Berkeley City Council unanimously voted Tuesday to take the first steps toward plans to stimulate and retain startups in the city.
The Keep Innovation in Berkeley initiative focuses on easing procedural and zoning barriers to foster innovation in sectors such as tech, biotech and research and development, or R&D. Councilmember Rigel Robinson, who introduced the proposal, said it will now move to the city’s planning commission for further consideration.
“We already have an abundance of innovation that’s happening here every day, and we need to take decisive action to retain it,” Robinson said.
The initiative’s most notable aspect, according to Robinson, is a zoning change that would allow R&D startups to operate outside of West Berkeley and enter areas like Downtown Berkeley, Telegraph Avenue, University Avenue and San Pablo Avenue. Off-street parking requirements would also be reduced.
The recommendation, which was cosponsored by Mayor Jesse Arreguín and Councilmembers Terry Taplin and Kate Harrison, would also streamline the permit application process during the most “critical time” for startups, according to Robinson’s proposal. If approved, many R&D firms could operate under Zoning Certificates instead of stricter Administrative Use Permits, which can take months or years to obtain.
“Expediting permits for these spaces will provide the predictability and assurance that the startups need to stay in Berkeley,” Robinson said.
Addressing concerns over the proximity of new R&D facilities to residential areas, the proposal noted that zoning performance standards — which set preconditions for zoning approval — will help manage potential noise disruption and biohazard safety issues.
Despite the focus on streamlining the process for new startups, Robinson noted that the proposal will also enhance existing institutions in Berkeley.
“Berkeley benefits immensely from the presence of UC Berkeley and BAIR Lab which is why providing R&D space near campus is so critical,” Robinson said.
The initiative also recommends allowing Biosafety Level 1 and 2 facilities to operate in R&D-zoned areas, to be consistent with neighboring jurisdictions, according to the press release. These facilities handle microbes of low or moderate hazard to lab workers and the environment such as E. coli, HIV and Hepatitis B, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Wesley Jackson, president of Berkeley-based biotech company Valitor, Inc., said in the press release that the initiative’s proposals would help Berkeley retain businesses and stay competitive with other cities.
The press release also noted the potential for innovation startups to stimulate jobs in Berkeley and contribute to a broader impact in fields like healthcare and climate science.
“We see profound potential for this sector to grow, to the benefit of the local economy and to the benefit of the world,” said campus professor and Bakar Labs Director David Schaffer in the press release. “Jobs are created here, and the resulting brilliant ideas will make the world a better place.”