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Tonight the Berkeley City Council will hold a special meeting for a final public hearing on the city’s proposed West Berkeley Plan. Ahead of the debate, we bring you a photo essay of West Berkeley by John C. Osborn with explanations of some of the issues under consideration. Click through to this post to see the slideshow or click on the slideshow images above to read the captions.

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21 Comments

  1. Name Withheld: I see your point about parking charges from a personal level. However, many who own cars might choose not to pay for parking, and instead will park on the streets, clogging the neighborhood further. I’m not up on the details of whether 4th & U received any parking waivers.
    With public transit being gradually downsized, many need to use a car to get to work. Many jobs do not allow for late arrivals, and public transit has gone way downhill in terms of reliability of late.

  2. I agree with Charles RE: charging for parking. I think the real problem with 4th & U is that they charge prices that are high enough that you expect them to come with free parking, and then charge for parking on top of that.

    But it’s interesting to note that the arguments against subsidized parking are essentially the same arguments used against universal health care or social welfare programs. I’m not trying to equate the luxury of owning a car with the basic necessities that social welfare programs provide, I just find it interesting where different people draw the line between acceptable/unacceptable subsidies.

  3. “Charging extra for parking doesn’t seem right to me.”

    If I don’t own a car and I don’t use an extra 300 square feet of space for parking, is it fair that I should pay as much as someone who does use that extra 300 square feet?

    There is no free lunch. Someone has to pay for building that parking. If the people who use it do not pay for it, then the cost has to be passed through to everyone.

    Why should I pay more for housing to subsidize parking for other people? That is like saying that I should subsidize their gasoline.

    If you are the one who uses it, then you should be the one who pays for it – particularly when we are talking about an environmentally destructive activity like this one.

  4. @Name, I understand the confusion (I think). I tried to clear it up and I’ll try once more and point out how I only half agree with you about prices at 4th and U. Sorry, this is a little wordy.

    Zoning liberalization promotes real estate and development speculation. The resulting development projects do not have to “succeed” for those driving them to profit; people make plenty of money off of projects that lose money. When unchecked by careful planning and zoning, it is very easy for development projects to go off the tracks and build environments that are very harmful to the economy (see, for example, the “exurbs”). When this occurs as a result of abrupt, large zoning liberalization, it tends (for a period of time) to increase real estate prices and rents, dislocating existing economic infrastructure (farms in the suburbs, light industry in West Berkeley).

    All of this is likely – both sides seem to agree – as a result of the proposed changes. Raising the market value of the real estate is inherent to the plan changes. What is at issue is whether or not the resulting built environment will be good for the City’s economy or not. Can Berkeley develop its way to a healthier economy? Can we build our way out of malaise? I don’t think so:

    4th and U. highlights the dubious suitability of West Berkeley for some of the uses encouraged by the plan changes. It also highlights that ambitious and expensive development is not much hindered by the lack of any well grounded plan for making the resulting structure thrive. I’m sure plenty of folks made good bank making sure that project happened.

    I would argue, incidentally, that you see the very same mistake downtown. There, lots of new housing was created and retail space created and/or improved – but the elements of the development is all at odds with itself. To work well economically, the resulting retail landscape mostly needs to command quite high rents most likely as a “destination” area. To make the housing an attractive “new urbanism” success, the retail landscape needs to host low-rent, locally-serving businesses. We lost the nice office supply store. We lost Comic Relief. We lost cinemas. You know all that.

    Single handedly, I’d bet, Berkeley Bowl has done much more good for economic development in Berkeley than all of the development downtown and, by making its neighborhoods more attractive residential areas, has helped expose the bogosity of the past couple decades of downtown planning. Let’s please not rush to repeat the mistakes of downtown in West Berkeley, even if it sounds sexy to toss a few more big offices and labs into the mix.

