City Council to Halt Office Development

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For the next six months, office development in West Berkeley's "Mixed-Use Light Industry" district will be prohibited, according to a city council decision last night.

The council adopted the moratorium in a five-to-four vote along strict party lines.

Members of the Planning Commission, who drafted the measure, argued that office development is driving artists and light industry members out of the area-slowly eroding Berkeley's cultural character.

"You keep putting offices in the place and sooner or later, the nature of the place tips and you no longer have a blue-collar place," said Commissioner Gene Poschman.

Sitting to the west of San Pablo in Berkeley's former industrial heart, the area experienced a wave of office construction during the late 1990s. But since the dot-com bust, demand for new office space in the city has fallen, according to a city staff report.

"When (high tech) was booming, everybody with a cockamamie idea wanted to be down here and they all wanted to be in warehouses," said realtor Don Yost.

Yost said the measure was unnecessary because there is no demand for new office space in the area. Additionally, city zoning laws already prohibit the conversion of artistic and industrial space to offices, he said.

But Poschman said the current economic slowdown gave the city an opportunity to reevaluate the area's future while developers were not "beating down the doors."

The city does not always enforce its zoning laws, Poschman said. The high rents offices generate are

pushing artists and light manufacturing out of the area, he added.

As part of an industrial belt that once stretched from South Oakland to Point Richmond, the West Berkeley area has been losing old-economy jobs since the 1970s.

"There hasn't been any new manufacturing of any consequence down here in 20 years," Yost said.

In recent years, artists have colonized the low-rent warehouses the city's heavy industry left behind. Attracted by the artist's hip aura and aesthetic improvements, commercial development soon followed, as in the popular 4th Street district.

"It somehow seems to be a law of real estate," said Berkeley artist Miles Karpilow. "Artists come in and take over abandoned warehouses and clean up the area and make it very inviting, and people come in and develop it."

Karpilow lives in Berkeley but high rents drove him to find workspace in Oakland, where he said many Berkeley artists are relocating.

Councilmember Betty Olds was among the more centrist minority that opposed the measure.

"We don't need it," she said. "It's not going to do anything about the rising prices. A moratorium will make it worse."

But Councilmember Dona Spring, who strongly advocated the moratorium, said the city needs a mixed economy, and therefore, needs to make an effort to save "as much industry" as possible.

"We can't put all our hopes and dreams in the high tech," she said. "We need our industry and our artists."

The council heard testimony from realtor John Norheim, a co-worker of Yost's. Although he opposed the ban, he said no development would take place in the area regardless of how the council voted because of the glut of office space in the East Bay.

Norheim said the city must provide public support for the arts.

"To protect the artists, you're going to have to subsidize a building," he said.

Councilmember Linda Maio, often the swing vote between the leftist progressives and the centrist moderates, said she voted for the measure because she feared the city did not have a clear grasp about what was happening in the district.

"We don't know how much industrial (space) we've really lost," she said. "We have to put the brakes on and figure out what's going on."


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