The consensus at a March 5 meeting about the old Pacific Steel Casting site on Second Street was that it should remain a manufacturing hub. Photo: Max Cherny

Dozens of people gathered in West Berkeley on Tuesday night to discuss their vision for the 8.3-acre site on Second Street that once housed Pacific Steel Casting. The overwhelming consensus was that it must remain a manufacturing hub.

While a number of people expressed concern about the environmental cleanup of the site, there was considerable enthusiasm about possibilities for the location. Many speakers mentioned the special nature of West Berkeley with its cluster of metal and wood shops, food manufacturers, wineries, artists’ studios and a few remaining heavy industries, such as Berkeley Forge. They urged city officials to maintain this kind of mix.

“If not for West Berkeley’s industrial zone, Berkeley would be a bedroom community like El Cerrito or Albany,” John Curl, a cabinet maker for 40 years, told the crowd gathered in Berkeley Rep’s administrative offices at 999 Harrison St. “Berkeley has this diversity, this complexity. It’s like a rich stew with many flavors in it. If you destroy West Berkeley you will destroy the diversity of the entire city.”

Mayor Jesse Arreguín and City Councilwoman Rashi Kesarwani had convened the meeting to gather community input on how to use the site. They will present the responses to the City Council in May.

The site stretches along Second Street from Gilman Street to the north and Page Street to the south. The area is currently in the M, or manufacturing zone. That allows a number of uses, including manufacturing, car dealerships, pharmaceutical uses, semiconductor production, cannabis grow operations, dry cleaning plants, media production facilities, warehouses and arts and crafts studios, said Steve Buckley, the director of land use planning.

Arreguín said the council would discuss whether the zoning should remain M, or be changed to make the area mixed-use light industrial, or MU-LI, which would expand how the property could be used. If that happened the planning commission will examine the issue, he said.

There are no plans to allow housing on the site, said Arreguín.

“It’s an exciting opportunity to think of new and interesting manufacturing uses,” the mayor said.

After a downturn, manufacturing jobs are returning to Berkeley

Manufacturing in Berkeley is on the upswing, Jordan Klein, the city’s manager of economic development told the crowd. In the 1990s, there were about 5,000 manufacturing jobs in the city but by 2000 about 40% of those jobs had disappeared as heavy industry moved out or folded. But in the past five to seven years, many smaller businesses have moved in, he said. Currently, there are about 4,000 manufacturing jobs in Berkeley, or about 6% of the total number of jobs in the city.

“A lot of that rebound has been driven by food and beverage manufacturing,” said Klein.

In 2012, there were 25 food and beverage companies with 350 employees. That has now doubled, he said. The life sciences and biotech sectors are also driving job growth, he said.

Some of those new businesses have gone into old industrial sites that were partitioned. The old Flint Ink building, a 40,000-square-foot structure at 750 Gilman St., for example, now houses two wineries, a solar power company, and a printing company.

The old Pacific Steel Casting site is for sale

For 84 years, the 8.3-acre site was the home of Pacific Steel Casting Company. There are more than 10 buildings on the property ranging from the huge structures that once held three casting plants, to smaller office spaces, hangar-like spaces that once held spare castings and other parts, garage-like spaces and office space.

Pacific Steel Casting Company LLC filed for bankruptcy on Jan. 25, but had moved out of the premises in late November. It had sold off most of its machinery and has cleared out most of the debris and trash. It is still working with the city to complete its closure plan.

Berkeley Properties, a limited liability corporation made up of the creditors of the original Pacific Steel Casting Company, owns the site. The Genger family founded the original in 1934 and a descendant, Catherine Delsol, ran the casting company until it filed for bankruptcy in 2014.  Speyside Equity purchased the company. Berkeley Properties retained the land.

The owners of Berkeley Properties include hundreds of former Pacific Steel Casting employees who won a $5.4 million judgment against the original Pacific Steel but were never paid. The workers’ pension fund also holds a secured claim against the property.

