Press Releases

Commentary: Historical Preservation: It Takes a Community By SHARON HUDSON

Tuesday June 28, 2005

New buildings are popping up like Pop Tarts in Berkeley, and if you live in the flatlands, there is a good chance one will be popping up near you. You had better hope it is not on a site currently occupied by a home, shop, church, or other building important to the historical or architectural character of your neighborhood. Because if it is, your ability to influence that development is soon to be severely curtailed.  

In recent years, Berkeley has seen a concerted attack on historical preservation. The public face of this attack has been the derision, in the media and elsewhere, of occasional out-of-the-mainstream preservation efforts. But this focus on the fringe blurs the vital object at the center: Berkeley’s popular 1973 Landmarks Preservation Ordin ance (LPO), whose historical, cultural, and aesthetic protections most Berkeleyans not only value, but depend upon. 

The goal is simple: to “help” developers by weakening landmarking. The strategy is to soften public support for the LPO so there will be n o outcry when, after years of backroom torture of the LPO by the city’s legal and planning staff, the coup de grace occurs. This will happen at the July 12 City Council meeting. Few people will notice it then. Instead, they will notice it when they see ir replaceable historical buildings, which contribute to the cherished character of their neighborhood, bulldozed for new developments that do just the opposite. 

The proposals on the table are technical, but they will (1) make it much easier to alter or dem olish designated historical resources; (2) narrow the time and opportunity for landmarking and for public response to neighborhood changes; (3) remove state protections that encourage developers to work with the community; and (4) help developers take adv antage of unsuspecting neighborhoods.  

The irony of the current attack on preservation is this: Preservation pays. According to a May 8 Parade Magazine article, “In Texas, cities with preservation programs have found that historic designations increase p roperty values by 20 percent….A Maryland study showed that for every $1 million spent rehabbing a building, 16.3 new construction jobs are created—3.2 more than on a new construction project….[And] the fastest-growing part of the tourism industry is herit age tourism.” 

But not only does the anti-preservation attack run counter to Berkeley’s physical, cultural, and economic well-being, it is downright reactionary in the context of current historical philosophy. State, national, and other local preservation organizations have shifted away from the “trophy building” approach to preservation to a contextual approach emphasizing local values and neighborhood character.  

What does historic preservation mean? We define the term as those structures and settings that are important to a “local community” for historic, cultural or architectural reasons. The most important phrase in the definition is “local community.” Historic preservation must first focus on what is important to you and your neighbors. We know of communities that consider America’s oldest dog pound, America’s largest milk bottle and America’s longest ski slope important. We know of other communities that have saved meadows, forests and fens. And we know of communities that have worked to save mans ions, “painted ladies” and slave quarters. The key point is simply that your community should decide what is important. 

These words come straight from a land use planning course. But who is the “local community”? I think we can safely assume it is not outsiders—be they developers, “experts,” or reporters—who come to Berkeley to demean our history for profit. We should ignore them. But is the “local community” a neighborhood, or the city as a whole?  

It is appropriate that the City Council, representing the entire city, have final jurisdiction over land use matters. But whenever possible, the council should give the nod to local neighborhoods. Why? Because not respecting neighborhoods has undesirable consequences.  

At best, the outcome of defining “loca l” to be the entire city would be the constriction and dumbing-down of landmarks to include only those that are agreed upon by a distant and less informed majority. An unfortunate by-product of democracy, such homogenization undermines diversity—in this c ase, the unique nature of Berkeley’s neighborhoods. After all, most “unique” things are not valued by the majority; that is one reason they are not mass produced. 

The worst outcome would be an unpleasant scenario of insensitivity and disrespect (which is already occurring in Berkeley), in which I vote to demolish your neighborhood or landmark and you vote to demolish mine, until we have nothing left. This too is a tyranny of the majority, cannibalizing neighborhoods piecemeal because each represents a mi nority to be sacrificed to the greater good.  

But a city consists of its neighborhoods, so destroying neighborhoods, one by one, does not create a better city. The history of the Elmwood is very different than the history of West Berkeley; the city’s goa l should be to help each neighborhood preserve—not lose—its own history. This local history generally remains hidden until it is explored through a participatory community process. In many cities, like Berkeley, that process is landmarking. 

Indeed, “it t akes a community to create a landmark.” Dedicated volunteer historians, in communication with neighbors and others, piece together the local history; the selection of the site and the process both emerge from the “local community.” No outside “expert,” ev en if competent and well-motivated, can assemble all the facts in the memories of the locals, or know what is “important to the local community.”  

Although those attacking the LPO have an insensitive development agenda, their sales pitch to the public an d council is aimed at our desire for reason and predictability. But like democracy itself, preservation is messy. Historical concepts are not static; they are fluid, expanding to include more knowledge, more “outsider” groups, and changing values. Certain ty, though alluring, is ultimately incompatible with a dynamic and self-conscious community.  

A particularly annoying and “messy” fact is that landmark applications often occur alongside development applications. But this is human nature. Unless necessit y demands it, most neighborhoods won’t engage in self-analysis, and most individuals won’t undertake substantial volunteer work. Even if the resource in question has been known and valued by the “local community” for years, as it often has, it usually tak es the specter of losing it to spur people to action. 

The closest a developer can get to “certainty” will come from consulting early and often with the surrounding community, which usually does not oppose development, but understandably opposes bad devel opment. Such consultation must be well-intentioned, genuine, and continuing. The process must not be rigged to muffle the community voice and remove the opportunity for self-examination, self-expression, and self-preservation, as some of the current propo sed changes to the LPO would do.  

Popular developers know that the winning formula for both the developer and the community is the same: (1) participatory and collaborative design; (2) incorporation of alternatives proffered by the community; (3) contextual design; and (4) community self-expression.  

Unfortunately, we don’t see many popular developers or sensitive developments in Berkeley, because almost every action by our planning staff and city council undermines the formula. We may well see more of the same on July 12, when the council decides whether or not to further damage Berkeley’s planning environment—and neighborhoods—by undermining the LPO. 


Sharon Hudson is an observer of land use issues, and an advocate for maintaining and improving urban quality of life while accommodating good development.