    About 4th and U. lowering their rents. As to retail: almost anywhere else in the city has better foot traffic, accessibility, and complementary attractions. The Bay Area as a whole has many, many better options. It’s plausible to me that they couldn’t much rent those units but at a loss. As to residential rent: some people dig the place (per yelp) and in a been-there done-that sense I can understand that. Corporate management. Few hassles. Nice enough. Whatever. It also has a lot of negatives (see Yelp). To really fill the place, though, rents would have to be so low as to dramatically change the economic profile of the people who live there – which wouldn’t exactly help their retail rent prospects or their property values.

    In other words: why should they lower rents? Do they actually care if there are all those vacancies? Why should they? That’s a half decent long term real estate investment, from some perspectives. Either the title holder or the title holder’s priority creditors are sitting pretty, just as dead in the water as it appears to be.

  5. Fourth & U has pretty high prices that don’t include parking. Parking is an extra $100 -$150 a month depending on the size of your vehicle. Pets may be welcome, but at the time I checked prices, you have to pay and extra $100 to $150 a month depending on the pet’s size.
    Actually, the parking situation at 4th & U should be brought up regarding the West Berkeley Zoning, as I think it is important especially regarding the proposed parking waivers.
    Charging extra for parking doesn’t seem right to me.

  6. @ Bruce ––– You asked us to “look at a project like the fourth and university “mixed use” development you took a photo of and captioned” as an example of “economically anemic development of that sort to enrich a few developers while leaving behind stagnation” that could “nudge away 7,000 plus jobs” in West Berkeley.

    Since the 4th & U building is located in West Berkeley and you told us we should look at it as an example, I asked what jobs it displaced. I don’t see the red herring there.

    And 4th & U isn’t an example of a “lack of demand” for mixed use buildings, it’s an example of owners asking too much for their space in the midst of an economic downturn. And if you want to talk about red herrings, trying to say that a mixed-use retail/residential building is an example of what one could expect from mixed use R&D/light industrial is a bit bonkers. Maybe I missed it, but I don’t recall anyone on either side clamoring for more apartment buildings in West Berkeley.

    One thing I definitely agree with you about is the transportation angle. Aside from the inflated cost of their units, the biggest problem with 4th & U is the public transportation in this city. If it was easier & faster for students to get from that complex to campus, or if commuters could quickly get from that complex to BART, the apartment units would suddenly get a lot more desirable and the influx of tenants would attract businesses for the ground floor storefronts.

    Right now 4th & U is reminding me a lot of what’s happening at Jack London Square, and nobody wants that.

  7. @TN: Nobody here, not even me, said that 4th and U displaced any specific jobs. That is a red herring suggested by Name Withheld’s comment. What I pointed out is that 4th and U is evidence of the lack of demand for mixed use in West Berkeley, and evidence that lack of demand doesn’t preclude development deals because the one’s pushing the deal are typically different from the ones left hold the bag. WEIBAC’s concern that the zoning changes will effect real estate prices so as to drive away an important employment sector are valid. And that can happen even if the net effect is a semi-ghost-town of new “mixed use”. Sorta like downtown.

    On the other point, satellite parking near major arteries, combined with enhanced intra-city public transportation is what I was talking about – not parking for the restaurants down there. Staff parking at Cal is dear enough alone to boostrap a system that could greatly enhance intra-city public transit generally.

  8. @Bruce: AFAIK, no jobs were displaced when 4th and U was developed. Brennan’s moved to the train depot adjacent to their old location which had been vacant for several years. Brennan’s customers can park at the Spenger’s lot if they get their parking receipt stamped. Celia’s Mexican Restaurant, which is part of a Bay Area chain, moved to Euclid Avenue north of the campus to a vacant space.

    That lot was mostly a large paved parking lot with two moderately sized food establishments on it.

  9. @Name, I’m not sure why you would ask such a random question so I don’t see how to helpfully answer. Sorry. Guessing what you mean: Fourth and U. appears to be pretty unsuccessful by public appearances, yet it is common sense to believe that a lot of folks who drove the project made bank. Zoning liberalization elsewhere in West Berkeley can – as opponents have said – drive up rents and chase away currently successful light industrial uses while chasing after similar short term gains with similar medium (and perhaps long) term losses.

