Planning Commission Eyes Landmarks Law Revisions By RICHARD BRENNEMAN

Friday December 10, 2004

Faced with proposed changes to the Berkeley Landmarks Ordinance, Planning Commissioners posed questions and pondered options during a two-and-a-half-hour workshop session Wednesday. 

The proposed legislation, the product of three years of labor by the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), would radically alter the way the city handles additions to and demolitions of buildings older than a half century. 

“It comes to us to consider the changes recommended by the LPC and to advise the (City) Council. At a future meeting we will advise staff concerning proposed changes, and hearings will follow,” said Planning Commission Chair Harry Pollack. 

Under the new ordinance, all property over 50 years old must be evaluated for landmarking potential. 

“We’re trying to make it so that it doesn’t slow down the planning department process in any way,” said LPC member Carrie Olson. “One of the biggest problems with the current process is that a (landmark designation application) can be filed even after the project goes to ZAB. We want it done right away.” 

One possible way to ease the process would be the creation of a comprehensive survey of the community, she said. 

Planner Gisele Sorensen said the last historical inventory of the city was made by the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association in 1977 and hasn’t been updated since. 

Deputy City Attorney Zach Cowan said that a new survey could prove costly. Palo Alto, which has two-thirds of the buildings of Berkeley, spent three or four years on a survey that cost $1 million. 

Berkeley Planning Manager Mark Rhoades said the city has a lot of distinguished architecture as well as people who write about it, offering the opportunity to cobble together a list—but that still wouldn’t be enough. 

Planning Director Dan Marks said he was involved in a comprehensive survey when he was on the staff of the City of Fremont, but to duplicate the effort here would take years, “and the cost would be very high.” 

A survey would also need frequent updates, “and even then you can’t get a 100 percent guarantee.” 

Further complicating the process, Olson said, is that “a lot of what the preservation community looks at is not just architecture but history and culture.” As it is, preparing the documentation and writing a landmark application takes from 20 to 40 hours. 

“A survey isn’t a definitive answer, but it helps,” she said. 

Pollack said he was concerned with “the extent of information that can be provided to folks who want to do something to their property.” 

An additional complication is the amount of city staff time needed under the 50-year rule. Marks estimated the cost at $100,000. 

Livable Berkeley, an organization critical of the current landmarking process, was represented by two speakers, developer Ali Kashani and Alan Tobey. 

Kashani urged the commission to adopt strict standards of architectural integrity for all landmarks, but Olson said integrity was sometimes difficult to quantify and in some cases a connection to an historic event or personages could trump the issue. 

Kashani also urged the LPC to increase the frequency of their meeting because the current monthly meetings enable to panel to deal with only a third of their applications. 

A lot of questions remained unanswered, to be tackled when the Planning Commission holds its next meeting on Wednesday.›