Back to the Green Future

A West Berkeley environmentalist and successful businessman wants to build a livable, walk-able community, but he's facing old-school opposition.

Doug Herst is trying to reimagine how we live, work, and play — at least in West Berkeley. The environmentalist and successful businessman wants to create an artists colony and green-tech development on land he owns near the city’s waterfront. It would be a livable, walkable community, where people live next to their work and to local shops. His vision also promises to lower greenhouse-gas emissions because residents won’t need to use their cars as often. But Herst is facing resistance at Berkeley City Hall, a place one would think would be at the forefront of the fight against climate change, yet at times seems firmly wedded to outdated notions.

More than a century ago, Americans typically lived as Herst envisions for his community — close to where they worked. Oftentimes, right upstairs. But after the invention of the automobile, our work and home lives became increasingly detached. We established laws that prohibited our places of work from being near our homes. Yet these so-called zoning regulations have caused unforeseen problems. Namely, sprawl. They’ve forced us to live far away from our work, and required us to drive to our favorite restaurants and stores.

Herst, by contrast, wants to go back in time on 5.5 acres that he owns between Allston and Bancroft ways, bordered by Fifth Street and the railroad tracks. He’s proposing up to 320 units of workforce housing, including about 50 affordable lofts for artists, next to green-tech businesses and artist studios. In the center of the community would be small artisan shops and an urban garden, where residents could farm their own food. It also would feature rooftop solar panels and vertical gardens so that residents could grow vegetables on the outside walls of their condos. “It’s a green vision; it’s about reintegrating people back into a community,” explained Herst, who also sits on the board of the Berkeley environmental group, Seacology, a nonprofit that protects island ecosystems around the world.

In many ways, Herst represents West Berkeley’s past and what its future should be. For more than a century, his family business, Peerless Lighting, designed and manufactured efficient lighting fixtures. But a few years ago, Herst retired after selling his business to Acuity Brands. Eventually, Acuity concluded that the West Berkeley factory could no longer compete in the global marketplace. Its union labor costs were just too high. And so it closed Peerless Lighting’s West Berkeley plant.

But a pivotal part of the business remains open on Herst’s property — Peerless Lighting’s research and development division. It harnesses the creativity of its employees, who design efficient new lighting fixtures that both save energy and provide enough light to enhance worker performance. Peerless has been on the cutting edge of its industry for decades, and Herst has plans for it to be part of his new green-tech community, which he calls, Peerless Greens.

But Berkeley Planning Director Dan Marks is not enthusiastic about Herst’s vision. Marks is an old-school proponent of keeping homes separate from work spaces, especially in West Berkeley’s traditional industrial, manufacturing, and warehouse district. In a recent interview, he called Herst’s plan “very exciting,” but nonetheless expressed strong reservations. “The biggest challenge is having homes in the area,” he said. “We do not believe that residential uses should be allowed in the manufacturing area.”

Marks contends that homes will drive up the value of land and eventually make West Berkeley unaffordable for traditional blue-collar businesses. He also worries that West Berkeley will lose its industrial base over time when new residents complain about being next to manufacturing companies. Keeping the two separate, he said, “is one of the fundamentals of zoning.”

In truth, West Berkeley, like many parts of the country, has been shedding manufacturing jobs in recent years, with Peerless Lighting providing a prime example. That’s one of the reasons why the Berkeley City Council wants to turn the area into a green-tech corridor, featuring research and development companies — again, much like Peerless Lighting is today.

In addition, an increasing number of environmentalists are realizing that Herst’s vision for West Berkeley is spot-on. In the 2009 book Green Metropolis, environmental writer David Owen makes a convincing argument for why New York is the greenest city in America. The reason? People don’t drive. They live near their work, and they either walk or take mass transit. Owen explains that New York is an anomaly because unlike most cities, it developed before the advent of modern zoning rules. And today, New York’s per capita carbon footprint is less than one-third the national average.

A 2008 report, Growing Cooler, by the Urban Land Institute, reaches the same conclusion. “For sixty years, we have built homes ever farther from workplaces … and isolated other destinations — such as shopping — from work and home. From World War II until very recently, nearly all new development has been planned and built on the assumption that people will use cars every time they travel. As a larger and larger share of our built environment has become automobile dependent, car trips and distances have increased, and walking and public transit have declined.”

Yet despite this research, Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, who famously gave up his car and now walks or takes public transit nearly everywhere, is not completely on board with Herst’s proposal, either. He says he’s okay with some housing, but thinks Herst is proposing too many units for a manufacturing zone. “The question is the scale,” he told Eco Watch. “It may be over the top.”

Herst and Darrell de Tienne, a San Francisco consultant who is helping develop Peerless Greens, say current Berkeley zoning rules already allow them to build nearly 320 units on the property. Part of Herst’s land is zoned for housing, and if they were to fully maximize that parcel, they could build a lot of units. But such a dense development would make the project less attractive — Herst and de Tienne call it the “Soviet Model.” And so they’re asking the city to rezone the property and allow them to move the housing to the center of the proposed community.

So far, Herst’s plan has at least one champion inside Berkeley City Hall. Councilman Darryl Moore, whose district includes Peerless Greens, said Herst’s project dovetails with the city’s Climate Action Plan, which mandates that Berkeley become less dependent on cars. “This is the kind of project that we should be doing,” Moore said. “Visionaries like Doug Herst get it.”

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