In one of its more rancorous sessions, the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) was attacked by citizens accusing it of obstructionism, and in turn assailed Planning Commissioners with the same allegation.
The attacks on the LPC stemmed from the Battle of the Maybecks, triggered by a Buena Vista Way homeowner’s March 3 request that the commission begin the process of evaluating whether three houses on Buena Vista, his own and two neighboring houses, should be designated as historic resources.
Some of the neighbors objected and turned out in force with friends and allies at the March 7 LPC meeting, only to have the hearing delayed another month after the session reached the midnight hour and the commission was forced to leave because the North Berkeley Senior Center requires it to vacate at that time.
Several speakers did get in a few angry words during the public comment session at the opening of the March meeting and left angrier when the commission postponed the hearing.
They were back in force Monday, determined to be heard.
Robert Pennell, owner of the residence at 2730 Buena Vista, initiated the landmarking process for his own home and the houses at 2750 and 2760 Buena Vista after architect Thad Kusmierski, the owner of 2750, filed plans for an addition to his home, which was designed by legendary Berkeley architect Bernard Maybeck. The home at 2760 is another Maybeck
Pennell said Kusmierski’s proposal would overshadow his own home and possibly endanger redwoods near the property line. Kusmierski denied the allegations and in turn challenged the Maybeckian credentials of Pennell’s house.
Evelyn Rantzman, who lives at 2753 Buena Vista, was the first to comment Monday, and her target was the LPC itself.
“This commission should not allow itself to be used to block projects. We’ve seen this over and over again. Once a project is approved, the Landmarks Commission is used as a last-ditch effort,” she said, decrying a process “when you reach a point where everything in the city seems to deserve landmarking.”
Kusmierski presented commissioners with copies of a March 17 San Francisco Chronicle column by architectural critic John King in which the writer blasted the commission for designating Celia’s Restaurant at 2040 Fourth St. a structure of merit, the lesser of two historic resource designations the panel can award.
King wrote that in doing so, the LPC had created “a symbol of why the historic preservation movement is in danger of losing its credibility.”
Pennell’s contention that his own home was also a Maybeck had triggered a strong response from Kusmierski and others who charged that there was no proof that the architect had done anything more than design the fireplace.
“There should be more work by the commission to make sure that a structure is designed by the architect in question,” said Anna Berger, Kusmierski’s wife. She adding that, in any event, landmarking should be left in the hands of the property owner.
Pennell withdrew his application for designation of his own home after the March meeting, because, he said, it “has created some antagonism and hostility in our neighborhood that we did not anticipate.”
Because no one had yet filed a complete application to designate the other two houses, the next step following initiation, commissioners voted to withdraw their initiations, with only new member Ted Gartner—appointed by Councilmember Darryl Moore to replace Aran Kaufer—abstaining because he hadn’t had time to listen to the tape of the March meeting.
Commissioners then took up Pennell’s application for his home, giving critics their second shot at Pennell and the LPC.
“The Pennell application is a sham, there’s no substantiation” that Maybeck designed it, Kusmierski said. “I like preservation. I just wish it were done in a good way.”
Berger added, “Pennell told me one occasion that Maybeck designed the fireplace but that [his parents] were too poor to have him design the house.”
John Edginton, owner of 2733 Buena Vista, rose to speak in defense of Pennell, who, he said, had left the March meeting “a very disillusioned man because of the personal nature of the attacks,” citing “one person who followed him to his car, shouting abuse. This is not a good guy/bad guy thing. What you have to decide is what are the merits, and the merits of all three buildings are beyond dispute.”
Robert and Norah Brower of 2701 Buena Vista were the last to speak.
“I’m bothered by the divisiveness caused by the landmarking process,” said Norah Brower. “I don’t think the landmarking commission is the appropriate process. I think the zoning board is the proper venue.”
Robert Brower faulted the Pennells.
“There were many attempts to see if they could adjust” to Kusmierski’s plans, he said, adding that “it should be quite clear that Maybeck did not design that house.”
Commissioner Carrie Olson proposed delaying any final decision on Pennell’s home for a month to allow further research on its architectural credentials, but when it came time for a final vote she sided with the commission majority in voting to withdraw the initiation altogether. Only Leslie Emmington voted no and Gartner abstained.
By voting for withdrawal “without prejudice” in all three cases, the commission left the door open to future landmarking applications.
Landmark Ordinance Revisions
Commissioners then shifted their focus to the status of the Planning Commission’s handling of the LPC’s proposed revisions to the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance.
At issue are conflicts between the California Permit Streamlining Act (PSA) and Berkeley’s Landmarks Preservation Ordinance, which now allows the LPC to postpone demolition of a designated landmark for a year to allow time for possible compromise, after which the city’s Zoning Adjustment Board can grant or deny the demolition permit. The PSA mandates that cities must under normal circumstances give permit applicants, including demolition applicants, a yes or no within six months or less after an application is complete. The LPC worked for more than three years with City Attorney Zach Cowan and Planning Department staff on the revised LPO draft, which would deal with the PSA-LPO conflict by allowing the LPC itself to approve or deny the demolition application within the PSA’s period, instead of waiting for ZAB to act. The revised draft is now before the Planning Commission for an advisory review before it is presented to the Berkeley City Council.
Planning Manager Mark Rhoades said on Monday that a Planning Commissioon subcommittee will present recommendations to the full Planning Commission on April 13, with a hearing on the proposed revisions to follow on April 27.
“We anticipate that the ordinance will go to the City Council for action in July,” he said.
At Monday’s meeting, Landmarks Commissioners criticized the Planning Commission’s handling of the ordinance to date.
“I just feel like talking to the Planning Commission is like talking to a brick wall,” LPC member Olson said. “I don’t feel the staff is supportive of our position, and I don’t know what staff will recommend in the end.”
“There’s certainly a lack of appreciation for the landmark process here in Berkeley,” said commissioner Lesley Emmington. “Every landmark has raised the city’s economic base.”
“There are huge amounts of developer pressures and all kinds of spin-doctoring, and it’s all so that we lie down in front of the developers,” said Patricia Dacey, a commissioner. “There is a tremendous drumbeat, and I am stunned by the sheer loudness and it’s been very successful. We need to fight back.”
“Celia’s is an example where the perception is that this commission is being used to stop development,” said James Samuels, a commissioner who had voted against the designation. “It certainly gives the public that impression. What we were faced with is a site with three derelict restaurants.” The commission voted not to designate Brennan’s, the second restaurant on a proposed West Berkeley development site. The third restaurant on the site, now closed, was located in the previously designated Southern Pacific station.
“I almost feel like this is a reaction to this commission and the way it votes rather than to focus on historic preservation,” said Jill Korte, commission chair.