Opinion: Bayer agreement provides a beacon for prosperity, equity

Perhaps 30 years from now, the future leaders of Berkeley born today will read this and build something even better to further our legacy.

Thirty years ago, the city of Berkeley and Miles Inc., now Bayer, signed an unprecedented development agreement securing decades of investment in the West Berkeley community and city at-large. Now, the time has come to build up, strengthen, and expand on our historic partnership by extending the Development Agreement (DA). 

Anyone who spends time in West Berkeley will understand our passion and pride in the city’s manufacturing and innovation sectors. In the late 80s and early 90s, a coalition of artists, manufacturers, environmentalists, organized West Berkeley neighbors, business leaders, and faith leaders developed the West Berkeley Plan. The plan’s goal was to create a climate within which artisans, industrial companies, and makers could thrive, and to provide high-wage jobs for Berkeleyans regardless of educational background. Bayer’s campus sits at the core of District 2’s mixed manufacturing zone and, in many ways, symbolizes what we can accomplish by maintaining modern, well-utilized industrial zones.

Despite the economic and cultural benefits of a thriving industrial district, West Berkeley has faced many challenges. The legacy of race and class conflict in West Berkeley is well documented by historians such as Richard Schwartz and Anirvan Chatterjee. Being a redlined district, families of color and immigrant communities relegated to West Berkeley were forced to live in close quarters to polluting industries. Given the proximity to factories, foundries, and Interstate 80, State Route 123 (San Pablo Avenue), high rates of asthma and other health disparities in West Berkeley’s communities of color are not surprising.  Also unsurprising are other impacts of environmental racism such as soil and groundwater contamination, and air pollution, throughout West and South Berkeley.

Along with the advancements of the 21st century have come dramatic changes to manufacturing industries. Large plots such as the 10-acre Pacific Steel Casting site, which once provided hundreds of quality union jobs, now sit vacant, with high remediation costs serving as a deterrent to potential new operators. Meanwhile, enterprises like the Berkeley Commons at 600 Addison, the former site of American Soil, the developing R&D at 742 Grayson and Bayer are expanding. As industries change, workforces change. And with change comes the fear of what is heralded by these changes. 

With the Black population declining from 1970 to the present day, both due to working and middle-class homeowners either leaving for greener pastures, better-maintained infrastructure and more amenities or passing away and children either selling or losing properties, and the high cost of rent pricing people out, worries over gentrification aggravated by development are understandable. People who grow up in West Berkeley should not have to fear displacement from the neighborhoods they grew up in. However, economic and racial justice are not advanced by halting economic progress. If we wish to maintain West Berkeley’s multicultural, inclusive community then we need to cultivate an ethnically diverse and economically-integrated workforce. To do that, we must make reparative investments in those communities as well as provide jobs and support industries that invest in historically excluded communities: women, people of color, immigrants, and LGTBQ folks. Not only do we have an economic justice and racial equity imperative to expand diversifying industries, the life sciences and other innovation sectors will be critical for our city’s economic vitality moving forward. 

In 2020, as the world’s economy shuddered because of the pandemic, households employed in Berkeley’s innovation sector largely saw their situations improve. According to the Office of Economic Development, over a third of innovation sector companies in Berkeley operate in biotech and healthcare. Startups in Berkeley also raised over $700 million in investment capital last year. It is a very good thing for our city’s tax base to be sustained by a growing bedrock of jobs that cannot easily go fully remote. As a result, Berkeley did not face as much devastation as other cities in the region and did not have to make as many difficult choices to balance our budget. No city workers were laid off. Their families continued to have food on the table. With this in mind, it’s important for a large corporation like Bayer to benefit the surrounding community, including the neediest among us. A rising tide, so to speak, won’t lift all ships when some are underwater.

Nevertheless, a rising tide is coming. According to the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, Berkeley could see a 97% increase in economic growth driven by Bayer. Today, Bayer represents about $15 million in economic activity. If the company fully builds all facilities planned, this is projected to increase to $29 million by 2052. The number of Bayer jobs in Berkeley is expected to double to 2,000.

So, with the deadline for a renewed Development Agreement looming, Mayor Jesse Arreguín and I worked hard to ensure Bayer’s campus transformation would benefit everyone. Over the spring and summer, we convened an advisory group of community leaders and stakeholders from the West Berkeley community including former State Senator and Berkeley Mayor Loni Hancock; former School Board Director Karen Hemphill; representatives from business, labor, faith communities and environmental groups; bike and pedestrian advocates; officials from the Peralta Community College District and the Berkeley Unified School District; and local arts organizations to provide feedback regarding Bayer’s proposed community benefits package. We relied on their feedback and insights to negotiate a substantial increase in community benefits, both in cash and in-kind benefits, over the next 30 years.

The original 1992 agreement was a core pillar of the West Berkeley Plan since the campus development at that time had major impacts on traffic, noise, and public spaces for the surrounding neighborhood. In response, Bayer invested millions in local infrastructure to mitigate its original development plan, and also provided funding for a community-led West Berkeley Fund, which this Development Agreement will revive. Over the next 30 years, Bayer is proposing to transform its campus in an efficient, smart manner that minimizes environmental impacts, and which includes a robust transportation demand management program. Bayer will also invest a total of $33 million in our community. Initially, Bayer proposed to continue the level of investment it provided the city during the past 10 years. Through strong negotiations, the city negotiated a better deal, securing an $800,000 community investment by Bayer in 2022. The investment increases by 2% annually over the 30-year agreement.

In the first year alone, the Development Agreement will provide a total of $388,000 for an expanded STEAM program that will empower local students in pursuing futures in science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. This includes 10% for STEAM education programs serving TK-8th grade; 50% for high school and paid internship programs; and 40% for college-level education and paid internships. In so doing, not only will the new agreement be able to support early learning, but in providing paid internships it will also sustain and grow viable employment pathways and reinvest Bayer dollars directly into the pockets of low-income high school and community college students of color. Bayer will also pay the full impact fees for affordable housing and childcare, whether or not the full campus is built out. That means the city will get $160,000 for affordable housing and $32,000 for childcare next year, with or without shovels in the ground. The revived West Berkeley Fund will also receive $160,000 in the first year for climate action, resiliency, and health equity programs in the community. A full 7.5% of the benefits package, or $60,000 in the first year, will go to arts programs that the city funds through its Civic Arts Grants. Aquatic Park will receive its own mitigation payment of $385,000 in the first year. For in-kind benefits, Bayer has also agreed to strong workforce initiatives to promote more diversity in the innovation sector. The company’s pledge to go carbon-neutral globally by 2030 is also baked in as part of the agreement.

This represents a major increase in investment for education, affordable housing, green infrastructure, and the arts in Berkeley. Materially, that means more Berkeley children like me, raised in a low-income single-parent household, will get hands-on learning opportunities in labs, direct career pathways to stable and high-paying jobs, and a thriving arts sector. If you grew up in my community, you know this is no small feat.

This new agreement will make our community healthier and more resilient. Perhaps 30 years from now, the future leaders of Berkeley born today will read this and build something even better to further our legacy. We must do everything possible to ensure that over the next 30 years, the rising tide truly lifts all of us. 

Terry Taplin is a Berkeley council member in District 2.