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Zelda Bronstein: "Bio Labs In Your Backyard?" 6/5/2024

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June 5, 2024


Biolabs in Your Backyard?

By Zelda Bronstein


City Hall’s efforts to to enable UC expansion in Berkeley have taken a new turn. Having already facilitated the school’s colonization of residential areas in Southside and Downtown, Berkeley officials are now trying to expedite UC’s appropriation of Berkeley’s commercial districts, as well as industrial zones in West Berkeley.


On June 1, the Planning Commission reviewed a draft of zoning amendments that would permit with a Zoning Certificate (no public hearing) Research and Development (R&D) businesses, including biolabs, under 20,000 square feet in West Berkeley, as well as on several commercial corridors (University, San Pablo, and Telegraph) that back up on residential neighborhoods.  Staff also proposed revising or removing the regulation of Biological SafetyLevel (BSL) organisms from the Zoning Ordinance. (See Item 10 on the agenda. A video of the meeting and a transcript of the proceedings have been posted on the just-launched Berkeley Public Eye website.) On June 26, the commission will hold a special meeting to conduct a public hearing on a draft West Berkeley Research and Development Zoning District and accompanying EIR. As of June 5, the agenda had not been published.


According to the June 1 staff report, the impetus for the proposed changes comes from a March 2022 referral from the council entitled “Keep Innovation in Berkeley,” which is attached to the staff report. Authored by former Councilmember Rigel Robinson and co-sponsored by Councilmember Terry Taplin, Mayor Jesse Arreguín, and former Councilmember Kate Harrison, the referral was designed “to provide relief from regulations that are ‘inhibit[ing] innovation in Berkeley.’”


Translation: Planning staff report that R&D startups founded by UC professors and graduate students are having a hard time finding Berkeley space “that meets their operating needs.” Companies “have grown out of their facilities on the UC Berkeley campus or in local incubators and coworking spaces” but still want to be close to the “talent, facilities and entrepreneur support programs” on campus and/or at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. If they can’t find such space in Berkeley, they will go to “[n]eighboring jurisdictions, including Oakland, Emeryville, San Leandro, and Alameda,” that “have a wider selection of eligible real estate opportunities. Updated zoning codes which permit R&D uses and streamlined permitting processes will give the City of Berkeley a competitive advantage for business retention and attraction.”


Deregulating biolabs


Most concerning is the proposed “relief from regulations” of biolabs smaller than 20,000 square feet. The staff report explains: 


Biological Safety Levels (BSL) are define by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the National   In Istitute of Health (NIH) to prescribe the work practices, engineering controls, personal protect equipment, and facility requirements for working with biological agents in a lab setting.


There are four levels of safety. “The lower the number, the lower the risk....[T]he factors considered in the rating include the nature of the work conducted and the infectivity, severity of disease, and transmissibility associated with the biological agents used in the lab.” BSL-1 labs present minimal risk and thus are “not required to be isolated from surrounding facilities.” BSL-2 labs, which “are ubiquitous on research university campuses such as UC Berkeley,” must include enhanced safety measures. The staff report claims that there is only on BSL-3 lab in California.


Currently, the Berkeley Zoning Ordinance prohibits “Commercial or physical or biological laboratories using Class 3 organisms” in the Mixed-Use Light Industrial (MU-LI) district in West Berkeley. It allows the use of Class 2 organisms, i.e., BSL-2 labs, “only in locations at least 500 feet from a Residential District or a MU-R [Mixed Use-Residential] district in West Berkeley.” 


City staff reviewed the zoning ordinances for nineteen other Bay Area jurisdictions (p. 11), “as well as cities across the country that support a broad range of R&D uses, such as Sacramento, San Diego, and Cambridge,” and “found that the City of Berkeley’s regulation of BSL activities is more restrictive than all of these jurisdictions.” (Fremont, offered as a model for Berkeley in the council referral, doesn’t appear in the staff’s list.) Most of the nearby cities “do not note BSL at all in their zoning ordinances.” Moreover, UC Berkeley “has many labs utilizing class 2 organisms within 500 feet from other types of buildings, including student housing and classrooms, and has not encountered safety problems with such co-location.”


We are told that the “West Berkeley Plan includes a policy to ‘periodically review the City’s regulation of biotechnology to assure that it both meets City regulatory objectives and does not unnecessarily interfere with the creation and expansion of biotechnology firms.” We are not told, however, whether such reviews have actually taken place, how often, and with what outcomes.


Also missing from the staff report is information about exactly any of the twenty-two referenced cities allow BSL-2 biolabs. It’s one thing to permit such facilities in, say, Oakland, San Jose, or South San Francisco, all of which are much larger places than built-out Berkeley. Do they allow BSL-2 biolabs next to residential neighborhoods? What about the smaller referenced jurisdictions, such as Belmont and Millbrae?


Killing the street


What makes commercial streets lively are businesses with interesting objects or activities in their windows—typically retail establishments. At the May 1 meeting, staff noted R&D startups are usually working on projects whose details are secret. It follows that they don’t want the public peering into their spaces. The shades will be drawn. Promoting the location of such businesses on Telegraph, San Pablo, and University will deaden the ambiance of those streets.


Commercial and industrial gentrification


Also unmentioned by staff was the effect that R&D business would have on rents. That’s long been an explicit issue in West Berkeley. As stated in the Zoning Ordinance, the purposes of the Mixed-Use Light Industrial (MU-LI) District include: 


3. Encourage development of an area where light manufacturers can operate free from the economic, physical and social constraints caused by incompatible uses; and

          4. Encourage the creation and continuation of well-paid jobs which do not     require advanced degrees.

The stated market for R&D expansion is people with advanced degrees—UC professors and graduate students. Their start-ups can pay rents that light manufacturers, who include artisans, cannot afford. Encouraging their start-ups to locate in West Berkeley will increase the economic constraints on the town’s surviving light manufacturers and artisans, few of whom own their buildings.

And what about rents on the commercial corridors? What can retailers, especially independent retailers, afford? How do those rents compare to the rents that R&D start-ups can make?

City staff don’t ask these questions. Instead, their major concern, as stated in the penultimate sentence of the staff report, is to foreclose “the possibility that Berkeley’s additional limitations on laboratory uses may put the city at a competitive disadvantage compared to nearby jurisdictions that do not supplement existing regulations with city-specific regulations.” 

The question isn’t what other cities are doing. It’s why they’re doing it, and whether their rationales are valid. Again, neither staff nor the council raised that point. 

Instead, we’re told that having more biolabs and other R&D businesses in town will “create new wealth for our community,” a claim followed by the statement that “in 2023 alone, 84 Berkeley companies raised $840 million of venture and seed capital and 11 companies received nearly $17 million in federal and state government grants for R&D.” (p. 12). Exactly how this “bring[s] economic benefits to the economy citywide” is never specified.

The real goal here is to continue remaking the city of Berkeley in the image of UC.

On June 26, the commission will hold a special meeting to conduct a public hearing on a draft West Berkeley Research and Development Zoning District and accompanying EIR. As of June 5, the agenda had not been published.