Council considers dramatic changes in West Berkeley

Change ahead for West Berkeley? Photo by Jingletown.

After three years of discussion, dramatic changes to the West Berkeley plan will be discussed by the City Council tonight.

The amendments to the plan will first be presented in a special worksession of the council at 5:30 p.m. At the council meeting, which begins at 7 p.m., there will be a public hearing on the amendments.

The plan, approved by the planning commission on a 7-2 vote last October, would allow for more re-use of existing buildings and relax restructions on research and development facilities in areas that are currently largely reserved for manufacturing and mixed use/light industry. The amendments would also allow for a height increase from 45 feet to 75 feet, for up to six projects over the next 10 years.

If passed, it would provide space in Berkeley for start-up companies that have traditionally moved to the peninsula, South Bay or San Francisco. It would also give Berkeley a better shot at winning the second campus for the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Opponents to the amendments are concerned about changing the area’s low-rise, low-density character, and about rising land values chasing out what manufacturing remains in West Berkeley.

Berkeleyside will have a full report on tonight’s meeting, but interested citizens should read the full document before the council. If you want to comment, the council allows one minute per speaker. You can also email your councilmember (addresses here) as well as the city clerk.

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  • Name Withheld

    Thank you for covering this! I wish I could attend more City Council meetings, but unfortunately my schedule keeps me from doing so.

    I am looking forward to reading your report on tonight’s meeting.

  • Bruce Love

    I am an opponent of the plan but I am not “concerned about changing the area’s low rise, low density character, and about rising land values chasing out what manufacturing remains in West Berkeley.” My opposition isn’t some romantic fantasy about keeping room for artists.

    My complaint about these changes is that they are bad for the local economy for most people and for the city budget. The “maker” guys at the business forum sound like they had the better idea.

    Expensive labs and start-ups are always looking for tax breaks pointing a gun at the city’s head. They always import rather than hire most workers. The money they make benefits a few but nobody else. Look at the ones we already have.

    Look at Silicon Valley. There, these kinds of companies create intense pockets of poverty and environmental ruin. They drove housing costs through the roof and so yes, that helped city revenues somewhat but the real estate bubble is still going strong there and must pop. (Why do you think a smart business guy like Zuckerberg chooses to rent and finds lots of rentals available?)

    If you want to make the hyperlocal economy stronger, it’s simple:

    Import raw materials. Make stuff with the raw materials using skilled local labor in sustainable businesses. Consume locally made stuff. Export a surplus of locally made stuff.

    High tech labs don’t do that unless we subsidize them (like Bayer). Research imports and consumes stuff and exports ideas, but we don’t pay for those ideas in local consumption and the profits on those ideas don’t get spent in Berkeley for the most part. The big high tech industries mostly use transient workers at the top and only unskilled local workers at the bottom.

    If West Berkeley makes a big high-tech shift like this today, in 10 years people will say it was the biggest and most corrupt mistake that ever hit Berkeley.

  • It makes sense to concentrate the new buildings near San Pablo, so the office workers can walk to San Pablo for lunch and give some much needed support to local businesses there. There should also be design guidelines that require the new development to be pedestrian-friendly, rather than having parking lots facing the sidewalk. There is good bus service on San Pablo, and this plan could help build a walkable neighborhood near San Pablo, if it is done right. (This new development would also be appropriate on some of the vacant lots that are right on San Pablo itself; the district should include both sides of San Pablo.)

    By contrast, development that is further west would generally be completely auto-dependent. The area further to the west should be the place for industry – not for auto-oriented “office parks.”

  • Alan Tobey

    The one thing Berkeley excels in “manufacturing” is innovation. If we believe in the economic theory of “comparative advantage” (go with what you’re good at), then we’d be configuring the WBP for the 21st century, not the 20th — optimizing for research as well as light manufacturing. As, fortunately, the Council seems ready to do.

  • As a resident of West Berkeley, I welcome more business into my region so long as it contributes to a vital, living, walking economy. Large unoccupied high-rise residential or office buildings don’t seem to be fitting the bill.

