Berkeley’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) added two new properties to the city’s list of official historic resources, one over the owners’ wishes and the other with the owner’s blessings.
The contested decision ended with a 5-3 vote in favor of a “structure of merit” designation for a single-story Victorian cottage at 2901 Otis St. which the Zoning Adjustments Board has already approved for conversion into a three-story triplex condominium.
The unchallenged unanimous vote ended with “landmark” protection awarded to the building at 2375-77 Shattuck Ave., which houses La Note restaurant.
Otis Street cottage
The Otis Street cottage designation was the result of a petition circulated by area neighbors after the structure’s owners filed for a permit to transform that building into a “popup” condominium project.
In designating the building a structure of merit, one of the city’s two historic resource classifications, the commission called for specific features of the existing building to be preserved. The decision would still allow the three-story conversion, though the LPC now must approve the designs to ensure preservation of the protected elements.
Monday night’s vote was the LPC’s third on the project. The initial designation failed at a short-handed commission June 6, where it won over a majority of members on hand but failed to capture the five votes needed for passage. The commission had initially voted to take a pass on the project when the current owners bought the property.
Project contractor and co-owner Xin Jin said the building failed to qualify for designation because it failed to pass the “you know one when you see one” test. “Is this a landmark?” he asked before providing his own answer, “No.”
Co-owner Eric Geleynse said the conversion fit the character of a neighborhood where 43 percent of the structures have three or more units. He also said that 62 percent of the signers of the landmarking petition lived in such buildings.
Mel Weitsman, abbott of the Berkeley Zen Monastery, one of two Buddhist centers in the neighborhood, spoke in favor of the landmarking, saying it contributes to the history and integrity of a neighborhood that has the feel of a “well-blended stew.”
Neighborhood resident Shari Ser read the neighbor’s landmarking petition, which cited the roles played by the houses built and inhabited by Frank R. Hull at 2901 Otis and Harry H. Webb at 2935 Otis in “providing a binding to the neighborhood fabric.” Both houses remain largely intact, she noted.
Webb was the builder of the recently landmarked curved front Victorian commercial building at the northwest corner of Ashby Avenue and Adeline Street.
Giselle Sorensen, the city planning staff member assigned to the LPC, cautioned the panel that the triplex conversion project had already passed the deadline imposed by the state Permit Streamlining Act—the law that sparked the current controversy over proposed revisions to the city Landmarks Preservation Ordinance (LPO), the enabling legislation for the LPC.
LPC member Carrie Olson moved to approve the structure of merit designation, citing additional features to preserve in addition to those included in the neighbors’ application. Patricia Dacey seconded the motion.
LPC member Fran Packard took exception, declaring that “the present owners have been jerked around by this commission and the city inexcusably,” earning applause from Geleynse.
“I want to reiterate my opposition to landmarking against the owners’ wishes,” added LPC member James Samuels.
Dacey said she generally agrees with Samuels, “but when the entire neighborhood has come out, I have to think something’s gone wrong.”
“It’s a classic opposition of the wishes of a neighborhood with individual rights,” replied Samuels.
LPC chair Jill Korte, who was reelected to her post earlier in the meeting, read the definition of a “structure of merit” from the landmarks ordinance, noting that the Hull house fit the criteria.
When it came time to vote, Commissioner Steven Winkel joined Packard and Samuels in opposition, while Ted Gartner and Leslie Emmington joined Olson, Dacey and Korte in support, ensuring passage by the requisite five votes.
Shattuck Avenue Victorian
In contrast, no one spoke in opposition to LPC member Robert Johnson’s initiative to landmark the 1894 La Note restaurant building on Shattuck Avenue, the last remaining unaltered false-front Victorian business building left on the central city thoroughfare.
“It’s not the product of a famous architect or the scene of historic events, but it’s the city’s best example of an historic building type and the only one downtown,” Johnson said.
The restoration of another Berkeley landmark, the J. Gorman building at 2599 Telegraph Ave., drew high praise from audience members and commissioners, though commission members had some suggestions for tweaking revisions to make them more consistent with the structure’s historical character.
Owner David Clahan is restoring the structure, built in two phases in 1877 and 1906, removing a facade added later and restoring the “witch’s hat” that once topped the cupola over the southeastern entrance to the building.
“The work is really great,” said retired planner John English. “An important building is coming back into its own.”
Commissioners gave Clahan’s plans their unanimous approval, contingent on minor revisions to be worked out with an LPC subcommittee.
The Gorman furniture business began in Berkeley at the site in 1876, and left the city two years ago for a new location in Oakland. The structure has been vacant ever since.›