    Another way to look at the problem of something like fourth and U. is to consider the problem of the costs of conversion back to light industrial uses. Suppose it proves out in a few years that, indeed, it just isn’t all that wise to try to locate housing and retail space right there. Seems pretty likely. That’s some pretty huge opportunity cost on that land spending all that on structures that aren’t much useful for… well, much at all.

  10. And, by the way: Bayer? In engineering circles, considered as an employer, they are what we call a “single point of failure”.

    If Bayer quits town? That’s 1,500 or so jobs gone in an instant. And Bayer has already demanded tribute from the city saying that, otherwise, they quit town..

    Growing lots of smaller employers is much, much better for the city than sucking up to one or two big thugs.

  11. John, re: “Bruce, you’re looking at total employment, not manufacturing.”

    Uh, kind of. I explained pretty directly what I was looking at and why. The “light industrial” job category accounted for 6,450 jobs in 2006 and plausibly around 7,000 now. The service sector, including restaurants, is another couple of thousand or so jobs and certainly a significant segment of that (difficult to quantify) wouldn’t exist without the light industrial jobs.

    Let’s look at a project like the fourth and university “mixed use” development you took a photo of and captioned. It’s pretty easy (look around downtown) for economically anemic development of that sort to enrich a few developers while leaving behind stagnation. In the case of West Berkeley, the plausible threat here is nudging away 7,000 plus jobs – most of them quite good – and leaving behind a sea of fourth and university projects plus some over-priced office parks in a Bay Area characterized by a huge surplus of R&D and “new urbanism” mixed use junk.

  12. Uh, John, you seem to be doing a good job of keeping your source for the employment numbers secret.

    Here is some of the city’s work:

    http://www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/uploadedFiles/Planning_(new_site_map_walk-through)/Level_3_-_General/06112008_Item9_WB_COMPLETE-original-packet.pdf

    Am I reading this right?

    Looking at exhibit C there we have 16,454 West Berkeley employees in 2006. Not 3,600 but 16,454.

    Of those, construction, manufacturing, and wholesale trade amount to 6,450 of those jobs. So, according to the City it would seem that those blue collar sectors employ many more people than you say are employed in the district. And that number from 2006 makes WEIBAC’s claim of around 7000 sound pretty plausible.

    You said Bayer employed half the people in the district. “[…] Bayer employs 50% of the district’s estimated 3,600 workers.” Where are they at, now, 1,500? 1,600? 1,400? West Berkeley in 2006, according to the city had 16,454 employees. So, really, you are saying we’ve had 10,000 or so lay-offs in West Berkeley since 2006?

    I’m guessing that you are looking at how employment didn’t grow as much since 1991 as hoped back then (though it did grow, at least through 2006).

  13. Actually I’m quite aware of WEBAIC’s arguments and I made clear to mention not only their counter proposal and concerns over these changes, but I made extra clear to highlight vacancies. What hasn’t been clear by the City is how many vacancies are available for R&D right now. WEBAIC claims there is plenty. There is, as WEBAIC claims, a lot of vacancies tight now.

    As for the employment information, I went with the source backed by State and County data. No offense to WEBAIC, but that was what I had to go with that was completely verifiable. And I doubt the State and County are also working against the workers in West Berkeley, because that would be a travesty.

  14. @John, thanks. Here is an example of WEBAIC’s side. I think that this does suggest a bias in Berkeleyside’s reporting on this issue (intentional or otherwise). Emphasis added:

