University Avenue owner waits for preservation committee to decide
Victor Touriel left Monday’s Landmarks Preservation Committee meeting disappointed and unsure of his financial future.
Touriel has owned the Darling Flower Shop at 2008 University Ave. for about 40 years. The flower shop is attached to the late 19th century Victorian house in which he was raised.
His plan to partner with a developer to demolish the existing structures and build a new multi-use structure has placed the small businessman in the thick of a battle between preservationists and developers who are arguing about Berkeley’s future cityscape.
“I don’t understand it at all,” Touriel said after the commission passed a motion to refer the matter to its July 1 meeting.
Touriel decided to develop his land primarily so that he could pass his business to his son and meanwhile provide for his own retirement.
To achieve this, he needed some type of steady income. Thus he formed a partnership with Panoramic Ventures, a Berkeley real estate company headed by developer Patrick Kennedy.
Under the plan the Touriels and the developer would own a stake in a new multi-use building that would include a flower shop and 35 units of housing.
Tenants there would pay for Touriel’s retirement. His son could run the flower business.
But the project was put in jeopardy when the Landmark Preservation Commission voted 5-2-2 in February to declare the Victorian a “Structure of Merit.”
This classification, which can be overturned by the city council, means that the commission must grant approval to demolish or alter the outside of the building.
The developers appealed the ruling to the council, which in a rare decision decided to remand the case back to the commission for further deliberations.
The council’s decision was based on the developers’ claim that the vote was invalid, based on the fact that one commissioner who voted to designate the Victorian had neither attended the public hearings nor had access to related materials, and was thereby not prepared to make an informed decision. Because a five-vote majority is needed to designate buildings, the motion would have failed if the commissioner had not voted.
This unusual set of circumstances clouded the debate at Monday’s meeting. The commissioners were confused about the legal implications of the council’s remand, and its obligations to the case.
Several disagreed with the developers’ claims that the remand in effect nullified the February vote, and that the commission’s authority to designate the property ended July 3. The legal ambiguities convinced a 6-3 majority to request clarification from the city attorney then return to the issue next month.
Legal issues were just one area of dispute between developers and several commission members who also clashed over the architectural and historic merit of the building.
Tim Kelly, an architectural consultant hired by the developers, agreed with a previous historical resources report that said the Victorian failed to qualify as a “structure of merit” because it had undergone so many changes.
“It’s history, but not significant history,” said Kelly, who pointed out that stucco had been laid on the building and that much of it had been rebuilt after a fire in the 1940s.
Commissioner Becky O’Malley, on the other hand, said the renovations added to Victorian’s significance.
“If you have a building that has changed over time, it in itself is part of the historical record,” she said.
The historical significance of the Victorian’s builder and first resident John Doyle was introduced as another possible reason to protect it.
Leslie Emmington, the commissioner who drafted the original application for designation, researched Doyle and found him mentioned often in the Berkeley Herald around the turn of the 20th century. From this she concluded that the key issue was not the building’s Victorian integrity, but whether it makes a valuable contribution to Berkeley’s architectural history.
Patrick Kennedy insisted that the commissioner’s arguments were just a ruse. “Certain members of the LPC are anti-development masking as preservationists,” said Kennedy, who claimed that the LPC often uses delay tactics to hinder a developer’s ability to move ahead with projects.
“Berkeley is the only city in Northern California that lost housing in the last 20 years,” said Kennedy. “ The evidence suggests that the LPC and others do well in preventing development.”
O’Malley defended the commission’s rulings. “He [Kennedy] seems to have targeted historic sights,” said O’Malley who also argued that developers such as Kennedy are usually ultimately successful in getting their projects approved, even over the objections of the commission.
“He gets what he wants partly from political connections,” O’Malley said. She added that Kennedy and his associates have a lot of influence in city council, because they make generous political donations.
According to Chris Hudson, the project will continue to move forward while the designation remains unresolved. The project has been approved by Design Review and will go before the Zoning Adjustment Board this month. He is confident that if the commission again designates the Victorian, it will be overturned.
For Victor Touriel the stakes are potentially high. The flower shop occupies the downstairs of the Victorian, while the upstairs is used for storage. If he is not permitted to develop the property, which also includes a small parking lot, its resale value may be affected. “I spent all my money on my family, now this was my retirement,” Touriel said.