West Berkeley Zoning Proves Contentious

Photo: John Curl, the co-owner of Heartwood Custom Woodworking, examines his wood. West Berkeley owners have debated local zoning.
Jeff Totten/Photo
John Curl, the co-owner of Heartwood Custom Woodworking, examines his wood. West Berkeley owners have debated local zoning.

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Editor's Note: This is the second installment of a two-part series on the West Berkeley Project.

Striking a compromise between big industry and local business in West Berkeley has proven difficult to achieve for the past four years, as zoning regulations in the area remain contentious and the Berkeley City Council still works to establish a balance between the two sectors.

While proposed amendments to the West Berkeley Plan - adopted in 1993 to set guidelines for land use while maintaining economic and residential quality of life in the area - seek to reconcile the interests of two different economic brackets, many small business owners feel that changes in zoning ordinances, if too abrupt, may threaten their livelihoods.

"You don't want run-away economic development," said John Curl, co-owner of West Berkeley cooperative Heartwood Custom Woodworking. "You want the kind of economic development that doesn't displace the valuable places that are already there."

There are approximately 3,600 private manufacturing, retail and service businesses in West Berkeley that generate approximately $1.2 billion in annual taxable revenue for the city, according to the city's Planning and Development Department's website. In order to attract an even larger industrial economic base, the amendments would modify strict land use and permit regulations, allowing reuse of existing buildings, flexibility in building use and site re-development.

Residents have most vocally opposed a proposition to put up for rent 2 million square feet of warehouses - some of which currently house local businesses - in order to create spaces for local research and development industries from UC Berkeley.

According to Cassidy Turley Commercial Real Estate Services, the average asking rent of a warehouse in the city in 2010 was $0.58 per square foot whereas the average asking rent for a research and development space was $2.30. If re-zoned, the spaces would subsequently increase in price.

Artisan metal worker David Bowman, who co-owns David M. Bowman Studio in West Berkeley, said he is concerned that an industrial presence - and tenants who can afford higher rent - will cause real estate prices to skyrocket in areas that are already "too expensive" for artists.

"Artisans and manufacturers ... need space to do work," Susan Brooks, co-founder of Berkeley Artisans Holiday Open Studios in West Berkeley, said in an e-mail. "We thrive because there are other professional artists and crafts people in our building and in the neighborhood."

Councilmember Linda Maio, whose district encompasses West Berkeley, said she would not approve the amendments without the provision of a community benefits fund, which would provide job training and increased transportation services from revenue made by a real estate "boom" - however, small business owners feel this may not be enough.

In response, the West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies, an alliance representing over 250 industrial and cultural enterprises, has proposed the city take incremental steps within industrial protection zoning guidelines - which prevent mixed space use - and evaluate demand for space every few years.

"We're all for research and development coming here and coming up with a new iPhone app so we can find the keys behind our couch," said alliance staff member Rick Auerbach. "We're just saying do a judicious balancing."

Amendments to zoning guidelines include the proposed development of six large plots of land that will combine cutting edge businesses and homes, according to Maio.

Although mixed-use spaces remain unpopular among some residents, Joseph Slusky, metal sculptor and retired UC Berkeley professor, said the new buildings would be beneficial because developers like environmentalist Doug Herst - who is building a "green community" - have promised affordable housing in the space.

Nonetheless, the hazard associated with the proximity of housing and industry as defined in the Environmental Impact Report still has some community members worried. The council will further investigate the issue, Maio said.

Due to the controversial nature of zoning regulations, the council will hold another public hearing on Feb. 8 to address ongoing concerns regarding the amendments.


Yousur Alhlou covers city government. Contact her at [email protected]

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