OAKLAND — 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."