Seeing Factories as Essential Parts

Times Staff Writers

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 in late January, 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 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 canny 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 country 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 or solar panel makers.

This spring, as plans to protect industry take form throughout the state, 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 UCLA’s Institute of the Environment. “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.

At the high end, there is Rockridge, with Craftsman bungalows, Bugaboo strollers, late-model SUVs and tony restaurants offering balsamic vinegar tastings and nettle pappardelle.

And then there is West Oakland, which embodies the current clash between jobs and houses. New lofts gleam amid bustling salvage companies and swaths of empty or underused industrial buildings whose owners, critics say, would rather sell to developers than fill vacancies.

It is the place that Planning Commissioner Michael Lighty might have had in mind when he 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 many as 2,700 of the homes considered for the city’s industrial neighborhoods are in West Oakland, including 1,550 units approved for the 30-acre site of a shuttered Amtrak station, a lonely spot fenced in chain link and barbed wire, nestled against Interstate 880.

In his deep blue coveralls with “Bob T” stitched over the left breast, business owner Tuck is giving a neighborhood tour. He drives by the Amtrak station with its broken windows and a Carnation ice cream plant “that’s been sitting there for 10 years with no use.”

Tuck points out the former Nabisco plant with its multi-story silo and ornate front and gives entrepreneur Sterling Savely a verbal pat on the back. Savely bought the empty factory in 1994 and turned it into California Cereal Products, which mills rice flour and makes organic breakfast cereal. Like Tuck, he told the City Council at its recent hearing that Oakland needs jobs such as the ones he offers, not low-paying retail work.

“Starbucks is what you do when you’re looking for work,” Savely told the council.

As a founding member of the West Oakland Commerce Assn., 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 deeply that the area’s proximity to freeways and the port are critical to manufacturing and service businesses like his. He argues that his city and his hard-luck neighborhood need skilled jobs like the ones at Atlas, with pay that starts at $11 an hour and goes up to $30.

The city has mapped out nearly a score of potential industrial protection zones along a portion of I-880, which has been reinforced to support heavy truck traffic. It is debating which could allow for some residential development. A decision is expected before the mayoral primary in June.

As Tuck pulls up in front of his small complex and gives a clutch of change to the approaching panhandler, he points out the latest loft developments, including a yellow 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 about his almost acre. “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, which would pay 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.”

Speaking for Los Angeles, Councilman Greig Smith said: “What we are really interested in are non-smokestack businesses like computer manufacturing or biotech.”

Urban planner and Ventura City Councilman William Fulton questions how realistic it is for cities to fence off land while waiting for the holy grail of 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.

Concern surfaced among Los Angeles officials about three years ago, as they noticed a boom in applications to convert industrial land to other uses, especially housing.

In response, city planners have nearly finished a survey of 19,000 acres of industrially zoned land, about 8% of the city. Within months, they are expected to recommend which sites need to be preserved and which could better be used in other ways.

Among the areas surveyed are districts in Hollywood and downtown that are under especially intense pressure for apartment and condo development.

“We can’t have the entire city go residential,” said Adriana Martinez, director of L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s business team, who joked that even City Hall could become a target for condo conversion.

The survey follows a report prepared in early 2004 for then-Mayor James K. Hahn on how market forces and a permissive zoning process were whittling away the city’s industrial sites at an accelerating rate. About 1,800 acres of industrial land may be in disuse, the report said, and the city should reserve some of it for industry and encourage businesses to move in.

In the meantime, housing development is being scrutinized far more carefully in these areas.

Said Smith, whose Council district covers the northwest San Fernando Valley: “Our policy basically is forget housing. We’re not interested.”

Among those to whom Smith said he gave a thumbs down were developers who hoped to buy the 26-acre Los Angeles Times plant in Chatsworth. They had wanted his support for a zoning change so they could convert it to residential use.

The city’s industrial protection efforts came too late to help Barbara French, chief executive of French Rags. The Westside company made high-end women’s clothes for 27 years, until the building it had rented for a decade was shuttered last summer so its landlord could sell to residential developers.

The price of moving and setting up the company’s 26 knitting machines again was beyond her reach. “We couldn’t stay, and we couldn’t afford to move,” said French, who laid off 100 workers and closed up shop.

French Rags’ two-story concrete building was built in 1946 in an industrial neighborhood near the intersection of the Santa Monica and San Diego freeways. Its closure sparked a fight from nearby business operators who oppose the rezoning. Miami-based developer Lennar Corp. and its local partner want to convert the building into 84 “live-work” condos.

Body shop owner Peter Sardi has been fixing damaged cars at nearby Beverly Coachcraft Inc. for almost 30 years. He said he faces strict controls over the use of paint, chemicals and hazardous waste disposal that sharply limit where he can do business.

“I am subjected to zillions of laws and regulations, and these guys just decide they want to change the zoning?” Sardi said. “It just mystifies me how they can do that.”


In reality, the conversion of industrial land to houses is not that mysterious. As planner Fulton points out, “housing developers can outbid just about anybody for any land.” And in crowded regions like 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 only 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 Assn. of Northern California.

The organization’s president, Joseph Perkins, believes that 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 in an interview. “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 home building 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.”



Taking steps to protect industry

As residential developers eye industrial land for housing, cities throughout the country are considering protections, including the following:

Long Beach

Adopted a strategy in January for protecting jobs and creating business that discourages conversion of industrial property to residential or commercial uses. Formal policies are expected in a year.

New York City

Just wrapped up public comment on boundaries for a series of “industrial business zones” proposed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg last year. The Industrial Business Zone Boundary Commission could be convened by the end of the month to decide on the boundaries.

San Diego

Has mapped the city’s industrial areas and drafted a plan to protect prime industrial land. The City Council’s land use and housing committee began hearing testimony on the draft, and the Planning Commission will address it later this month.

San Francisco

Last month ) began a series of community meetings to discuss its Eastern Neighborhoods plan, proposed zoning changes to balance industrial land protection and residential development in the South of Market, Mission, Potrero Hill and Waterfront districts. The Planning Commission eventually will weigh in on potential zoning changes.

San Jose

Changed the general plan on 4,000 acres in North San Jose to increase industrial density on part and allow housing on the rest in a compromise to protect manufacturing land and allow necessary residential development. The plan is in limbo after an unfavorable court ruling on March 2. The city now must decide how to proceed.

Santa Monica

Is updating its general plan to find ways to preserve areas for industrial and light manufacturing uses. The new plan should be completed within a year and a half.


Recently debated industrial protection as it refigured its general plan. Zoning and economic development details are in the works.


Source: Times research

Los Angeles Times