Green Companies Continue to Leave Berkeley

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In a move not unheard of among local green technology firms, Berkeley-based solar power company Sungevity will move to Oakland, citing a lack of space in the city to accommodate its expansion.

Though many green tech companies start in Berkeley, the difficulty is keeping them in the city as they grow, said Michael Caplan, the city's economic development manager.

"Berkeley has always had great strength in generating green and entrepreneur business," Caplan said. "We should be doing more to attend to these companies and ... capture these incubating companies as they accelerate to bigger spaces."

He added the city's proximity to UC Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory gives it an advantage in drawing in green businesses. Julie Sinai, the chief of staff for Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, said some of these businesses emerge as projects from the lab before moving into the private sector.

According to Caplan, Berkeley lacks suitable office spaces that businesses could use for headquarters.

Sungevity's situation is reflective of this difficulty-the company is moving its headquarters to Oakland's Jack London Square while retaining the 6,000 square feet it currently has in West Berkeley.

However, Sinai said some green tech companies have found the city can accommodate their operations, adding that Vermont-based solar company groSolar moved its West Coast headquarters to Berkeley last year.

According to Bates, because there is not much vacant land available in Berkeley, the city's Planning Commission is working to revise zoning policies to allow more flexibility for businesses to expand.

"One of our problems is (the city is) not giving property owners flexibility," he said. "It really is a space consideration."

Sinai said the challenge in revising zoning was to strike a balance between different types of manufacturing.

"We are looking for changes in West Berkeley," she said. "That's the industrial area of Berkeley. We're trying to create an appropriate zoning mix in West Berkeley to allow for the light industrial manufacturing green tech ... while at the same time making sure we can keep space for traditional manufacturing."

Caplan said the city is working with developers in West Berkeley and Downtown to create more space for green tech companies, whether for research and development, production or headquarters.

But Bates said even if these companies left Berkeley, it would not hurt the city as long as they stay in the region.

"It's not like they have to be right here in Berkeley," he said. "It's not like it's a great economic boom to have a company move into your city. The important thing is the jobs. That's what we're trying to focus on."

Caplan said that retaining jobs and keeping green businesses in the local region would have a "clustering effect" that would draw more green tech businesses to the East Bay.

But he said that in order to keep these businesses in Berkeley, the city would have to work to accommodate the companies' needs and different stages of growth.

Sinai said the city was working to create more zoning flexibility in order to help green tech businesses continue growing.

"It's the type of business," she said. "We want green tech. They're the kinds of businesses that are coming out of the UC, and we'd like to keep them local."


Denise Poon covers local businesses. Contact her at [email protected]

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