The vacant and graffiti-covered Pacific Steel Casting plant that looms over Interstate 80 in West Berkeley could make way for a massive new life sciences facility in the coming years.
Plans from the firm Spur Capital Partners envision a 10-acre campus called Gilman Forge, with roughly 900,000 square feet of space for life sciences companies, on the blocks where Pacific Steel workers made industrial parts over more than eight decades before the plant shuttered in 2018. The project would also redevelop the site of Berkeley Forge and Tool, which ended operations last year.
The plans could represent an expansion of the life sciences sector into Northwest Berkeley and include an extensive environmental clean-up at the Pacific Steel property, which the development team says would breathe new life into the west end of Gilman Street.
The sale of the site as part of the development would also fund pensions for Pacific Steel workers, which have been in limbo following the company’s 2014 bankruptcy. Those pension obligations stood at $24 million when the plant closed.
“The project provides an opportunity to build on the history of research, development, and manufacturing in West Berkeley and will bring the next era of innovation in life sciences to Berkeley,” the developer wrote in a statement.
City officials are now working to create a new zoning category in an effort to encourage redevelopment of the roughly four-block area — bound by Gilman Street, Eastshore Highway, Page Street and the Union Pacific Railroad tracks — by allowing for laboratory space, offices and taller height limits. Spur Capital expects to begin the approval process for its plans sometime this summer, development consultant Mark Rhoades said, and could break ground two years from now.
When complete, the development team describes its vision as a new gateway to the city for thousands of people entering Berkeley from Interstate 80. That area is in the midst of other changes as crews build a new bicycle and pedestrian bridge over the freeway and redesign the chaotic Gilman interchange.
Spur Capital expects multiple companies will one day occupy the campus, where buildings would stand as high as 105 feet tall and three new seven-story parking garages would hold space for nearly 1,900 cars, according to materials submitted to the city. New sidewalks and streetscape improvements would also surround the campus.
The proposed new zoning rules and taller height limits — which are expected to go before the Planning Commission for approval in the fall, and the City Council sometime after that — are raising concerns for some critics of West Berkeley’s current life sciences boom.
Several new life sciences campuses are under construction or planned in West Berkeley, including a major expansion by pharmaceutical giant Bayer. While those developments have been clustered around Aquatic Park, the Gilman Forge project would be the first north of University Avenue, in an area where industrial employers have faded away while a popular district of wineries, breweries, shops and restaurants took root.
Rick Auerbach of West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies — a group that advocates for more restrictive zoning rules that limit the life sciences sector in an effort to keep rents lower for artists and manufacturing — said he generally supports the Gilman Forge project because of its connection to Pacific Steel workers’ pensions.
But Auerbach said his group plans to push Berkeley to lower the proposed 105-foot height limit at the property and institute a requirement that a certain percentage of space at the facility, perhaps 25% to 35%, be dedicated to manufacturing.
The group hopes that the Gilman Forge campus will be a unique case, he said, and does not signal a first step toward more life sciences development in Northwest Berkeley.
“If it were to become more than a one-off, that would be very serious for us,” Auerbach said.
The site’s developers argue zoning changes that shift away from manufacturing are necessary because they’ll need to build more-lucrative life sciences space to make up for what is expected to be an expensive environmental clean-up at the Pacific Steel property. According to Rhoades, requirements to set aside space for manufacturing haven’t succeeded in preserving those jobs.
“Retaining ‘dinosaur’ industry is not what this new West Berkeley effort is about,” he wrote in an email.
Rhoades contends the 105-foot height limit is necessary to accommodate life sciences companies — which are often looking for spaces with tall ceiling heights because of equipment used in their work — and to allow for more open space at the development.
“You want to be able to aggregate floor area so that you can create open spaces in the project,” Rhoades said. “It will feel much more like a campus type of project than you would typically find in an industrial zone.”