Council postpones action on West Berkeley Project at second public hearing

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Following continued debate at its special meeting Tuesday night to discuss the third phase of the West Berkeley Project — an existing long-term plan that aims to expand the area’s retail and multi-use space — the Berkeley City Council voted to extend the public hearing into next week’s council meeting.

Last week, city residents and the council voiced mixed feelings 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 for blocks of land as large as a full city block in West Berkeley. This process would allow modifications to various development standards for large building sites in exchange for specific benefits to the city.

While most of West Berkeley currently limits buildings to be built up to 45 feet high, the third phase would raise that limit to 75 feet in certain areas.  It would also allow developers with master use permits to build up to 100 feet high for buildings that need the space for manufacturing or production, in exchange for community benefits such as creating affordable work spaces for artists, providing job-training programs and upgrading the transportation system, according to the report.

However, council members voiced their disappointment at the May 1 council meeting with the small package of community benefits ensured by the proposal. Critics of the plan also spoke out during the public comment section against the increased combination of industry and residential spaces in certain areas. The commission presented proposed modifications Tuesday to address these concerns.

Mayor Tom Bates said at the special meeting that implementing the third phase of the plan does not necessarily mean developers will automatically start building with no oversight, and because the commission has said mixed zoning development will not happen, many of the public’s problems with the project will be moot.

“So people have been frightened for reasons that I don’t know,” Bates said. “I mean obviously people don’t like change.”

The modifications the commission presented specify where housing units can and cannot be built amidst industrial zones in West Berkeley. It would also require new buildings of heights of 75 to 100 feet to be built on only half of the space available on a master use permit lot, according to the commission’s presentation.

The commission staff at the meeting also proposed adding a “general” community benefits category for “benefits that further the goals of the West Berkeley (Project),” and mitigations to prevent degradation of views from the area’s Aquatic Park. It would also prevent “unreasonable” shadows of buildings of tall heights within 200 feet of public open space.

According to an email from the West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies organization — a group whose effort is to provide an organized voice for the area’s industrial community and to maintain supportive land use policies — they support the separation of residential and industrial zones, saying it is  a “sensible approach that assures a continuing and successful West Berkeley economic mix while supporting community equity and environmental sustainability.”

However, the group also said in the email that community benefits are not sufficient or specific enough as written. They instead suggested a group of community-based organizations, including representatives of the industrial and artisan community, gather to determine appropriate community benefits, following a recommendation from the Alameda County Building and Construction Trades Council.

“(T)angible benefits of value must be returned to the citizens of Berkeley,” the email reads.

The council is still set to vote on the third phase of the plan at its May 15 meeting, according to the meeting agenda.

Annie Sciacca covers city government.

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