Bayer sign at entrance to its West Berkeley campus
Bayer’s Berkeley campus could grow significantly over the next three decades, although its footprint will remain the same. Photo: John Metcalfe Credit: John Metcalfe
Bayer’s Berkeley campus could grow significantly over the next three decades, although its footprint will remain the same. Photo: John Metcalfe Credit: John Metcalfe

Pharmaceutical giant Bayer HealthCare is in talks with Berkeley to strike a new 30-year development deal for its West Berkeley campus. If approved, Bayer would add more than 1 million square feet of work space, erect taller buildings and eventually hire 1,000 more employees.

Bayer Berkeley, which makes blood-clotting drugs used to treat hemophilia, wants to switch up the traditional bulk-manufacturing process at its facility to follow the new paradigm for pharmaceuticals: making many more speciality medicines for much smaller patient populations. To do so it wants to restructure its campus to encourage the physical mixing of its drug-development and drug-production workers — which can increase knowledge-sharing over, say, a cup of coffee or a trip to the bathroom — and modernize spaces with revamped conference rooms, airlocks and cleanrooms.

What benefits for city, community?

These would all make for significant improvements for Bayer. What might the city, and in particular West Berkeley where the campus is located, get in return? For one thing a vastly redesigned campus, said Drew Johnston, vice president and head of engineering for Bayer Berkeley.

“When the public drives by our campus they’ll point and say, ‘That’s the beautiful Bayer site,’” he said. “They won’t drive by and not even notice that it’s here, because it’s this big old industrial complex that no one really knows what’s behind the iron gate.”

The site dates back more than 100 years — it was historically operated by Cutter Laboratories, which brewed up fun stuff like anti-hog cholera serum — and comprises a 46-acre jumble of buildings from different historical periods roughly aligned to the city grid. Bayer, which acquired the property in the 1970s, hopes to modernize it by tearing down older or underused buildings, consolidating new buildings into four big “blocks,” and adding six more acres of green and open space for workers to bike or walk around in.

The plan would change the facade of the site, which now is a rather blah-looking entity, and would soften its rough edges with a green perimeter along Dwight Way and Seventh Street that the public, in theory, could enjoy as an urban park. It would also hide many of the campus’ parking lots by positioning them under buildings or underground.

Bayer wants to accomplish all this without expanding its footprint. That means, in part, it will be building upward, with certain production facilities allowed to grow to 80 feet tall. The company said existing lines of sight will be preserved, but, given battles in the past between developers and the community over sight lines, the pharmaceutical company might find it challenging to convince some locals it’s not erecting a view-obstructing wall of buildings.

“For some people I’m sure it will [be an issue],” said Rick Auerbach, who represents the area’s manufacturing, recycling, and artistic residents for the West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies. “Typically when somebody proposes a building of 80 feet, that doesn’t include the mechanical penthouse with all the piping and HVAC that can be 10 to 15 high itself. So 80 feet often in actuality becomes 90 or 95 feet.”

Parking is another traditional point of contention when development is on the horizon. “We are outside their gates and the surrounding streets get a bit tight for parking,” said Philip le Roux, CEO of Acrokin Engineering. “Hopefully their plans include more campus parking and not just more people. I know we are all supposed to walk or bike to work and the BART, but sadly that utopia eludes us.”

But Cathy Keck, a spokesperson for Bayer, said the drugmaker will encourage employees to use alternative commute options in the coming decades, and is also planning to provide enough space for vehicle owners. “Land-use regulations set parking requirements, and our application allows for phased buildout of a number of buildings,” she said. “At each stage, the site would provide adequate parking for the phase of development.”

Somebody who’s actually done architectural work on biotech campuses in the Bay Area – Ramsey Silberberg, founding principal at the nearby Mantle Landscape Architecture – has thoughts on how Bayer should proceed.

“In general, I think there is a tremendous need to integrate the footprint of the 46-acre campus within the city, so I greatly welcome the development plan,” Silberberg said in an email. “Increasing building height and densifying the site are appropriate, but what is vital from an urban perspective is how the campus meets the edges of the city. I would like to see an approach to phasing that first focuses on improving the Seventh Street corridor and building out the Dwight and Eighth Street parcel.

Amod Chopra, owner of Viks Chaat & Market, hopes Bayer’s continued presence will anchor and invigorate the industrial-feeling neighborhood.