    Throughout this process a narrative has continuously arose minimizing and misrepresenting West Berkeley’s robust industrial and arts economy and culture. A simple calculus is at work here: if something and/or someone can be described as non-existent, implementing policies to remove these “non-existent” entities is not only harmless, but requisite and good. Conversely, if the reality of low vacancy rates, productive activity, and good jobs is acknowledged, the logic behind radical proposals to rezone large swaths of West Berkeley evaporates and is revealed as socially and economically destructive (if not moderated and re-tuned to the existing dynamic). Some existing misinformation is simply due to very few of our citizens, staff, and politicians not knowing much about an area of the City they have little interaction with. For those without this familiarity, a “blank” spot on Berkeley’s map creates susceptibility to the “there be dragons there”, or “not” there, tales. Some misinformation is due to less neutral factors.
    Two recent, unfortunate examples are detailed here, not as personal criticisms, but to demonstrate how critically important your presence, a reality that can’t be denied, is, on February 8 th at City Council: 1.) An architect working with several of the largest developers in West Berkeley, stated during his testimony before Council on January 25th: “Your traditional blue collar jobs don’t exist anymore”. The disrespect to the almost 7000 “non-existent” West Berkeley blue collar workers contained in this statement consists not only in the denial of their existence, but a denial of the dignity of their work and strenuous efforts to provide a good life to their families and children. 2.) Until removed yesterday (though still cached on the City’s website), a City Council web page highlighted an “Industrial West Berkeley” link leading to an official page containing the statement: “Traditional industrial jobs are going overseas, en masse, leaving industrial West Berkeley a virtual wasteland”

    One of your captions had total employment in the area at 3600. WEIBAC claims nearly twice that many in blue collar jobs.

  15. The employment statistics I grabbed from the reports posted on the City’s website. Vacancy info I got from the reports, maps, and by walking around the district over the course of three weeks. There are many lease signs, plain as day, enough to warrant a conclusion. Plenty of info has been presented at the two public hearings as well, including testimony by WEBAIC.

    There have been disputes in certain data which made it difficult to verify certain claims.

  16. Bruce Love says “Characterizing Berkeley Bowl West as purely a service sector play is rather false.”

    I don’t see that they did that at all. They mentioned Berkeley Bowl, and then made a comment about service sector employment. They did not link the two.

  17. The captions to the slide show are odd. I’d like to see some sources and some quantification of the vacancy rate claims and of the job breakdown by sector. The captions are buying someone’s biased narrative of the situation but… who’s? Characterizing Berkeley Bowl West as purely a service sector play is rather false. Fourth and U. appears to struggle to get residential tenants, as well, based on what Yelp reviewers are saying (e.g. free 1.5 month rent deals, pets more than welcome, noise from the train tracks in this light industrial district kind of a bother, etc.) The employment figure in the captions to the slide show need to be reconciled with WEBAIC’s approximately doubled figure.

    Look, the City has demonstrated its lack of competence at developing its way out of economic woes with such masterpieces as downtown (especially the new hotel and the Arpeggio project). You trust these fools to apply their craft to West Berkeley – you get what you deserve.

    It’s a bit like why is China building ghost cities:

    http://www.libertynewsonline.com/article_340_30137.php

    “Business Insider speculated that the Chinese need to put their money somewhere, so developers have decided to build, as a place to store the wealth, even if the Chinese building these cities do not intend to live in them and there is no prospect they can find renters.”

    “So, too, China’s ghost cities might be nothing more than real-estate speculators working with the government to build extravagant new cities that turned out to be unneeded or unwanted.”

    A nice thing about big development, though, is that even if you are building a “ghost city”, you can find “greater fools” to subsidize your land grab and so forth. By analogy, I think that there’s plenty of evidence that the economic growth angle of changes to West Berkeley is pure BS. Swank apartments right next to railroad tracks in a City with no real housing shortage? Yeah, Right. TIny, tiny office and “R&D” parks a 40 minute drive from multiple regions with vast amounts more and less expensive vacant space? Who can possibly think that this makes sense? This isn’t about economic development that benefits the residents of Berkeley – it’s about a few rich people parking money in real estate.

    That article, on China:

    “”People are using real estate as an investment, as a place to store cash – they treat it like gold,” Chovanec said. “They’re stockpiling empty units. This is going on in cities of virtually every size.””

    Not just in China.

  18. If their retail space is priced anything like their apartment space, the reason that 4th & U is having trouble finding business tenants is that they’re just plain overpriced.

    The last time I checked their apartments were priced over 50% more than the average for other units in the area.