A large and prominent piece of Northwest Berkeley changed hands this week as a development team acquired the former site of Pacific Steel Casting and Berkeley Forge and Tool with plans to transform those industrial properties into a 10-acre life sciences campus.
The $48 million deal for 16 parcels just off Interstate 80 is expected to raise $24 million to fund the pensions of hundreds of former Pacific Steel workers, which have been in limbo for years.
“It’s a big, tremendous day for us,” said union representative Fernando Garcia, a trustee for the pension fund. “We’re just hoping that sooner or later these people get paid.”
A firm calling itself Forge Development wants to demolish the site’s buildings and redevelop the property into 900,000 square feet of space for life sciences companies on the blocks bound by Gilman Street, Eastshore Highway, Page Street and the Union Pacific Railroad tracks.
Read more on the history of pacific steel in Berkeley
The closure of the city’s last big “smokestack” factory means the end of well-paid union jobs. But it also means neighbors will no longer be bothered by a ‘burnt pot handle’ smell.
The project would add to the boom of life sciences construction underway across West Berkeley, much of which has been concentrated around Aquatic Park, and mark an expansion of the sector into former industrial areas north of University Avenue. Plans call for new buildings that would stand as high as 105 feet tall, as well as three new seven-story parking garages that would hold space for nearly 1,900 cars.
The redevelopment would also include an extensive environmental clean-up of the site that was home to Pacific Steel for more than 80 years before the foundry shut down in 2018, as well as new sidewalks and landscaping. City records show the development team submitted a pre-application for the project last month.
Berkeley planning staff have been working to loosen zoning restrictions on the site and raise height limits to facilitate the project.
“I’m grateful that the city of Berkeley has been able to support the redevelopment of the former Pacific Steel Casting site into a modern research and development facility that will create jobs, drive our economy forward and remediate environmental hazards on the 10-acre parcel,” said Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani, who represents the area and authored a referral to launch the rezoning process.
Pacific Steel employed upward of 600 workers before a decline that led to its 2014 bankruptcy and acquisition by Speyside Equity. Its closure marked the end of an era since the company was the last major industrial factory in West Berkeley. The smaller Berkeley Forge and Tool shuttered last year.
While the sale is good news for former Pacific Steel employees, union officials are concerned it may not mark the end of uncertainty about their benefits.
Garcia, the financial secretary for the Glass, Molders, Pottery, Plastics and Allied Workers union, said Pacific Steel officials have claimed they are owed $3.25 million from the property sale — which according to Garcia could cut into the money due to workers or lead to a drawn-out legal fight. Proceeds from the sale are currently being held by a receiver, he said.
Speyside Equity did not respond to multiple requests for comment this week about the union’s claims.
Garcia organized a small protest at the Pacific Steel site last month, where a handful of workers held picket signs drawing attention to the pensions and severance pay they are still owed. The company shouldn’t get a cut of the sale, Garcia argued, because the union has had to pay for the vacant plant’s upkeep and property taxes since it shut down.
“We’re just waiting to see what move they’re going to make,” he said of the company. “It could be millions of dollars down the drain to fight these people … nevertheless, we have no choice but to fight back.”