  • Bruce Love

    @Alan innovation takes many forms. You don’t innovate by doing construction projects, rezoning, etc. There are faster better and cheaper ways to build this stuff elsewhere. West Berkeley can’t really compete. We can innovate with the zoning and buildings we’ve got.

    The bay area, by the way, already has a big surplus of office and lab space and industrial land that can be cheaply developed for those uses. All of Berkeley is, what, 10 square miles? How realistic is this plan, really?

  • Name Withheld

    @ Bruce Love

    “If you want to make the hyperlocal economy stronger, it’s simple:
    Import raw materials. Make stuff with the raw materials using skilled local labor in sustainable businesses. Consume locally made stuff. Export a surplus of locally made stuff.”

    So essentially you want a manufacturing base in Berkeley?
    I’m sorry to break it to you, but that’s never going to happen.
    Local rents & the cost of local labor is far too high to make it competitive.

  • Bruce Love

    @name withheld I have to get back to work but, quick:

    The morning air on the South West side is filled with Acme bread baking and someone’s coffee roasting. A biker’s got to dodge the warehouse trucks which might be shipping stuff for Myer Sound or a local furniture manufacturer. There’s some infill around them. Stuff like the place that works on paratransit vehicals (or whatever they’re called) or a couple of bike and bike stuff manufacturers, etc. All them folks pay decent rent and wages as far as I know and they compete just fine because what they make is very special and hard to just move elsewhere. Maybe sharfenburger got more newshole inches in the Chronicle but don’t forget the real backbone businesses we’ve got going! And that’s just in south west berkeley. Where there is still a lot of room for more. Without new development and without any serious replanning.

    Now, a Berkeley bioscience lab cranking out genetically modified E. Coli or Bayer who were anxious to move? Nothing special keeps them here. Bayer only stayed after extorting tax breaks. Lot of the bioscience stuff moved to Emeryville and why: cause there’s nothing special to having it here in Berkeley.

    How about Will Wright’s Stupid Fun Club? Think we gotta rezone and build new offices for that? Hehe I thought of a slogan: Think only LBL and Cal stand for the 21st century? Think again!

    Price of energy is going to skyrocket over the next few years, odds are, in spite of BPs best efforts here in Berkeley. Serious food inflation will hardly be surprising (we’ll catch up with the rest of the world). The accelerated fall of the dollar even against Yuan won’t be too surprising. All of which implies local mfg. is a growth industry!

    I guess I’m trying to suggest and I certainly can’t prove so you could be totally right but i’m just thinking that the ground floor growth industry in coming years is very much local light industrial for which the real estate stock and zoning rules we’ve got are near perfect.

    It’s almost like an earlier generation of political leaders (many of whom are still present but with changed tunes) had some foresight! only the current generation seems to want to undo that.

    I wish I’d known about the business forum in time. I really want to hear what the maker guys were saying.

    W. Berkeley is one of the best kept secrets for sophisticated light industrial around. Don’t mess it up!

  • Eric Panzer

    So let me get this straight: you don’t innovate by changing, building, and encouraging cutting edge industry; instead, you innovate by pushing for more of the manufacturing you’ve already lost and/or failed to significantly attract?

    Berkeley is a city that produces immense intellectual capital, which we then lose to other cities which have attracted the companies and industries that harness this talent. If Berkeley wants to be economically competitive, it needs to better accommodate today’s successful industries. It is no coincidence that cities like San Francisco, San Jose, and Austin, which have been open to change, growth, and evolution, have seen great success, while cities like Detroit and Oakland, which failed to adapt, have seen decline.

    I find it amusing that Silicon Valley is somehow held up as an example of how technology and research is ruining a local economy. While not without setbacks, it’s nearly impossible to deny the meteoric economic success of the region over the past twenty-five years. Meanwhile, manufacturing continues to be harder hit than other sectors and educational attainment remains a remarkable predictor of employment prospects. How will it benefit Berkeley to dismiss the employers who would scoop up our city’s highly-qualified residents?

