On Wednesday of this week the Planning Commission has scheduled a workshop to discuss proposed revisions to the Landmark Preservation Ordinance. More hours of my life than I care to count, over a four-year period while I was on the Landmark Preservation Commission, were devoted to work on a revised LPO which was ultimately endorsed last summer by a majority of LPC commissioners. Practically every clause represents a compromise between commissioners who are dedicated to conserving old buildings as much as possible and those who regard some old buildings as opportunity sites for new construction. But like most compromises, the attempt to please everyone might turn out to have pleased no one.
The Planning Commission has no actual authority over the Landmark Ordinance itself, which must be passed by the City Council, though it does approve any zoning ordinance revisions which are needed to implement it. But commissioners seem eager to conduct an exhaustive review of the full revised ordinance nonetheless. The Planning Commission has recently been dominated by commissioners who are gung-ho for curbing what they imagine to be the excessive power of preservationists. Several of them are veterans of the battle for the Temple Beth-El site, now under construction.
Which means, probably, that the attempt to revise the LPO will drag on for many months more as planning commissioners attempt to get up to speed on its complex provisions. This laborious schedule is ironic in view of the supposed urgency with which the revision process was originally launched by the city attorney’s office.
For some reason, the pressing need for a new ordinance seems to have evaporated. The cynical view, to which I have now been converted after voting for the revisions while I was on the LPC, is that most of the proposed changes were never actually needed, which is why city staff now seems willing to let the process drag on at the Planning Commission.
One revision, and only one revision, is absolutely necessary. It could be enacted by the new City Council immediately, at their next meeting, if they so chose. The LPC must be given the authority to deny an application for demolition of a historic resource (usually a building). The Permit Streamlining Act guarantees that applicants for permits such as demolition permits will spend only a limited number of days in limbo, after which the city is required to tell them Yes or No. If the LPC could give applicants a clear No to demolition permit applications on occasion, the requirements of the Permit Streamlining Act would be satisfied. The applicant could then appeal the decision to the City Council, which might reverse it. Most of the other proposed changes to the ordinance are window-dressing, and could be accomplished by changes in procedures within the Planning Department, no legislation needed.
The outstanding case in point at the moment is a controversial proposal to enlarge a seminal William Wurster cottage in the hills, which slipped by Planning Department staff without being flagged as a potentially historic resource. The current LPO requires all proposals to demolish buildings in commercial zones which are over 40 years old to come before the LPC for consideration for landmark designation (though the staff sometimes “forgets” to do even this.) Residential buildings don’t get this automatic scrutiny, but it would require no ordinance change for planning staff to compile a list of famous residential architects and to ask applicants if their house was designed by anyone on the list. That wouldn’t produce 100 percent correct results, but it would avoid many of the cases where unknowing desk staff endorses alteration or even demolition for an architecturally significant house, only to have better-informed citizens petition for landmarking after a permit is already in the works. This causes no end of grief for both applicants and opponents.
We’re going to see a lot more attempts to demolish or alter Berkeley’s world-renowned historic housing stock if the real estate boom continues. Berkeley has not yet experienced the problems of Silicon Valley, where software mogul Larry Ellison got away with dismantling a Julia Morgan house in order to replace it with a megamansion of his own concoction. But as Berkeley becomes a preferred residential destination for the new rich of the Bush era, we’re seeing more such proposals from people who have much more money than taste. A wealthy Bush contributor has already grossly enlarged a formerly charming John Hudson Thomas house without benefit of LPC review.
Here at the Planet, we were bemused last week when the applicant for the Wurster alteration project chose to take a full page heart-tugging ad worthy of the National Enquirer to denounce an op-ed opposing her plan. Our opinion pages were open to her, of course, but she and her advisors evidently thought a paid advertisement complete with photos would make more of a splash. The ad recited charges against project opponents which skirted the cliff of libel without actually falling over it, but since the targets were pillars of the Free Speech Movement, we figured they’d be able to take it in their stride.
But still. How much easier it would have been if the applicant had been told, from the beginning, that since her house was designed by a significant architect the LPC would be taking a look at it for possible designation as a historic resource before her permit application went to the Zoning Adjustment Board for approval. The revised ordinance would make this procedure mandatory, but the planning department could implement it immediately on a voluntary basis, and it would prevent a lot of strife.