I know that many citizens in Berkeley must be confused about the revisions to the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance. What in the heck are we doing?
Simple, the charge given to the Landmark Commission by the city manager in 2000 was to upgrade the ordinance to conform to the State of California Permit Streamlining Act, which basically makes sure discretionary city process is done up front and then lets a developer get the design and financing done without the threat of being stopped when they are laying out money for a project.
The members of the LPC are often portrayed as anti-development, but that is not true. In my more than seven years on the commission, we have approved
scores of housing units to be added to landmarked structures, and overseen the restoration and rehabilitation of sorely neglected properties like those three Victorians in a row on Fulton Street at Haste Street. The projects have been as diverse as the Westminster House project, which added five stories of housing on the corner of Bancroft and College for student housing, to the Santa Fe Station on University Avenue becoming the centerpiece of the new Berkeley Montessori School, to the Rose Street Grocery remodel on Rose at Oxford Street which has just opened as a multiple unit housing project. As a member of the Design Review Committee for the past few years, I have voted to approve hundreds of wonderful new units all over town. Both the DRC and the LPC work hard to make sure most of the projects we approve are great additions to the city and we are proud of the projects once they are built.
Some for-profit developers, large property owners and brokers say we are an obstacle, but others who are not as vocal will tell you we were very helpful to their projects. I don’t blame some of them for wanting the path to their money-making schemes paved for them, but, frankly, that is not our charge. We are the Landmarks Preservation Commission, and we are hoping for the best project possible. We have 300 designated properties in Berkeley, and 700 properties on a list the State of California keeps that appear eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. We have a process that takes us through the designation process. Those same vocal developers now want a free pass, a new process that takes them down a different path than any other citizen, one that requires unspecified research, and is on a shortened timeline. And if we don’t act because our volunteer commissioners don’t have the time (20-40 hours) to write a landmark application, the developer gets a one year free pass. It is not written for the single family homeowner, it is written for the developers, who will not be allowed to bring more than two properties before us every six months. I don’t know any single family homeowners who will have two potential landmark homes they own to bring before us during a six months period.
We are not the body that reviews Pop-Up flying bungalows and McMansions—that is the Zoning Adjustments Board. But it is often true that citizens find out a project is happening in the neighborhood, and they look for their options to maintain the status quo. Many of us believe that one answer to this eternal dilemma is to comprehensively survey the city for historic resources. Since that is really expensive, I have recommended the city make a good faith effort and start with the areas of town where high density development is occurring. That battle is West Berkeley and the main thoroughfares—Shattuck, University, San Pablo, Telegraph. Drive down these streets and think about what you value. There is surely a lot of good we can all do to improve our streetscapes, and an important part of that is to recognize what we want to preserve, as well as encouraging what we want to develop.
Carrie Olson is a member and former chair of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.