The bankruptcy court appointed Arch and Beam to serve as the administrators for Berkeley Properties. The company hired Cushman & Wakefield to sell the land. That commercial realtor has been marketing the site as the Gilman Gateway.

A number of developers have expressed interest in the site, Ted Anderson of Cushman and Wakefield told the crowd. Bids for the property will be due by March 29, but it will take a number of months for both sides to do due diligence. Anderson said he doesn’t expect an announcement of the new owner any time soon.

One unknown is the level of pollution on the site, said Matthew English of Arch and Beam. The environmental assessment is nearly done, he said. It will be presented soon to the possible buyers as the new owner will be responsible for the clean-up, he said.

Little said Arch and Beam will eventually give the environmental assessment to Berkeley, as well as the bankruptcy court, which will then make it a public document. He said his intent is to be as transparent as possible.

Berkeley needs a variety of spaces to allow its industrial ecosystem to thrive

A number of those attending the meeting were involved in manufacturing. They stressed the importance of preserving the industrial spaces on the site and allowing them to be divided into smaller sections. Part of the reason industry in West Berkeley is so vibrant is that companies start in small spaces and are able to move into larger ones as they grow, they said. The sheer amount of square footage in the buildings on the old Pacific Steel Casting site — around 226,000 square feet — would enhance this ecosystem, they said.

Dan Knapp of Urban Ore said his company started 38 years ago and has moved five times since then, to ever-bigger spaces. Berkeley needs more places for businesses to expand and he encouraged city officials to ensure the site would allow this.

Gary Robinson, the director of facilities and campus expansion at Meyer Sound, said the sound company now takes up almost a block on San Pablo Avenue near Heinz Street. It is increasingly difficult to find large industrial sites, which means Berkeley businesses look elsewhere.

“Without that large footprint, a company can’t make the next move,” said Robinson. “They will look at Fairfield or Vacaville to put up a tilt-up.”

Robinson’s sentiments were echoed by another man who runs an event production facility in West Oakland. He said his company wants to expand, but finding large enough space is difficult. He urged the officials to keep the site for manufacturing uses.

“It is so rare to find space appropriate for industrial uses. I would be sad to see it turned into office space.”

Mary Lou Van Deventer, who owns Urban Ore her husband, Dan Knapp, urged officials and the property owner to be ambitious in their thinking. She pointed out that Berkeley is going to build a new $100 million transfer station nearby. She suggested that something complementary be done with the site, such as putting in an in-vessel composting plant that could use yard debris left at the transfer station to create methane gas.

“This is such a wonderful site for the redevelopment of American manufacturing in the 21st century,” she said.

Even though there is a housing crisis in the Bay Area, preserving the land for industrial uses will actually help the situation, said Rick Auerbach of WEBIAC, which stands for West Berkeley Artisans & Industrial Companies.

“People can’t afford housing unless they have jobs,” he said. “Industrial land is the essential companion for good jobs that allow people to have houses and raise families.”

Inside Pacific Steel Casting on Dec. 8, 2017. Photo: Pete Rosos

Environmental issues on the site

A handful of people at the meeting raised concerns about the toxicity of the site. One woman said the site should be cleaned up before it was sold.

“Selling a property without cleaning it up is immoral,” said Catherine Stepanski, who lives on Tenth Street in West Berkeley. She called the area “cancer alley” and said people in five of the 10 houses on her block have cancer.

“Whoever owns this land should do the right thing. This land must be remediated,” said Stepanski.

She went on to say that any profits from the sale of the site should go to the former Pacific Steel Casting workers who lost their jobs after the Department of Homeland Security audited the company’s books and discovered many did not have legitimate social security numbers. She said they had been deported.

One woman, Laura Riggs, spoke up to say that she thought housing should go on the 8.3-acre site. Not only is it needed, but housing developers are the only ones who can afford to clean up the pollution on the site, she said.

Arreguín told her he noted her remarks.

“We have an exciting opportunity to revitalize this corner of Berkeley,” said Kesarwani.

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...