Council holds hearing for third phase of West Berkeley Project

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The Berkeley City Council held a public hearing at its meeting Tuesday night to discuss the third phase of the West Berkeley Project, an existing long-term plan that encourages new business growth by easing the city’s permit application process.

At the hearing, mixed feelings were voiced by both city residents and the council while reviewing the latest phase of the project, which — according to a  report from the city’s Planning Commission — would provide for a new master use permit process in West Berkeley. This process would allow modifications to various development standards for large building sites in exchange for specific benefits to the city.

Some residents spoke in support of the economic growth the proposed zoning amendments would have on the West Berkeley area if the third phase were to pass.

According to Linda Berry, vice president of instruction at Berkeley City College, the college has long supported the zoning amendments.

“A particular interest to us is planning for the expansion of science, engineering … disciplines,” Berry said. “Additional benefits of the new (multi-use permit concept) is that it fosters job creation by attracting new businesses to West Berkeley.”

However, some city residents spoke out against the third phase’s proposed allowance for manufacturing buildings to exceed the city’s 75-foot height limit and be built up to 100 feet high. In some cases, residents voiced concern for both the aesthetic of living among such tall buildings and for the economic repercussions — such as higher rent— that would be a consequence of this expansion.

For Berkeley resident David Solnit, the issue is that of an “intangible quality of life.”

“Do you want happy Berkeley residents and voters, or do you want unhappy voters,” Solnit said at the hearing.  “We moved to Berkeley, not Emeryville — we don’t want Emeryville to move here.”

Councilmember Darryl Moore represents District 2 — the district most impacted by the zoning changes — and said he was largely disappointed with the small package of community benefits ensured by the proposal, a feeling echoed by most councilmembers during the hearing.

According to the report, these community benefits include providing affordable workspace for artists, measures to improve transportation circulation in the city and the provision of job training programs for local residents.

“The way the language reads right now, you provide one or more of the benefits,” said Councilmember Jesse Arreguin to city staff presenting the report. “That’s not enough … I don’t understand why we could not institute a development agreement for projects in West Berkeley. The way that this is presented right now is vague.”

Another concern raised by Councilmember Linda Maio at the hearing was the negative effect of the proposed allowance for industrial and residential use buildings together.     The zoning proposals for the third project phase follow the council’s approval of the first and second phases of the project last year, which include zoning amendments for reusing or expanding existing buildings and also allow new uses of specified types of spaces in the city.

The council will decide whether to resume the public hearing or end it and give further direction regarding the third phase of the project to the city planning commission at its special meeting on May 8.

Annie Sciacca covers city government.