Tuesday’s City Council meeting looks to be the latest battleground for pro- and anti-development forces as the council holds a public hearing on changes to a law that governs the future of Berkeley’s historic buildings.
Before the council is draft ordinance language from the Planning Commission that opponents charge would weaken sections of Berkeley’s Landmark Preservation Ordinance. Meanwhile the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which enforces the ordinance, recently voted to rescind its approval of a previous draft of revisions, and has called on the city to bring in an outside consultant to guide the revision process.
The council typically doesn’t vote on agenda items at the same meeting in which it holds a public hearing on them. With the summer recess two weeks away, a vote on LPO revisions might not come until September, though the council could vote on Tuesday if it wants to speed things up.
The controversy has garnered a lot of attention, in part because developers portray the ordinance as a tool for derailing projects and preservationists see it as valuable protection for structures they say are esthetically and historically significant.
Since it was adopted in 1974, Berkeley has designated 265 landmarks, four historic districts and 27 structures of merit.
The ordinance is credited with stopping the wholesale demolition of older buildings during the 1960s and early 1970s. However opponents of the Landmarks Preservation Commission have charged that commissioners have exploited it to slow down development rather than to save worthy buildings. On several occasions, the City Council has reversed the commission’s designations of buildings in order to allow them to be demolished for development sites.
Revisions to the ordinance have been in the works for five years. The council originally asked the Landmarks Commission to revise it to avoid conflicting with the state’s Permit Streamlining Act, which requires that building permits be acted on within a specific time frame.
To ensure that the ordinance wasn’t used to obstruct proposed developments, the Landmarks Preservation Commission approved a Planning Department proposal to front-load the designation process so developers would know from the beginning whether their property might qualify as a historic resource and fall under the commission’s purview. The proposal changed timelines for the commission and the public to respond to development projects and required that most applications to demolish or alter older buildings over fifty years old, including private homes, be placed on the commission’s agenda for early evaluation of the property’s historic status.
But some members of the Planning Commission said that they didn’t think the proposal went far enough to aid developers. Rather than accepting the LPC-approved revisions, the Planning Commission spent nearly a year formulating its own proposals to change the ordinance. The draft forwarded to the Council by the Planning Commission would further limit the window for the public to initiate landmarking proceedings.
It would also take away the Landmarks Commission’s control over “minor alterations” to the exterior of designated structures of merit—which have different criteria than landmarks do—and give it to city Planning Department staff instead. Under both drafts, the Landmarks Preservation Commission would get new power to deny demolitions of both landmarks and structures of merit, which would eliminate conflict with the Permit Streamlining Act, but opponents say that Planning Commission revisions would weaken protection for structures of merit under the California Environmental Quality Act.
For councilmembers allied with preservationists, the Planning Commission proposal goes too far to serve developers and excludes citizen participation.
“It’s a slap in the face to anyone who cares about landmarks,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who along with Councilmember Dona Spring has been a staunch defender of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Other councilmembers said they were undecided on the issue, but expressed an openness to the Planning Commission’s proposal.
“I don’t think a structure of merit should be treated the same as a landmark,” said Councilmember Laurie Capitelli.
Noting concerns that the Landmarks Preservation Commission had previously used its power to obstruct proposed developments, Capitelli also said that “Whether a building is landmarked or not should not be based on the type of building proposed to replace it.”
Councilmember Spring said she is against the LPC’s proposal to enlist aid from an outside expert.
“The problem with an outside consultant is that it will be under the thumb of the city attorney and planning staff,” said Spring, who contends city staff favors the Planning Commission’s version.
Also Tuesday, City Manager Phil Kamlarz will explain the recent closure of Berkeley hills Fire Station 7 last Wednesday. As of July 1, the city had been rotating the closure of up to two fire companies as a cost saving measure, but councilmembers were under the impression that closures would be rare and the station in the fire-prone hills would be exempt.
In response to concern from the council, City Manager Phil Kamlarz has ordered that Station 7, home to a single engine company, remain open and that no more than one fire company be shut down daily until the council takes up the issue next week. The council will consider spending roughly $250,000 to limit closures to one fire company a day through December, when 12 new hires are expected to diminish the need for closures.
The council will also hold a public hearing Tuesday to establish late fees for landlords as part of the city’s Rental Housing Safety Program.