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Seminary wants to demolish buildings that neighbors see as landmarks

By Jia-Rui Chong Daily Planet staff
Wednesday March 27, 2002

On the dividing line of Dwight Avenue, where the southern edge of the UC Berkeley campus meets the northern edge of a leafy residential area, the American Baptist Seminary of the West is planning to build a five-story building on Benvenue Avenue, which will house residences, offices and classrooms. 

To do this, ABSW has to demolish two cottages at 2514 and 2516 Benvenue Ave., which neighbors argue are worth landmark status. 

ABSW is arguing not only that the city cannot landmark its grounds without its consent, but that the two houses are not worthy of the status anyway. 

This debate now stands before the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which must decide whether it can legally landmark religious property without the owner’s consent and, then, if it does have this power, whether it should landmark the two houses slated for demolition, said LPC Commissioner Becky O’Malley. 


• Does the city have the right to landmark? Does it want to? 


The city has no right to landmark the buildings, said David Levy, the ABSW lawyer, because of state Assembly Bill 133, which after passage in the early 1990s became Government Code 37361. This code says that a noncommercial property owned by a religiously affiliated association or nonprofit organization cannot be landmarked if the owner objects. 

The LPC was supposed to decide on the cottages’ landmark status on March 4, but because this religious exemption is a relatively new part of the General Code with few precedents in case law, the commission delayed consideration until it received written advice from the City Attorney’s office.  

The LPC will decide on these matters on April 8 and hold a public hearing in front of the Zoning Adjustments Board on April 25. 

The two houses that the ABSW is planning to demolish are worthy of landmark status because they date back to 1899 and are the oldest surviving houses on the block, said David Baker of the Benvenue Neighbors Association. 

“They would be called ‘The Robert Thompson Houses,’ if they were landmarked,” he said. 

But it isn’t just a question of maintaining these cottages, he added. Baker pointed out that there are five other buildings designated as landmarks and one as structure of merit in the area bounded by Parker, Dwight, Benvenue and Hillegass. 

“I love the neighborhood because I believe the cottages are part of the historical character of the neighborhood. They need to go along with the other landmarks,” he said. 

Keith Russell, president of the ABSW, said that his organization has tried to be sensitive to the residents’ concerns and also to properties they consider worthy of landmark status. 

“When we had part of our campus landmarked two years ago [by the city], it was done with the understanding that the corner of the property where these cottages are located wouldn’t be landmarked,” he said. 

“We don’t believe that these have enough historical significance and we need space for expansion on our own campus.” 

This previous agreement, said Levy, is another reason the city does not have the right to interfere. 

“The point of the agreement was to exclude the property now at issue to allow the Seminary to use the property. You know what property is like in Berkeley. They have to make use of what they have,” he said. 

Assistant City Attorney Zack Cowan told the Daily Planet that he has told the LPC verbally that the city cannot legally intercede, but held off elaborating until the statement he has written becomes public in the coming week. 


• Is this a commercial building? 


But beyond the question of the jurisdiction of the religious exemption is interpretation. Neighbors are also worried that the new building will not be “noncommercial” or used for religious purposes. 

“It’s a cash cow for the Seminary,” said David Baker of the Benvenue Neighbors Association, pointing to the use of two ABSW buildings by UC Berkeley Extension for English Language programs. 

“Those buildings provide income that undergirds our scholarship program and our salaries,” said Russell. “We make no apologies for funding our education.” 

But Baker said that the spirit in which the religious exemption was created was to ease economic hardship for church congregations that could not create the income to meet the high standards for building renovation that come with landmark status. 

“Why doesn’t this case fit? Because they’re a big, commercial rental organization. It doesn’t matter that they’re a nonprofit organization – that’s just gotten them out of paying property taxes,” said Baker. 

Baker added that the neighbors are also upset about the violation of a long-standing unwritten understanding with UC Berkeley not to expand south of Dwight. 

Russell insisted that the church is building to meet the housing, parking and classroom needs of its own students and staff, as well as the demand for space of the Graduate Theological Union, of which the ABSW is a part. 

“We are one of nine seminaries in the city and there is a need for common space,” said Russell. 

The ABSW’s own extension programs in states throughout the West also need provisional space when they are in Berkeley, he added. 

As part of this expansion, the ABSW will spend $3 million renovating two apartment buildings on Benvenue in the next two years, as well as $15 million on the new building. The new building is not slated for construction until 2004. 

“What we’re doing is growing into our dream,” said Russell. “The space for expansion is a critical problem, which is worse for small schools. We want to bring in faculty from other places, but one of the issues is housing. We don’t offer big salaries, so housing is part of the package.” 


• Is the Seminary being a good neighbor? 


Barring legal squabbles, said Baker, the real problem is that the building that the ABSW will be building is fundamentally not right for the community. 

“It’s way, way too big,” he said. 

Project Manager Aran Kaufer, whose company Integrated Structures, is designing the space, disagreed. 

“There are four other 5-story buildings in the area. You can see tall massive buildings on this block. It is not a small-scale residential block,” he said. 

The R-4 zoning allows developers to build a three-story building on the block without a permit, and a six-story building with permits. 

“We’re not asking for any variances,” said R. Gary Black, president of Integrated Structures,  

Besides, said Kaufer, the building looks like a four-story building because its slanted roof hides the fifth floor. They have also tucked a parking lot under the building to keep cars from being visible from the street and picked environmentally-friendly building materials and methods. 

“It’s not going to look like a cheap apartment building,” said Black, pointing to a building across from the ABSW on Benvenue. “It’s going to be a building that the ABSW is proud to own.” 

The Design Review Commission, however, agreed with the neighbors that the building was too tall and told the ABSW to revise its plans. Many of the buildings south of Dwight on Benvenue are three stories, so a five-story building would be higher than what is already there. 

In response to pressure from the DRC and neighbors, Integrated Systems eliminated one floor from their building and added more pedestrian walkways. 

“But campus development patterns are different from residential streets. We have tall buildings with a courtyard. We have to create more height for more open space,” he said. 

“The courtyard is like a public park. Anyone can use it.” 

Russell underscored the ABSW’s long-term commitment to being good neighbors. “We’ve been here since the early 1900s providing a safe, stable space for the neighborhood,” he said. 

Also, said Kaufer, a divinity school is not a fraternity. “It’s not as if seminary students are out on the streets drinking.” 

But the bitter confrontation has left both sides with a bad taste in their mouths. 

Although the neighbors have had several opportunities to talk to ABSW officials, they insist that the ABSW is not listening. 

“The neighbors were invited to a meeting with the Board of Trustees. I told the group, ‘It’s a pro forma ritual, so don’t be disappointed.’ The neighbors spoke sincerely. But no one said anything. They didn’t ask any questions. They just voted [to go ahead with their plans],” said Baker. 

“Ironically, there were a lot of neighbors who got on board [to oppose ABSW] there,” he said. 

Russell does not understand the animosity. Pointing to the school’s racial and cultural diversity, small size and landscaped grounds, he said that the ABSW should be a good everyone can agree on. 

Without charging the neighbors with racism, Russell said, “I’m just wondering out loud why there’s such resistance to a small, primarily black institution that is an anchor for the neighborhood.”