Planning commissioners Wednesday voted unanimously to approve the proposed workplan and timeline of the Creeks Task Force and to schedule an April 27 hearing on the city’s Landmarks Preservation Ordinance (LPO).
Thursday’s meeting was also the first for former Commissioner Gene Poschman since he was brought back to the panel by City Councilmember Donna Spring to fill the seat vacated by Nancy Holland.
Though neither vote was accompanied by a public hearing, the commission heard plenty from the audience on both issues in the public comment period early in the meeting.
While little controversy attached to the Creeks Task Force, there was plenty when it came to the landmarks legislation, which would alter both the existing ordinance and the accompanying sections of city zoning law.
The hottest issue concerns just which city panel will assume basic authority over proposed demolitions of and alterations to already recognized city landmarks and “structures of merit,” the latter being buildings which have been significantly altered but still contain elements of the original.
First to speak was Daniela Thompson, who read a letter from the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA). “It is BAHA’s expert opinion that the proposed LPO amendments have evolved to be sufficiently at variance with the stated preservation objectives of the LPO and its long-standing practices as to mandate a full environmental review” under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), she said.
A concern raised by Thompson and others was a Planning Commission subcommittee’s recommendation to strip the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) of its authority over demolition of recognized city landmarks.
“Where did this come from?” asked retired planner John English. “The City Council did not ask for this, and I urge its rejection.”
Preservation architect and former LPC member Burton Edwards, who worked on the LPC’s recommendations for changes in the ordinance, came down on both sides of the political divide, agreeing with English that the LPC should have purview over demolitions—“Who better to pass judgment?”—but urging stricter standards for proposed landmarks.
Edwards said he favored abolishing the structure of merit designation, and recommended the city adopt the strict standards of integrity mandated for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. The LPC uses more relaxed standards, which it proposes to maintain.
Poschman also sided with the LPC’s proposal to retain authority over environmental reviews in landmark cases, while some on the planning commissioners said they hoped to turn that power over to the Zoning Adjustments Board, along with authority over demolitions.
Livable Berkeley’s Alan Tobey presented a letter from his organization endorsing elimination of the structure of merit category and lauding the planning subcommittee’s efforts as a “much improved result” of the LPC’s “failures.”
LPC Commissioner Patricia Dacey, who was appointed after the panel finished its LPO revisions, told the planners, “There wasn’t any upswelling of the Berkeley citizenry to gut the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance or the commission.”
She also challenged Deputy City Attorney Zach Cowan’s contention that the existing ordinance violates the Permit Streamlining Act, which imposes strict deadlines on applications for building permits. Dacey said other cities allow suspension of the PAS during demolition proceedings, a point endorsed by fellow commission Leslie Emmington.
Dacey also faulted a proposed revision that would limit initiations of proposed landmarks to 10 days after a permit is filed for a building or demolition, charging that it was class-based.
“If you’re living in a Maybeck in the hills, it’s not that much of a task. But if you’re living in the flatlands and working, it can be quite a task,” Dacey said.
John McBride, a preservation activist who attended most of the LPC’s session on the ordinance, defended the decision to suspend. He said dividing responsibilities between the LPC and ZAB would “create a messier situation, bouncing back and forth between landmarks and ZAB. It will be less fair and less understandable” because “ZAB doesn’t deal with historical and architectural merit.”
West Campus Report
Planning Commissioner David Stoloff gave a report on the Berkeley Unified School District’s public planning meeting on the West Campus site.
While BUSD consultant David Early told the session that oversight of the project could wind up in the hands of either the Office of the State Architect—which has jurisdiction over instructional sites—or the city, Stoloff said, “The city will be the permitting agency.”
While the site includes instructional facilities, it will also house district offices and non-instructional functions, as well as possible commercial and residential developments.
“It seemed clear that both the community and the school district are open to following the University Avenue Strategic Plan process,” Stoloff said.