Factories and homes vie for urban sites
OAKLAND, Calif. – One after another, they stepped to the lectern, pleading. Don’t take the land, they told City Council members. Don’t put houses on it. If we lose it, it’s gone forever.This wasn’t a scene from some Central Valley agricultural town, with fecund acres being gobbled up at a rapid pace. This was a bustling urban enclave, and the appeals came from anxious residents and business owners demanding that city officials protect factories, not farms.”Many businesses, even small businesses like mine on a half an acre, give you 40 good jobs,” Bob Tuck, owner of Atlas Heating and Air Conditioning Co., insisted at the packed hearing in January on Oakland’s land-use policies. “If you pave over our business land, it’s never going to give you another economic crop. Let’s make sure that it doesn’t become a residential zone.”Large tracts of land are increasingly hard to find in California’s crowded cities. Freeways are more congested than ever. Elected officials and environmentalists are clamoring for developers to build new houses within existing urban boundaries instead of fostering more traffic and sprawl.At the same time, California lost nearly 340,000 manufacturing jobs in the last five years, making some industrial zones look like remnants of a more vibrant age.So what’s a developer to do? Put new homes in old manufacturing zones, of course.But as a flood of houses and condominiums has been proposed over the last several years where smokestacks once belched, Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles and other cities in California and throughout the United States have been pressed to protect the ugly ducklings of urban land use – industrial neighborhoods.Existing business owners want to guard livelihoods, urban residents want good jobs close by and many cities hope for an infusion of cleaner enterprises, such as biotechnology firms.Civic leaders are debating the very shape of the American city in a new century. They must ponder whether allowing family houses near warehouses will drive out industries with well-paying jobs. And if new, clean manufacturers will come if land is saved for them. Or if preserved land will end up as a lose-lose proposition: No new industry and no new homes.”We are dealing with the vestiges of a 20th-century city where industrial manufacturing has been this nasty, gritty, ugly thing which is harmful,” said Stephanie Pincetl, visiting professor at the Institute of the Environment at the University of California, Los Angeles. “But what does the 21st-century city look like? Do we exclude people from being nearby? Or do we change the way industry is done?”Early 21st-century Oakland is a striking patchwork. The tree-studded hills are filled with high-end houses sporting million-dollar views. The flats are a jumble of low-end homes in varying states of repair, industrial neighborhoods in varying states of occupancy, a vibrant port and a downtown that largely empties at sunset.Planning Commissioner Michael Lighty told the City Council at January’s hearing that the city is “at a crossroads.””Are we going to be a bedroom community with some industrial,” he asked, “or are we going to be a full-blown city?”Those who fear the former have some cause for concern. Nearly 7,000 new housing units are under consideration in neighborhoods zoned for industry. All but about 1,000 of the city’s 4,770 industrial acres are controlled by the airport and port. Of the 1,000, 725 acres have been designated as so-called housing and business mix, but a report to the Planning Commission last June said that most of the new development in that area is housing.As a founding member of the West Oakland Commerce Association, Tuck is at the forefront of the fight to save the city’s manufacturing neighborhoods. He is a third-generation business owner whose family has operated Atlas Heating for nearly 100 years, the last 80 or so at 32nd and Louise streets.He believes the area’s proximity to freeways and the port are critical to manufacturing and service businesses. He argues that his city and his hard-luck neighborhood need skilled jobs. At Atlas, pay starts at $11 an hour and goes up to $30.As Tuck pulls up in front of his small complex, he points out the latest loft developments, including one in which units sold for $550,000 to $650,000 each.”I could … develop this property for residential and make more money out of that project and net more taxable income than I have in 15 years running this business,” he muses. “I wouldn’t create jobs, except a year of construction jobs. But I understand fully the pull, the siren song.”It is the aspiration of many a city these days: Clean manufacturing that pays blue-collar workers good salaries without polluting neighborhoods.”We won’t land an auto plant in San Francisco,” said Jesse Blout, director of San Francisco’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development. “Could we be the home of a solar-panel manufacturer, or wind turbines? It’s possible.”Urban planner and Ventura City Council member William Fulton questions how realistic it is for cities to fence off land while waiting for clean manufacturing. The only industrial slam-dunks, he said, belong to port cities, which can expect an increase in warehousing and product distribution.And everyone else? “You can’t hold (land) and pray that someday someone cool will come by and want it.”Nevertheless, cities throughout the state and across the country are hedging their bets and tussling over industrial protection zones.In crowded regions such as the Los Angeles Basin and the San Francisco Bay Area, housing is as much in demand as jobs.In Oakland’s case, the industrial land provides about 10 jobs per acre, while more vibrant manufacturing cities can employ 25 to 35 workers per acre, according to a recent study for the Home Builders Association of Northern California.The organization’s president, Joseph Perkins, says Oakland is at the center of the national debate over industrial land. The key to revitalizing the city is bringing in a vibrant middle class, he says, and a middle class needs houses.”Residents and city officials want to see housing that’s affordable to working people,” Perkins said. “They will never get there if they say you cannot open up industrial land to residential building.”Some city officials question Perkins’ statistics, and they argue that developers are building market-rate housing without allocating enough to low-income residents. An affordable-housing requirement is being considered.For Michael Ghielmetti, president of homebuilder Signature Properties, factories versus homes is not an either-or proposition. Three years ago, the company finished a 211-unit development called Durant Square at the site of an old General Motors factory in East Oakland. It rapidly sold out.”I don’t think anyone in the homebuilding industry is arguing that all the land should be converted to residential,” Ghielmetti said. “But if there had been a moratorium on conversion, that project would never have happened, and you would have had a weed-strewn parking lot.” Vail, Colorado
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