Berkeley Landmarks Preservation Commissioners Monday approved plans for a pair of duplexes in the city’s newest landmarked historic neighborhood, ending a long and grueling battle.
The same meeting also witnessed the start of what may prove an equally contentious and even more complex battle over the nearby site where a San Mateo developer hopes to building a four-story condo and retail complex.
Three other projects—the expansion of one of Berkeley’s best-known landmarks, a proposal to landmark a West Berkeley industrial building and the fate of a home designed by one of California’s best-known architects—ensured that the meeting drew the largest turnout in recent memory.
Sisterna duplex designs approved
Residents and property owners along half-block sections of Fifth and Sixth streets and the south side of the block of Addison Street joined with preservation activists to apply for recognition as a city historic district, a status granted by the commission March 1.
The move to landmark the historic Sisterna neighborhood was sparked by developer Gary Feiner, when he applied to turn two Victorian cottages at 2104 and 2108 Sixth St. into duplexes.
In creating the Sisterna district, the commission refused to grant landmark status to the house at 2108 Sixth St. because the majority felt the structure had been remodeled to the point where the significant distinguishing features of the original had been obliterated.
But the commission did landmark the lot as part of the district, giving it the final say over Feiner’s proposal.
Commissioners rejected Feiner’s original designs as both too bulky and too similar to each other to fit into a neighborhood characterized by small and architecturally distinct 19th Century working class homes.
During the following months, commissioners found themselves at odds not only with the developer but with city staff as well.
Before Berkeley’s Zoning Adjustments Board voted to issue a staff-prepared mitigated negative declaration on the project—a key pre-construction document—landmarks commissioners voted a unanimous resolution declaring the document erred in finding that Feiner’s project did not “substantially degrade the existing visual character or quality of the site and its surroundings.”
Though the resolution detailed the commission’s objections to the design and laid out steps for resolving the issues, none of their recommendations and findings made it into the documents ZAB adopted, angering the landmarks panel and leading to heated exchanges with city staff.
Many of the neighbors objected to any form of mitigated negative declaration and urged the city to order a more rigorous and costly environmental impact report, but city staff strongly disagreed.
But the landmarks commission held final say over the project, and members set subsequent meetings between Feiner, his architects, neighbors and a specially appointed commission subcommittee led to a series of plan revisions, culminating in the design approved Monday.
While neighboring property owners weren’t entirely happy with the new designs and requested an additional subcommittee meet before the final vote, commissioners voted unanimously to approve the project.
The commission still retains final say over the design revisions they requested.
Brennan’s Battle Brewing
Monday’s meeting also saw the opening salvoes of what promises to be another development battle on a site two blocks away from Feiner’s duplexes.
The fracas was triggered in July, when developer Dan Deibel of the Urban Housing Group of San Mateo filed plans to build a full-block condominium, retail and parking complex on the block lined by Addison Street, University Avenue, Fourth Street and the Santa Fe Railroad tracks.
The project designer is Berkeley architect Kava Massih, who is also designing the new Berkeley Bowl further south in West Berkeley.
The project would demolish two existing businesses at the site: Celia’s, a Mexican restaurant at 2040 Fourth St., and Brennan’s, a longtime Berkeleyan tavern at the corner of Fourth and University.
While Celia’s owners have said they have no plans to reopen at the site, Deibel and the owners of Brennan’s have said the venerable pub will reopen in new quarters in the complex.
Berkeley preservationist Gale Garcia added a complication in late October when she filed an application to landmark both structures, prompting the sizable turnout at Monday’s meeting.
Elizabeth Wade, daughter of Brennan’s creator John Brennan and the current owner of the working class pub, favors the demolition, as do her son and daughter, Barney and Margaret Wade.
Support for the Wades came from several people, including Steven Block of Moraga, who charged that neither building had any merit, industrial Realtors Don Yost and John Norheim, whose office is nearby, Bernie Ryan and Deibel.
Supporters of the landmark designation included several proponents of the Sisterna Tract; John Brennan, a cousin of the Wades; and the daughter of Irwin Johnson, designer of the Celia’s building who requested by letter that the commission not act before their next meeting, where she promised to offer her own testimony.
Deede Sloan, a long-time Brennan’s customer, recalled once standing in the food line with singer Bing Crosby and Jerry Brown.