“The proposed green spaces along Seventh Street could work, and are welcomed, but the current plaza buildout by Bayer on Seventh and Grayson isn’t very successful. So the design and programming of these spaces should be well considered.”

Overall, Silberberg is bullish about the proposed redevelopment. “If anything, I see a tremendous benefit to the neighborhood. What you experience today are small artisan restaurants and bakeries thriving off of the working population, and I would love to see this grow and expand.”

These thoughts are echoed by Amod Chopra, owner of the nearby Viks Chaat & Market, who hopes Bayer’s continued presence will anchor and invigorate the industrial-feeling neighborhood.

“There’s Takara Sake a block from the overpass, then there’s Bayer a few blocks away, then there’s a smattering of businesses big and small – well, not very big, but smaller businesses and artisan people like I consider ourselves to be,” he said. “So having one solid, consistent tenant there, maybe it’ll bring more life and a potential identity to that area.”

Bayer hasn’t put a year-by-year timeline on its hiring of 1,000 new employees, which if done tomorrow would increase its West Berkeley workforce to roughly 2,000 people. But the company, which is Berkeley’s largest private employer, already has support from the Oakland-based Local 6 branch of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

Proposal has union support

“We support it because it is a way that keeps Bayer tied to this particular facility here in Berkeley,” said Russ Baugh, chief steward at Bayer. The site’s approximately 300 unionized workers keep its machines and equipment in proper running order, he said, and the redevelopment deal would “guarantee we will continue to have decent-paying, blue-collar jobs with decent benefits for people.”

What kind of jobs, exactly? “The skills needed to run a site like this [include] everything from engineers like me, extremely educated research scientists, highly skilled mechanics, and everything in between and around that,” said head of engineering Johnston.

Sculptures outside Bayer in West Berkeley.
Bayer’s plaza buildout on Seventh and Grayson streets. Image: Google Street View
Bayer’s plaza buildout on Seventh and Grayson streets. Image: Google Street View

The new development agreement that’s now under city consideration would replace an older, 30-year deal Bayer and Berkeley signed in 1992. With that agreement, Bayer committed to providing a variety of community benefits such as funding local infrastructure projects, establishing Biotech Partners — a nonprofit program that provides STEM education and paid biotech internships to Berkeley students — and helping operate a shuttle from the Ashby BART to West Berkeley that is technically for employees, but used by many locals as well. (The drivers reportedly don’t check employee IDs.)

To date Bayer said it has poured more than $37 million in inflation-adjusted dollars into Berkeley community initiatives – will that continue?

“They just have amazing, probably almost unlimited resources. There’s a lot they could do.” — Rick Auerbach

The question will be answered following an environmental-impact report of the 30-year buildout, said Keck.

“I think Bayer has a significant commitment to STEM education so you will always find there’s a place for STEM education in what Bayer does,” she said. “I think the key will be for the city to identify what in a sense they need. So this will be a process, and I think there will probably be a lot of input during the environmental-impact process as well as from the community, and we look forward to hearing that.”

Asked about how Bayer’s plans might impact the local community, Cheryl Davila, council member for Berkeley’s District 2 which embraces the Bayer campus, said by email: “I have numerous ideas which I have presented to Bayer. Currently, I don’t feel comfortable to answer [any] specific questions but my suggestions for community benefits will be beneficial to the entire city, especially District 2.”

In April, Bayer contributed $250,000 to the Berkeley Relief Fund which was set to help local businesses and tenants weather the economic crisis brought on by the outbreak of COVID-19. And in May the company gave a $600,000 grant to the Berkeley Food Network and Alameda County Community Food Bank from the Bayer Fund to that they could expand distribution sites and help fulfill increased need for food-insecure residents during the pandemic.

In the meantime, Auerbach of WEBAIC, has other suggestions on how Bayer could contribute to its community.

“They just have amazing, probably almost unlimited resources. There’s a lot they could do,” he said of Bayer, which a few years ago paid more than $60 billion to acquire Monsanto. “Just off the top of my head, they could create recreational facilities for the local children. They are in one of the poorest zip codes in Berkeley. They could provide scholarships for a lot of kids for their education.”

“There has to be a process created that’s really inclusive and transparent and absolutely involves the local people,” he said. “They are part of this community, and they have to be responsible neighbors.”

John Metcalfe is an Oakland-based freelance reporter who's written for Berkeleyside, The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Atlantic. He enjoys covering science, climate and weather, and urban...