On Monday night, June 27, at least for a brief and shining hour, Berkeley’s Landmarks Preservation Commission became an anarchist organization.
At a special meeting to discuss the pending revision of the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance, which will be taken up by the City Council on July 12, the LPC could have taken the opportunity to reinforce the virtues of its own proposed revision, submitted a year ago. Or it could have offered helpful criticism of the alternate revision proposed by the Planning Commission, along with suggestions to make it acceptable. But the commission chose instead only to sabotage the democratic political process.
After discussion, the LPC unanimously decided to:
• Withdraw support for its own proposal and ask the city not to approve it.
• Oppose the Planning Commission proposal and forward a list of “concerns” about its provisions, but include no practical recommendations for improvement.
• Ask the council to throw out five years of effort and start over.
The LPC now wants the council to send the revision process back to the LPC in the hope that it could, a year from now, apply for a planning grant that, if approved, would be used to hire an outside consultant who, a further year down the road, might produce a “more objective” version of an ordinance that the LPC could live with.
The result is that, fully five years after the City Council asked it to propose legally-needed revisions to the LPO, the Landmarks Preservation Commission today has no recommendations before the council to do anything at all, except to turn down the rival commission’s proposal. The LPC has been bitterly complaining that the planning commissioners aren’t “landmarks experts” and so couldn’t possibly produce an adequate new ordinance. But now we’ve learned that the “landmarks experts” on the LPC couldn’t be bothered to produce one either, or even to offer constructive suggestions along the way.
This, perhaps unintentionally, simplifies the City Council’s task. Instead of having to compare both the LPC and PC proposals with the current LPO, the council now only needs to answer this question: “Is the PC proposal, even if not perfect, sufficiently better than the current ordinance to warrant its passage?” Having such a pragmatic question raises the odds that the PC version, perhaps with some technical corrections and tweaks to its provisions, will in fact be approved.
It’s not even too cynical to think that this is what, perversely, the LPC now desires. With open threats of lawsuits against the city expressed at the meeting by both BAHA members and commissioners, perhaps they have concluded that a more “extreme” revision would prove easier to challenge successfully. And so they have simply walked off the court rather than play the game they were appointed to do.
If that’s the case, this long-time follower of the LPO revision process believes the members of the LPC have crossed a dangerous line. To choose a vivid metaphor, on Monday night they became suicide bombers—blowing up their own proposal in order to try to prevent the normal cooperative workings of a democratic government.
There are still open issues in this important revision process that deserve further consideration. Many of the LPC’s concerns have genuine merit, and I am not the only citizen who thinks the Planning Commission’s proposal is far from perfectly crafted. But it seems now that any possibility of rational discussion has been pushed off the table by these mis-motivated preservation anarchists.
Alan Tobey is a retired technologist and 35-year Berkeley resident who chooses his political issues because they are “interesting.”.