City Could See More Industries With Plan

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The city of Berkeley's Planning Commission voted yesterday to send amendments to the city's West Berkeley Plan to the Berkeley City Council - possibly for review in February - as part of the long-standing goal to strike a balance between artisans and higher-profile research and development firms drawn to the area.

During the meeting, members of the Planning Commission - whose role is to advise the council on zoning changes and review planning processes - debated whether amendments to the plan as proposed during a Sept. 22 public hearing would appear in the final plans for the area. After discussion and debate, the recommendation was approved in a 7-2 vote.

Commissioners also discussed the possibility of, after three years, evaluating the intended effects of the plan, which include maintaining the quality of life in West Berkeley while also attracting new business. A vote on this amendment was not reached as of press time.

Conceived in 1992, the West Berkeley Plan - governing development in the area between San Pablo Avenue and the Eastshore Freeway - has often been criticized for limiting new industrial uses in the area, even in unoccupied manufacturing sites. Other cities, such as nearby Emeryville, provide more leeway to businesses in terms of permit regulations, which city officials and community members worry could draw UC Berkeley start-ups and spin-offs out of the city.

In response, the council probed the commission in 2006 to re-evaluate the plan and, in the form of the West Berkeley Project, examine ways in which zoning language could be changed to allow a revitalization of the area and create an environment more welcoming to new research and development.

"Our goal is to have a vital economic engine in West Berkeley," Councilmember Linda Maio said in an e-mail. "As new materials and approaches are discovered in our research labs, some of them translate into product development - like advanced battery technology."

But whether research and development companies such as those branching out from the university should be allowed in these districts that they have traditionally been excluded from remains controversial, according to commissioner Chair David Stoloff.

"We understand from (UC spin-offs) that their employees would prefer to locate in Berkeley they work in Berkeley, they're already in Berkeley, it's closer to where they live. But there are limited opportunities for growth," commissioner Victoria Eisen said.

Owners of smaller businesses, including artists and artisans that largely make up the area's commercial landscape, are especially worried that the allowance would result in higher rents in the area if landlords prefer to rent to these start-ups instead of lower-profile businesses, according to Eisen.

"Under present zoning, (West Berkeley) is doing just fine," said Rick Auerbach, a staff member of West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies, who spoke at the meeting in opposition of the amendments. "You have a chance to make good policy and support our existing robust economy."

According to Stoloff, the commission has tried to reach a compromise in order to ensure protections for local, smaller businesses so they remain protected. The commission would provide more benefits for artists, artisans and residents in return for flexibility within zoning amendments and industrial districts.

Benefits could include more jobs, greater community infrastructure, including sidewalks, and more cutting edge companies located - and staying - in Berkeley, according to Stoloff and Eisen.

"We've had meetings with stake holders. We've had dialogue. Its been a long road, and there have been a lot of modifications from when we started," Stoloff said.

During the meeting, the commission also voted to certify the final draft of the plan's Environmental Impact Report for council. A decision on amendments to zoning ordinances was not reached as of press time.


Contact Yousour Alhlou at [email protected]

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