Fifty years from now, after the polar ice caps melt and West Berkeley is under water, people might look back on 2009 and say, "What the hell were they thinking?" Why were old hippies in what could be the most liberal city in America working overtime to block the widespread proliferation of green-tech businesses and dense urban development in West Berkeley?
Indeed, the scene at a four-hour-long Berkeley Planning Commission meeting last week was striking — a gaggle of fifty- and sixty-something activists railing against Mayor Tom Bates' vision to turn West Berkeley into a green-tech corridor. It was as if they were stuck in a time warp, convinced that all developers and corporations are just greedy bastards who must be stopped — even if those very same developers and businesses might actually help ward off the greatest environmental disaster ever known.
The hypocrisy was equally startling. People who for years have derided suburbanites for living in tract homes, driving SUVs, and eating fast food were now arguing for policies that would block green-tech and dense development in their city and thus help spur more suburban sprawl, longer commutes, and increased greenhouse gas emissions. And then there was the insufferable self-righteousness, the ridiculing and the heckling of anyone who disagreed with them, and the loud ovations for those who espoused their views.
In the end, however, it was really all about NIMBYism — and me-first economics. The activists are convinced that Bates' vision, and that of a majority of the city council, will lead to gentrification, overcrowding, and high rents in their neighborhoods. "We do not want to see radical changes," said one apparent former radical. "West Berkeley is a remarkable place to live," added another, waxing romantically about a once-bustling hub of warehouses and industrial manufacturing that has been slowing decaying for decades. "To destroy that is to destroy something very important to the city."
The pied piper of the no-green-tech-in-my-neighborhood coalition was longtime West Berkeley activist Rick Auerbach. His organization, West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies, argues that a proliferation of green-tech businesses would squeeze everyone else out. They're particularly worried about spinoff companies from UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory that have been scoring large grants from the Obama administration to help solve the global warming crisis. "We can't compete with people who get grants of five million bucks," the ponytailed Auerbach said flatly at one point during the meeting.
Auerbach and his group want to limit green-tech businesses involved in research and development to about six or so large sites along the city's waterfront. They're also determined to maintain the city's zoning tradition of "protected uses," which severely restricts what can be developed in West Berkeley to closely mirror what was there before.
They also want to restrict any business involved in "product development" on the grounds that they're not actually manufacturing anything yet and thus shouldn't be located in a longtime industrial and warehouse district. And they want to limit building heights in West Berkeley to 45 feet. In short, Auerbach's group believes development will lead to higher rents; and while that's probably true, how else can Berkeley nurture green-tech industry?
Developers and commercial property owners argue that the restrictions advocated by Auerbach's group also will result in the status quo. They say the dizzying labyrinth of Berkeley zoning restrictions already makes development nearly impossible in the city's waterfront industrial zone. And they contend that severely limiting green-tech research and development will prompt the spinoffs from UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley Lab to go elsewhere. As a result, they could end up in the suburbs, thereby making geen-tech less green.
They also argue that for Berkeley to ever attain the ambitious goals contained in its historic Climate Action Plan, people must live near where they work, and that West Berkeley provides a unique opportunity to combine green-tech businesses with urban housing development. "It's about having a dense community," said Michael Goldin, a commercial property owner in West Berkeley, during an interview outside the meeting.
So far, the Berkeley planning staff, acting on instructions from the mayor and city council, is mostly coming down on the side of developers and commercial property owners. They're proposing to open up much of West Berkeley to green-tech business, relax zoning restrictions that could pave the way for dense housing development, and allow buildings of up to 75 feet in height on transit corridors. And they appear determined to make sure that university and lab-related businesses stay in Berkeley. "Our greatest economic strength," said Michael Caplan, the city's economic development director, "is retaining and growing the emerging green-tech economy."
The West Berkeley green-tech corridor plan is scheduled to go to the city council early next year.
EBMUD Lessens Chance of Dam
A deeply divided East Bay Municipal Utility District Board of Directors has decided to plan for 15 percent water rationing during future droughts, a move that lessens the need for a controversial new dam on the Mokelumne River. "It strengthens the argument that we don't need to construct" the dam, said board member Andy Katz, a staunch opponent of the dam proposal who represents Berkeley and North Oakland.
Along with Katz, board members Doug Linney, Lesa McIntosh, and Frank Mellon voted for the 15 percent water rationing plan during a board meeting late last month. Board members John Coleman, Katy Foulkes, and William Patterson voted "no." They had supported a 10 percent rationing plan that would have made the dam project more likely. The 15 percent rationing plan could save the agency about 32 million gallons of water a day during drought years, although the board has yet to decide exactly how it will implement the proposal.
In early October, the board voted 4-2 to move forward with 10 percent rationing, but, as Eco Watch previously reported, it appeared as if the board could have passed the 15 percent standard because four board members expressed support for it. After environmentalists voiced disappointment about the outcome, Katz and Linney, who is the board president, decided to bring the issue back to the board for another vote.
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