on Tenth as creating a critical mass of people, studios, and offices that will transform the area into a more vibrant, walking neighborhood.

New construction will provide space for growing technology and green companies, which often have to leave Berkeley now because there is no room for them to grow. And, if Berkeley is serious about complying with state and regional laws to create more housing and reduce greenhouse gases, it must change, and West Berkeley is the place to do it, they said.

The City Council spent time discussing the plan, but will have a fuller discussion, and a vote, on May 15. But what became clear is that a number of councilmembers see the plan as presented as seriously flawed and warned that adopting it would be akin to insulting the dozens of West Berkeley residents who have spoken out against it.

“I hope everybody realizes what’s at stake here,” said Max Anderson, who listened to the meeting by telephone because he was not feeling well. “I think our credibility is on line. I think our legitimacy is on the line…. The City Council has to regain its ethical center. There is nothing valiant about ignoring the pleas that have been enunciated eloquently here tonight. I don’t want to see us going down a path we might regret.”

Mayor Tom Bates and some of the councilmembers, however, pointed out that this is a process, and nothing is set in stone. While the council is deciding which parameters to set for “MUPs,” or Master Use Permits covering an acre or more, anyone who develops those sites must bring them to the Planning Commission for extensive review.

“A lot of the problems people have will go away,” said Bates. “Once it gets done it all goes through our process. They choose to do to this process and it has to be negotiated. People are frightened … by change.”

At that, a number of people from the audience started shouting: “We can’t trust you!” and “We weren’t included!”

City councilmember Laurie Capitelli said audience charges that deals were being cut in back rooms with developers was just not true. Capitelli said he had regular meetings at Café Trieste with Rick Auerbach, one of the principal critics of the plan and a representative of West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies (WEBAIC). Capitelli said the pair did not often agree, but they talked extensively.

“I take issue with those who allege there has been a secret cabal that’s plotting this thing in a dark room,” said Capitelli.

At the beginning of the meeting, Berkeley’s new Planning Director, Eric Angstadt, suggested major modifications that might mollify the plan’s critics. The plan currently allows MUP developers to mix and match residential housing on their large parcels, putting homes in areas once designated for industrial and manufacturing uses. Angstadt suggested eliminating that in zones designated solely for manufacturing or mixed-use light industrial.

The plan also allows construction of buildings up to 75 feet, leading some critics to worry about inappropriate massing and scale. Angstadt has suggested that buildings that abut the boundary between two zoning areas have 45 degree angles starting at five stories (or 35 feet high). That should reduce shading and make buildings look less bulky, he said.

Can area plan retain eclectic West Berkeley mix?
Dozens speak out about controversial West Berkeley plan [05.02.12]

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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...