    I think that it’s great to carve out space for local artisans and small-scale manufacturers, but believing that we can build a competitive local economy solely on these is fantasy. I think that a future characterized by increased sustainable and local manufacturing would be great, but we can’t accomplish our more pressing and realistic economic and environmental goals by legislating wishful thinking alone. One need only look at the flack taken by the manufacturers we do have to see why others might be deterred from the city: Pacific Steel, for instance, continues to be controversial. Realistically, many manufacturing operations are simply not well suited to the sort of urban setting Berkeley has become, and holding out for them to the exclusion of more viable businesses would be to stick our heads in the sand. It seems that, in the age of the computer, Berkeley citizens are once again rallying to bring in a typewriter factory.

  • Alan Saldich


    Last night’s event was great – too bad you couldn’t make it. Now I have to take issue with some of your points in the posts above.

    While West Berkeley, and Berkeley in general, are great places to live and work in many ways, there is certainly significant room for improvement. Much of West Berkeley is pretty junky and not used well, not to mention a host for various illegal activities. On the other hand, there are great things going on there, and we ought to try to encourage more of those good things, including attracting business of all (well, most) kinds.

    It’s very hard to predict the impact of a particular invention, innovation or type of business on Berkeley ten or twenty years from now. I grew up in Silicon Valley (Palo Alto, specifically), and as a veteran of eight startup technology companies based in Silicon Valley, Palo Alto, Cupertino, San Mateo and San Francisco, I don’t think I agree with your perspective. In particular:

    1) “They are bad for the local economy”. To the contrary, I think it’s hard to argue that Apple, Google, Sun, Oracle, Facebook, Intel, Cadence and literally thousands of other startups have been “bad” for the economy in the Valley over the last fifty years. We all yearn for the days of fruit orchards and no traffic, but that’s just not realistic especially as we look at Berkeley’s next fifty years.

    2) “They create intense pockets of local poverty and environmental ruin”. There is some local poverty in Silicon Valley no doubt, but it’s hard to argue it was “created” by investment in business. I grew up in Palo Alto in the 70s and there was plenty of poverty right next door (East Palo Alto) at a time when lots of the land was dotted with diminishing apricot, plum and cherry orchards.

    Now there has been some environmental pollution, and probably some “ruin”, and I’m all for preventing that. But overall, it’s still a pretty nice place and a couple of million people live there. I bet that much of the ruin was caused by a range of companies including light manufacturing, metal plating, food packaging, military & aerospace, materials, semiconductor & chemical and other companies that used to flaunt rules much more recklessly. The typical technology company of 2011 doesn’t even make much locally (see Apple, for example). I don’t think that just because something can be called “light manufacturing” means that it’s better than some other business.

    3) “Expensive labs and start-ups are always looking for tax breaks pointing a gun at the city’s head.” Sometimes cities do give businesses tax breaks thats true, but it’s a gross overstatement to say that they are “always” looking for them or pointing a gun, etc… I most recently worked for a startup where we started with three people in 2002 – now that company is getting close to 1500 employees, about 400 of whom are based in San Francisco. Many of those employees actually live in the East Bay, including yours truly who lives in Berkeley. Just think if those 400 jobs (pretty high paying, in general) were located here instead of SF. I don’t believe we got any huge tax breaks to start our company in SF.

    4) Housing bubble and renting office space – Guess what, housing costs are high all over the Bay Area, in fact the East Bay was just ranked no. 1 in the country in terms of the relative cost of buying vs. renting housing. And as far as startups renting vs. buying, that’s almost always the case because it makes more sense for a startup to spend their capital on developing products, not on expensive real estate. That’s true almost anywhere in the country.

    Berkeley is a potentially great place with some gross deficiencies that ought to be addressed rationally. What I heard last night is that there is a significant segment of the citizens of this city who are tired of some aspects of the current situation, and some parts of West Berkeley fall into that category, along with Telegraph Ave and parts of downtown.

    Why can’t we have paved streets without humungous potholes in West Berkeley? Why shouldn’t a startup have access to competitive facilities in which to locate their business, whatever they are trying to do? Why should that business and the associated jobs go to Emeryville, Oakland or San Francisco? Why should one type of business (e.g. light industrial) get preference over another (e.g. software, robotics, biotech, etc…? Who can really predict what will produce real value in the future? Why not build local jobs here? And why do we have to put up with people sleeping in our parks and streets, and using them as bathrooms? I for one, am a little tired of hearing “well, this is Berkeley…”. Bull. We all have an obligation to behave in public in a way that doesn’t impinge on other people’s rights.

    Let’s clean up Berkeley and make a great place to live and work!

  • Bruce Love

    Haha… I had a good afternoon doing some innovation in Berkeley and I think there’s a chance my project will wind up creating some local jobs. It’s a gamble, though. Maybe it won’t be my project but one of many others I hear about. Maybe it won’t be mostly about software. Might instead or also be because of some of the really intense breakthroughs in mechanical engineering these days. You know, if you approach physical manufacturing of ordinary “stuff”, these days, using modern tools … heck, you could turn that warehouse that Odwalla / Coca-Cola Inc. is giving up into Willy Wonka’s factory on steroids but for useful and good stuff rather than just candy. Industrial revolution era thinking is less and less valid over time. We’ve got 3D printers. We’ve got hyper-elastic computing. We’ve got ever better small scale industrial robots. We are darn close to a time when one single programmable factory, with fixed and pretty low up front capital equipment costs, can churn out bikes, furniture, computer and handheld device cases, motorized vehicles, solar panel hardware, kitchen clocks, stoves, refrigerators, camp stoves, and more. One factory. Doing all that. In response to demand. So cheaply it competes with Walmart. We can not only build the factories to do that here we can use our local braniacs to help franchise the technology – exporting not only the manufactured goods but IP rights to the tools we use to build them.

    What do we need? Gumption, vision, and capital. What don’t we need? A new master plan, zoning changes, etc. Those latter things are a distracting waste of time. Those things are chasing an already lost opportunity. The amount of land dedicated to high-tech office and lab space and such both regionally and globally is growing at more than 10 square miles per month — by a lot. Berkeley can be, at best, an “also ran”.

    This isn’t about the old Berkeley canard of potters and painters vs. corporations. This is about not being suckered in by the first big money proposal to come along. We’ve got 10 square miles and West Berkeley is just a fraction of that and a lot of West Berkeley is already thriving, vibrant and healthy, thank you very much. Bayer and Cal already plunked down one huge economic dead zone and safety hazard. Are we really in a rush to double down on that bet?

    We should look at local retail demand (food, bikes, appliances, art, furniture) and look at basic needs and opportunities (and lost opportunities) in the emerging rebalancing of the global economy, look for maximum job creating export opportunities. Yes, we definitely should use our braniacs but we should be careful not to ask them to kill the rest of the economy, try and fail at a few biotech and similar ventures, and fail. If we don’t focus them on long term local needs they will pocket some short term money and leave town in worse shape than they found it.

    With due respect to Alan I don’t think I should take you up about how good or bad Silicon Valley has been for that economy other than to point out, yes, East Palo Alto and also the various BS stadium plans and also the various superfund clean-up sights and also the ridiculously inflated real estate prices and also the resulting food price inflation and also the regional exodus of basics like steel plants and car plants and such. Trying to emulate the silicon valley model right now, while that model is failing for the people there, is just chasing the dragon.

  • Seems to me that we are just rehashing the old, endless debate for and against development, and we are not thinking about how to make that development into good urban design.

    I had a job in a tech company in Emeryville for seven years. It was a good job, and I would like to see more good jobs like it. But Emeryville was an unpleasant place: see my pictures of what it was like for me to walk to lunch at

    The sort of glorified strip-mall development that they have in Emeryville is currently our default urban design, and that is most of what we will get in West Berkeley unless we do something to promote pedestrian-friendly design. It is not difficult: New Urbanists are using Form-Based Codes (instead of conventional zoning) to create walkable neighborhoods in many places. We could do something similar to make West Berkeley a good place as well as a source of jobs.

    I am assuming that the current plan for west Berkeley uses conventional zoning, which will probably give us Emeryville-style pedestrian-hostile development. I haven’t read the plan, so please let me know if it does have provisions to make development work for pedestrians.

  • Jane Tierney

    I don’t think importing raw materials to West Berkeley and creating low paying manufacturing jobs is going to happen. We’ve seen most manufacturing leave Berkeley for less expensive real estate further out. Berkeley’s largest commodity is its brain power. What’s wrong with capitalizing on that creativity and knowledge to make clean jobs that support the local economy by either employing local people (from the Bay Area) and/or supplying businesses with resources available locally. Berkeley Lab’s building initiatives in the last five years have all been LEEDv3 (or earlier) certified. The location of another campus here in Berkeley would benefit many. Especially with a shuttle to BART, which I’m sure would be included in their plans.

  • Bruce Love

    Oh gosh. I’m the only one on “this side” and so I do want to reply to Jane’s thoughtful comments but I regret becoming a kind of bore here. We can move on to the next example and a fresh thread?
    But @Jane: I’m absolutely not no way no how talking about low paying manufacturing jobs! The opposite of low paying manufacturing jobs is NOT a new master plan, new zoning rules, new random “high tech” development or anything like that. That’s someone or someones selling Berkeley a lot of snake oil. As in pool and that starts with P and that rhymes with T and that stands for trouble kind stuff. None of the brains that live in Berkeley are going to quit the town if the proposed changes to the west berkeley plan fail or, if they do, they’ll be quickly replaced. At the same time, none of the changes proposed will benefit the city much.

    What’s being proposed here doesn’t make much “structural” sense. It isn’t necessary for and doesn’t do much for actual value creation. It’s a con job.

  • Darrell Rupe

    I wonder if the city is going to continue obsessing over zoning maps to avoid dealing with the fact that our battery is dead and no one wants to offer us a jump.
    I actually have a small business in West Berkeley. I rent a medium sized space at a fair price with wonderful neighbors all around. I would guess half of the industrial buildings are empty. And the road (4th St) is in ridiculously bad condition. And now I tried to read this long, confusing zoning legislation before the council tonight which I can make barely sense of and it doesn’t read like it is going to turn any engines…

  • Name Withheld

    “What do we need? Gumption, vision, and capital. What don’t we need? A new master plan, zoning changes, etc. Those latter things are a distracting waste of time. Those things are chasing an already lost opportunity.” – Bruce Love

    …except that problems with zoning, ridiculous fees & requirements, & the anti-everything attitude of folks in charge of city planning are keeping people with gumption, vision, and capital out of Berkeley.

    What we need are fewer restrictions to new business. Why would anyone locate a business in Berkeley when the city is hostile to change, more expensive than its neighbors, and forces companies to jump through hoops that neighboring cities do not?

  • Bruce Love

    @Name Withheld: Berkeley has only 10 square miles. It’s “Berkeley, dammit” so rents are naturally high. Berkeley is surrounded in every direction by cheaper office and lab space. By the way, the owners of a lot of that surrounding office and lab space are in a panic because of a commercial real estate bubble that is hitting them hard.

    I think what will happen if the plan changes go through is that a few developers will make money for a couple of years, a lot of good light industrial stock will be ruined, city revenues won’t much change, and we’ll be left with a less useful version of Oceanside. It’s a corrupt plan. I don’t mean people are trying to do something they know is immoral or wrong. I mean, their great best intentions are corrupted by not really having the right idea.

    Let’s take it up in a later thread. For whatever reason (partly self-interest) this whole great discussion has got me thinking about how best to make my case. Let me think a little more on it and try to boil it down to a few simple points. There’s a lot of troublesome stuff in the proposed plan changes but the R&D definition is a big one. It doesn’t mean what many people seem to think it means. It’s a disaster in waiting. Yes, worse than what we currently have.

  • Dan Alpert

    To Bruce and all the anti-Bruces, thanks for that discussion. Good stuff! Not sure yet where it makes me fall, but very interesting and informative — and you did it in a civil way! Thanks for that!

  • Annie Nahmaus

    Longtime West Berkeley Resident here –

    I missed the most recent council meetings regarding the development of aquatic park. I saw a website which purported that development had the majority of (if not unanimity) support to go ahead and make the area an R&D zoned area for 75 ft buildings (not sure of the specifics). However, I was searching through the threads to see where any W. Berkeley residents were concerned. I didn’t see m(any).

