The Copra Warehouse at night. Photo: Ira Serkes
The Copra Warehouse at night. Photo: Ira Serkes

On Tuesday night, a Berkeley City Council majority upheld a 2012 zoning panel decision to allow the construction of a new 100,000-square-foot lab building in west Berkeley.

Thirty neighbors had signed a petition to appeal the Zoning Adjustments Board’s decision in September, taking issue with the project’s environmental review, parking plans and changes in design since an earlier approval in 2009. The petitioners asked for an additional public hearing to ensure that the community knew about the changes and had time to comment on them.

Appellants said changes to the project, and the developer’s rationale, didn’t “pass the smell test.” They called the process “distorted” and said they were concerned that larger institutions, such as UC Berkeley, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the federal government, were forcing a project into west Berkeley that wouldn’t be good for the community.

Some neighbors and officials said the project appeared to be a “bait and switch,” as original approvals had been granted along with promises to preserve two of the building’s historic walls. The developer later said the project would not be financially feasible with this element.

Chris Barlow, who’s running the project for Wareham Development, told the council that there had been extensive public input since the project’s inception in 2001. He said there will be ample parking nearby due to an agreement with another property. Barlow stressed that the project will add a much-needed life sciences facility to the area.

“UC Berkeley, Berkeley Lab and the federal government are not behind this,” he told the council.

Councilman Jesse Arreguín said there should be another public hearing because of the substantial changes to the project. (Arreguín ended up as the lone no-vote to uphold the Zoning Adjustments Board decision; council members Kriss Worthington and Max Anderson abstained from the vote.)

Worthington took issue with the fact that, he said, the city was in the position of needing to trust the developers about what their investment returns and possible profits might be, saying that the city was under no obligation to help the developers make a certain amount of money.

Anderson said, with this project and future developments, the city would need to exercise “real oversight” because the city’s planning department essentially is funded by developers.

“When we have a department that’s self-funded, those funds come from some place,” he said. “They come from developers. So there is a propensity to satisfy their needs because they are paying the freight.”

Anderson also said that the vote against Measure T was essentially a mandate that the city should follow as far as how it will manage west Berkeley development going forward.

Council members Gordon Wozniak, Darryl Moore, Laurie Capitelli, Susan Wengraf and Linda Maio, along with Mayor Tom Bates, voted to uphold the ZAB decision.

They cited the jobs, income and industry the lab will bring to Berkeley. Some said the changes to the project actually were an improvement over what zoning board members last approved. Several also spoke of the need to demolish what they described as a dangerous structure that could pose numerous safety risks.

“It was a good project in 2009, and it’s a good project now,” said Moore.

Read the appeal and city staff report here. The full administrative record, current as of Tuesday prior to the council meeting, is available here.

Wareham: Preservation of historic factory too expensive [01.18.13]
Measure T: Will it enhance or ruin West Berkeley? [10.29.12]
Can area plan retain eclectic mix of West Berkeley? [05.08.12]

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist...