Column: The Public Eye: Canary in the Coal Mine: Berkeley’s Landmarks Ordinance By ZELDA BRONSTEIN

Tuesday May 10, 2005

To experience Berkeley at its civic and civil best, you can’t beat the spring house tour of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association. Just staging the event involves nearly 200 volunteers. That’s not counting the homeowners who open their residences to the public for an afternoon. Equally impressive is the way the tour brings out a general graciousness that’s often lacking in daily Berkeley life. 

There’s the deference shown to fellow tourists, as people wait in the inevitable lines or meet in a crowded staircase or a narrow doorway. And, evident in the intense perusals of the tour guidebook, there’s the respectful interest in the history that’s made Berkeley a distinctive place, an interest awakened by a first-hand encounter with ordinary citizens’ defense and celebration of their local legacy.  

This year the destination was Panoramic Hill, a neighborhood that, in the 38 years since I first came to town, had somehow eluded me. The BAHA newsletter promised “a retreat of quiet beauty, merely steps away from the workaday world,” Berkeley’s best-preserved “concentration of houses showing the influence of the Hillside Club philosophy and the Arts and Crafts movement.” Brown shingles by Ernest Coxhead, as well as homes by Walter Ratcliff, Julia Morgan, Bernard Maybeck, William Wurster and, less predictably, Frank Lloyd Wright.  

It sounded idyllic, and it was. The sun shone and a breeze wafted as my Oakland friend Ilene and I, along with hundreds of others, traipsed through Panoramic Hill’s extraordinary homes and along its sylvan byways.  

For a few hours, it was easy to forget that in “the workaday world,” the city laws that protects Berkeley’s historic environment are under siege. On May 11, the Planning Commission will consider and perhaps act on two sets of proposed changes to the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance and the Zoning Ordinance—one formulated by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the other by a Planning Commission subcommittee led by PC chair Harry Pollack.  

The proposed changes are too numerous and, in many cases, too technical to be listed, much less analyzed and compared in this space. (For a succinct, well-considered appraisal, see attorney Susan Brandt-Hawley’s letter, posted on the BAHA website at www.berkeleyheritage.com.) But the critical difference can be stated in brief. The LPC wants to retain the Landmark Preservation Commission’s authority to regulate the demolition of historic buildings; the PC subcommittee wants to transfer that authority to the Zoning Adjustments Board, leaving the LPC merely advisory to the ZAB.  

Before going further, I should say that though I’m a card-carrying member of BAHA, I’m not a preservation fundamentalist. In fact, I first encountered BAHA and the LPC as an adversary. As a member of the Thousand Oaks Neighborhood Association board, I helped lead the campaign for a new Thousand Oaks School in the early ‘90s. Not only had BUSD neglect left the facility in a state of serious disrepair, according to faculty and staff, the building didn’t work well as a school. Having gotten wind of the possibility that the structure would be demolished, the LPC landmarked it. The building was old, so it had to be saved. Period. But LPC decisions are appealable to higher authority, and, following a bitter struggle, the School Board approved the demolition. 

For a long time after that episode, I kept my distance from BAHA, thereby missing many wonderful house tours, I’m sure. Nevertheless, I considered and still consider myself a preservationist, albeit one with a more encompassing perspective. Maybeck, after all, drew on tradition to create buildings that were radical in his day. Accordingly, the preservationist’s task is to honor, not idolize, the past. Easier said than done, when so much of what’s built today is mediocre, if not downright repulsive, as well as utterly disrespectful of history and locale. But if you want a vital culture, that’s the assignment. 

For that assignment to be carried out in Berkeley, it’s essential that the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission have regulatory authority over the demolition of historic structures. It’s ludicrous to think that handing over that authority to the Zoning Adjustments Board will result in more judicious decisionmaking. For one thing, ZAB members lack the expertise in that the LPO now properly requires of Landmarks commissioners. For another, when it comes to arbitrary behavior, ZAB makes the LPC look like a piker. As a rule, ZAB follows the lead of city staff, who routinely manipulate the city’s laws and policies to suit their history-is-bunk, bigger-is-better agenda. Indeed, it’s staff and their cohorts—builders, real estate brokers, deregulation-minded commissioners and Livable Berkeley—who are leading the push to enfeeble the LPC and the LPO. 

That said, the LPO does need revision. One important change, making the timeline governing the demolition of historic buildings consistent with the Permit Streamlining Act, can be easily accomplished. Technical matters such as clarifiying the “structure of merit” designation, the meaning of historic “integrity,” and the LPO’s relation to the California Environmental Quality Act should be resolved with the assistance of professional specialists. In 2001, the State Office of Historic Preservation awarded Berkeley a $25,000 grant (two LPC members wrote the application) to hire a law firm experienced in revising landmark ordinances. At the end of nearly a year in which city Planning Department staff had done nothing with the money and failed to file the required progress reports to the state, the OHP took the unprecedented step of withdrawing the grant. It seems only fair that the city now hire a consultant with city funds. 

Whatever the city does, the rest of us need to stop viewing the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance as the exclusive interest of Berkeley’s preservation activists. The LPO is like the canary in the coal mine: if it’s in danger, so is the general welfare—in this case, our town’s unique character, as embodied in its historic buildings, be they Maybecks and Morgans in the hills or bungalows and Victorians in the flats. Berkeleyans, the canary’s in danger.?