    I remember when Fourth Street was very small and quaint (80s) – and now it resembles Broadway Plaza in Walnut Creek. Good heavens — now an Apple Store for heaven’s sake. There are more Audis and BMWs driving really fast through the industrial areas of fourth street. Ok. Fine. I don’t mind a little gentrification. I’m all for the pedestrianization of the are (in addition to the commercialization). (BUT) That’s not to say that I haven’t been concerned that more “BUSINESS OFFICES” what exactly do these 75 foot buildings / offices entail?

    Yes — how strangely out of place the Fantasy Recording Studio stands monolithically against all of the shorter buildings around it. Imagine, West Berkeley Residents, if you will — Emeryville at the Estuary — Mountainview packed onto one small strip —– San Jose like traffic all packed onto one Exit offramp to and from their jobs.

    Oh, wait — but perhaps these companies will employ a plethora of H1B visas. Why? Because “Americans aren’t qualified in the areas of math and science” like people from India and China are (they’re cheaper too).

    Taxes: If I was a big business looking to relocate, I’d want incentives — and the biggest incentives are Tax Breaks. Let’s see — how much tax opportunity was reaped from Bayer? I really don’t know, but I’m willing to bet that they were given some pretty huge tax breaks which didn’t really amount to much benefit for Berkeley. hint: Real Estate located near elementary schools goes down in price. Thank you Bayer, for the Rosa Parks Elementary School.

    Let’s consider some things: health, safety, and general welfare of the community – wow, thanks — Bio / Pharma / R&D right next to me where I live. Add the CO2 emissions from the freeway and the blocking of the sun (with the 75 foot buildings), not to mention obstruction of the beauty and natural waterways that were basically provided here for free by the acts of nature (not talking about the estuary, but that’s not a bad view either) – talking about the Bay.

    Where are all of these new “employees” going to park? 7th street is already the bumper to bumper LA expressway at rush hour. These Bimmers and Audis are autobahning down the far ends of 4th street like they think no one could be walking around.

    How much traffic can 6th street, the University Ave overpass, and 7th street sustain? Do you all propose to build a 75 foot high parking garage on top of the estuary? Do you also propose to make West Berkeley another suburban strip mall freeway exit destination?

    West Berkeley is a “Community” of residents — please remember this. People “live” here — we breathe the air that comes off of the 80 eastshore freeway and the steam that comes out of the iron foundry. Yes, it is light industrial, but measures can be taken that ensure that carbon footprints can be lessened — not increased by these new measures to utilize the are.

    I don’t like the idea of 75 foot buildings. There is a political reason why the area along the Eastshore freeway is barren. I heard the story about some gray haired ladies protesting to keep the view clear — bravo! We’re now a nation of paper pushers — we make nothing anymore. I was walking around West Berkeley and the fact that there isn’t really any manufacturing going on here really struck home as I saw all of the empty warehouses (that could have been because it was Sunday -) At any rate, if Berkeley really wanted to be cutting edge — they could encourage real innovative manufacturing — like hybrid energy R&D, alternative transportation R&D, public transportation company start-up R&D, bicycle manufacturers, Environmentally friendly Boating Shuttle R&D, A-M-E-R-I-C-A-N independent spirit bootstrap R&D, Technology – – – Wait . . . . aren’t most pharmaceutical companies further away from the population (unless you’re Richmond or NJ?)

    Maybe I’m being a NIMBY myself, but I don’t see any Pharma Companies in the Berkeley Hills. There’s land up there — the Berkeley Rose Garden needs an upgrade — kinda dated, folks. Why not put some R&D in the Berkeley Hills? Let’s put some Iron Foundries in the Elmwood —
    What I’m saying is that we need B-A-L-A-N-C-E…. and I want to make sure that West Berkeley doesn’t simply become the “dumping ground” for what those in the Hills don’t want in “their neighborhood.” I’ll be watching and making noise.

    – Resident who loves West Berkeley