Another potential stumbling block came from an amateur historian, a well-known archaeologist, and representatives of Native American groups, who all sought to block any development on the land until a thorough scientific search can determine if ancient burials lie beneath.
The buildings are a block away from where a dozen skeletons were unearthed in the 19th Century and a few blocks from the center of the Berkeley Shellmound, one of the oldest sites of human habitation in the Bay Area.
Shellmounds served as burial sites, and are considered sacred sites by contemporary Native Americans. Smaller sites tended to cluster around the largest mounds, within a radius that could include the project site.
Kent Lightfoot, a UC Berkeley archaeology professor who specializes in the shellmound cultures, told the commission that Deibel had promised a full two-stage archaeological survey to thoroughly probe the site for possible artifacts and remains. Richard Schwartz, an amateur historian and preservationist who assisted on the landmarking proposal, said he was present for the promise.
Deibel said he had conducted a limited survey but had yet to receive the results.
The possible presence of Native American remains sparked the interest of city Planning Manager Mark Rhoades.
“I have very extensive concerns about the shellmound, which will require extensive testing,” he told the commissioners. “But that’s not before you tonight, only Celia’s and Brennan’s.”
Several commissioners disagreed, offering the possibility that the presence of a Native American cultural site could be sufficient grounds for landmarking the entire site.
The commissioners voted to continue the hearing until their Dec. 6 meeting.
Fight Delayed over Nexus
In an unusual twist, commissioners were confronted with the possibility of rival landmark applications for the same property.
At issue is the distinctive brick structure at the southeast corner of Eighth and Carleton streets built in 1924 for Standard Die & Specialty by the Austin Building Co., the firm that also built the distinctive H.J. Heinz Co. factory at San Pablo and Ashby avenues.
The building is owned by the Berkeley-East Bay Humane Society, which uses part of the building for an animal training facility. The majority of the structure is used by the Nexus Collective, which has occupied the site for the past 30 years, and their gallery. Adjacent metal buildings house the collective’s workshops.
Nexus supporters, who favor the original application written by veteran preservationist John English, fear the humane society will evict the collective to secure much-needed expansion space.
Humane society supporters charge that English’s application devoted too much attention to the collective and too little to the earlier history of the building, an allegation English denied.
The commission delayed any action until its February meeting to allow the humane society and its historical consultant to finalize its rival application.
Emeryville architect Sady S. Hayashida presented revisions of his plans for an addition to the landmarked Howard Automotive building at 2140 Durant Ave., one of Berkeley’s best-known landmarks and one of the few surviving Moderne structures in the city.
Commissioners had found that the two-story addition to the southern part of the structure had mimicked the original too closely, and they praised his revisions—though they still were sufficiently distinctive to win their approval.
A subcommittee of commissioners and citizens which has met once with the architect will hold a second meeting before revisions are submitted in December.
The building will house the institute of Buddhist Studies, which is affiliated with the Buddhist Churches of America and the Graduate Theological Union.
Chair Jill Korte told commissioners Carrie Olson and Leslie Emmington Jones that City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque had advised them that they should recuse themselves from any votes on the project because of their ties to the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA), which has taken a formal position on the project.
Both said they intend to vote.
Olson, who sits on the organization’s board, said she had never spoken on the project at BAHA. “I’m happy to work with staff to make this project work,” she said.
Emmington Jones, a BAHA employee, said she was present for a BAHA discussion before the applicants filed for their permit, but “I have nothing to recuse myself from.”
Last Ditch Battle
Architects and writers may have moved too late to save a building by William Wurster, one of America’s most prominent mid-20th Century residential architects. Built in 1937, the home at 1650 La Vereda Road foreshadows designs which would become popular 15 to 20 years later.
The application to landmark the modernist structure wasn’t filed until after the Zoning Adjustments Board had already approved a request to substantially alter the building.
Planning Manager Rhoades told commissioners they couldn’t act on the proposal, and that the only way to block the remodeling was through an appeal already filed by architect Brian Viani, a coauthor of the landmarking application.
Architect John Holey, hired by owner Marguerite Rossetto to design the remodel, strenuously objected to landmarking efforts.
Her position was countered by Viani, architectural historian Ruth Rosen, Christopher Adams and letters from other architects and the senior architectural writer for Sunset magazine.
Viani’s appeal comes before the council on Nov. 9. H