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Compromise Reached on Landmarks Ordinance By RICHARD BRENNEMAN

Friday May 13, 2005

In a surprise turn, Berkeley’s Planning Commission Wednesday appeared to agree that the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) should have the power to stop demolitions of city landmarks. 

After the Landmarks Preservation Commission spent four ye ars revising the city’s Landmarks Preservation Ordinance (LPO), planning commissioners have been weighing in with their own proposals—leading to sometimes heated confrontations between members of the two bodies. 

Planning commissioners formed their own su bcommittee to look at the landmarks panel’s proposal and held a pair of public hearings before considering specific proposals presented Wednesday night. Authors Helen Burke and Susan Wengraf, two members of the subcommittee, presented seven specific recom mendations. 

The first would mandate that proposed landmarks could be elevated to designated landmarks only if they meet “strict adherence” to the standards of integrity set by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior for inclusion on the National Register of H istoric Places.  

But further discussion among planning commissioners and city staff revealed that the federal standards are different from those of the state Office of Historic Preservation, and that both criteria involve a significant amount of subjecti vity. 

Burke and Wengraf proposed abolition of the structure of merit designation now included in the city ordinance for buildings that have been substantially altered but still retain elements that signify the structure’s architectural or historic signif icance. 

In the end commissioners couldn’t come up with a specific definition of integrity they’d like to see in the ordinance, and Planning Director Dan Marks said that his understanding of strict adherence “means it has to be applied on a case-by-case basis. But in every instance the LPC would have to address the issue of integrity.” 

Planning Commissioner Gene Poschman asked, “If the State of California doesn’t have to adhere to the secretary of the interior’s standards, why does the City of Berkeley?” 

“We refer to the state regulations, which are much simpler,” said Deputy City Attorney Zach Cowan, who added, “I do agree that I don’t know what ‘strict adherence’ means.” 

“The intent was just to have (the LPC) decide what integrity means,” said Wengra f. “It is to some extent subjective, and there’s no way to define it perfectly.” 

“‘Integrity’ means what Landmarks said it means,” said Planning Commissioner David Tabb. “It’s an arbitrary condition, just a political definition that depends on who’s ther e. I’m not happy, but I’ll go along.” 

More ambiguity surrounded another subcommittee proposal that would allow property owners to come in and present a request for determination that would mandate that city officials rule on whether or not their property qualified for landmark status. 

Critics charged that developers could flood the city with multiple requests, tying up staff and allowing projects through that would result in demolition of potentially significant landmarks.  

Allan Tobey of Livable Berke ley sided with landmarks commissioners who have held that the process is unworkable, and said that the proper way to reach a determination was through a landmarks application or something similar. 

Marks said city staff hadn’t been successful at identifying a process somewhere in between a simple request and a full application. 

“One of the options was that applicants should be required to consult certain sources like BAHA [the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association], but there’s some question about how to prove that they did,” Marks said, adding that he didn’t think the staff would be likely to come up with a suitable alternative. 

The apparent decision to allow the LPC power over demolitions—a power now held by the Zoning Adjustments Board and soug ht by the LPC—surprised many LPC members and supporters in the audience. 

“The motion by Susan and Helen is to accept the LPC’s recommendation,” said Planning Commission Chair Harry Pollack. 

The Planning Commission will meet again in two weeks to see what Marks and Cowan have developed. The final decision rests in the hands of the City Council, which will consider the proposals of both commissions.