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Cottage razing angers residents

By John GeluardiDaily Planet Correspondent
Friday October 27, 2000

When Harvey Smith went away on vacation, he had no idea that when he came back to his quiet north Berkeley neighborhood, he would find that a modest cottage a half block from his house had disappeared. 

“I thought it was going to be remodeled,” said Smith, who had understood that the tiny house was getting an addition. “I was gone for three days and when I came back the house was gone. I was shocked.” 

Residents of the quiet tree-lined street said they are outraged a miniature 1,020 square foot cottage at 1728 Delaware St. could be razed when the owner Patrick Mebine led them to believe it was only going to be remodeled. They said the cottage was consistent with the neighborhood and the new home, three times the size of the original, is not. 

“He was slick,” said Richard Robyn who lives across the street from the site. “Initially he said he was going to remodel and even showed us plans and then the next thing we know he tore down the entire home.” 

Patrick Mebine did not return calls from the Daily Planet. 

The residents are echoing complaints of other Berkeley neighborhoods as small homes are being torn down and replaced with larger ones. Anthony Bruce, president of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, said his organization has heard of at least five homes in the last six months that have either been demolished or have a pending demolition application. 

Bruce said the situation is new to Berkeley, but has been a problem in other cities. The problem became so bad in San Jose in recent years the city enacted a Monster Home Ordinance last year, which limits the size of new homes and expansive remodels.  

“I’m surprised this sort of thing has taken so long to reach Berkeley,” Bruce said.  

Mark Rhodes of Berkeley’s Planning and Development Department said the process is a very public one and that the neighbors of the project attended a public hearing on the project. The Berkeley Building Code requires developers to post notices of public hearings as well as mailing notices to all residents within 300 feet of building sites. 

Rhodes said even though developers go through legal channels and neighbors are offered the chance to participate they can still be shocked once a home is demolished or remodel doesn’t meet their expectations. 

“This is happening all over the city,” Rhodes said. “There’s a lot of money and people want to remodel and build homes and others feel like the city is changing around them.” 

Carrie Olson, a Landmarks Preservation commissioner, said that even though the process is public, it is very complicated and unless concerned neighbors are familiar with building code terminology project plans can be confusing. 

In the case of 1728 Delaware St., the Zoning Adjustments Board was apparently confused by the presentation of the project at their Aug. 8 meeting. “This is a very, very strange decision,” said Gene Poschman, a ZAB commissioner. “We thought we were talking about an addition. At no time during the review did we discuss a complete demolition.” 

Rhodes said the Planning Department determined the demolition of the more-than 80-year-old home on Delaware Street and the construction of the larger home would not be detrimental to adjacent properties. He said the term “detrimenta” is interpreted in the code as blocking sunlight and views. 

“Just because people are upset about it doesn’t mean it’s going to be detrimental to the neighborhood,” he said. 

Olson said the demolition trend is a serious one and that Berkeley should institute a design review process for residential structures. Currently Berkeley only reviews the design of commercial buildings.