Mayor Hopes a Revised Downtown Area Plan Would Attract Local Businesses

Photo: Sungevity, Helio Micro Utility and Clif Bar & Co. are all leaving Berkeley because there is not enough space to accommodate the companies' growth. Mayor Tom Bates hopes to revise the Downtown Area Plan to boost local business.
David Herschorn/Photo
Sungevity, Helio Micro Utility and Clif Bar & Co. are all leaving Berkeley because there is not enough space to accommodate the companies' growth. Mayor Tom Bates hopes to revise the Downtown Area Plan to boost local business.

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Analysis: Businesses in Berkeley

City News Editor, Tomer Ovadia, talks with reporter Denise Poon about the positive environment Berkeley offers as a location for start up businesses. But why do those start up businesses eventually leave Berkeley? And what is the city doing to accomodate these businesses?


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Two years ago, Helio Micro Utility was founded in Berkeley as a start-up company that was drawn to the city because it was solar-friendly and the company's executives lived in the area.

Today, the company is in the process of moving to a new location in San Francisco after finding a building that better suits its needs, including the need for more office space, said Glenna Wiseman, vice president of marketing for the company, which is an affiliate company of solar firm HelioPower.

What made moving to San Francisco so appealing, Wiseman said, was the availability of a larger space at a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certified building, which meets recognized green building principles.

The company's move is not unlike that of many other businesses that start in Berkeley, but leave when there is not enough space to accommodate their growth, said Michael Caplan, the city's economic development manager.

In the hopes of creating more space for businesses, Mayor Tom Bates will propose to rescind the Downtown Area Plan and discuss new proposals at the Feb. 23 city council meeting, according to Julie Sinai, Bates' chief of staff.

"Right now we have a Downtown that is 20 years old," she said. "Hopefully (the revised plan) would attract businesses as well as residents, because it creates more open space if it passes."

Proposed changes include speeding up the business permit process and providing clearer public benefits in order to boost business, according to Bates.

Caplan said although the city lacks space for businesses to grow, it is an ideal place for them to be founded.

"One of Berkeley's strengths is we tend to grow our own (businesses)," Caplan said. "It's more common to see a business that started here."

One of the clearest examples of the city's lack of space is in the Downtown area where the inventory of office spaces is limited, Caplan said.

"What Berkeley represents is very desirable," he said. "Once these businesses grow to a certain point ... and there's not that inventory available, then it becomes a challenge for them to stay."

Solar company Sungevity is also moving because it found a better space outside of the city. The company expanded until it was too large for its facilities in Berkeley, and moved to Jack London Square in Oakland on Feb. 5, according to Danny Kennedy, the company's president.

"(Berkeley) was a good place to start a business," he said. "It wasn't a limitation of Berkeley that we moved location, it's just that we got a better space at a great rate."

While the company will retain its current location on Bancroft Way and Sixth Street, its headquarters have moved to the new location, Kennedy said.

The Oakland site is three times the size of the Berkeley site, according to Kennedy.

Berkeley-based Clif Bar & Co. is also leaving after a four-year-long search for a larger space. The organic food manufacturer announced in July its intention to move its headquarters to Emeryville.

"Our space in Berkeley wasn't big enough," said Sue Hearn, the company's public relations director. "It came down to the time frame of our search and finding what fit our needs."

The company hopes to move in September to the new site, which is nearly twice the size of the current one, she said.

If the proposal to revise the Downtown Area Plan passes, it will go on the next election ballot, Sinai said.

In the meantime, the city is using other means to better market what space is available and to help businesses find what fits their needs.

"Berkeley is a built-up city," Sinai said. "It's not like there is a lot of vacant space. There's a lot of pockets of smaller vacant offices. What we're looking at doing is how to work with the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce to create a database of those pockets."

Caplan said he does not expect that there will be development in the near future given the economic climate.

"In the long term, I think there is a lot of demand for space that companies can grown into," Caplan said. "We don't know how long this current downturn is going to last ... we're probably not going to see a lot of office development."

Ultimately, the policy question the city is faced with is that of how to create an environment in which businesses can succeed, Caplan said.

"The business community is an ecosystem," he said. "It's not just that some businesses are leaving Berkeley, which is always happening. There's just no habitat, there's just no space."

Tags: DOWNTOWN AREA PLAN, SUNGEVITY, HELIOPOWER, CLIF BAR & CO.


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



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