Election Section

Commentary: Confessions of a Landmarker By Neal Blumenfeld

Friday October 21, 2005

Editors, Daily Planet: 

This fall the City Council will consider a ordinance restricting the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), so as to prevent landmarking cranks—as defined in the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle and East Bay Express, as well as by big-time builders and real estate speculators—from historifying more “ugly” buildings-also as defined by the above. As an erstwhile crank, I thought I might spill my story. 

Like taking that first drink, it all started innocently enough. In 2003 my wife Lise and I were notified that a local real estate developer had bought the two old Victorians next to ours on Sixth Street. He wanted to merge the lots and build four to six units; the plans showed boxy multiplexes that we thought further eroded an 1880s neighborhood. We met with him, got rebuffed, and decided to see if there were any rules about tearing down old houses. At that point we knew not the LPC from the lawn bowling commission. 

We hoped the Planning Department might counsel citizens about landmarking procedures, and could mediate the likely conflicts between neighbors and developers. The city planner assigned to our case asked why we didn’t like pretty new buildings. We replied that the neighborhood was from the 1880s, and was already being encroached upon by Walnut Creek-style condos. She replied: “I’m from Planning, I don’t know anything about history.” This adversarial omen was confirmed at our first LPC meeting; not only Planning but the city attorney and a portion of the LPC viewed us as impediments to “progress.” Later on from a Machiavellian viewpoint, we could say: “OK, Planning get hefty fees from the developers, whereas the neighbors just get in their way.”  

I had been an activist but on foreign policy and social justice issues. While we worked for progressive city candidates—including Tom Bates—we did this knowing little of the workings of city government. I knew there was a bureaucracy—I had bumped heads with them while at Berkeley Mental Health for 20 years, and later on with the Mental Health Board. But with a Berkeley-kind of hubris I assumed that our apparatchniks reflected liberal values. 

And I ignored an early land-use experience while on the steering committee of BCA (the organization of local progressives.) We had opposed a development at Rose and Shattuck, one that eliminated the only gas station and mechanic in the area, and was already a difficult intersection. To my surprise heavy arm-twisting came down from BCA-held city hall. I shrugged off the experience, joked that after all, Berkeley was not Chicago—real estate interests can’t have that much clout here.  

Lise and I went ahead with a petition to landmark a district of 11 houses on Sixth, Addison, and Fifth Streets. We went door-to-door collecting the necessary 50 signatures, met many neighbors for the first time, and began to realize just how remarkable was this collection of “working man” Victorians, literally from the horse and buggy days.  

A year or so later, after many LPC meetings, phone calls, e-mails, looking through archives at the Bancroft Library, BAHA, and even the Mormon Temple, this effort culminated on March 1, 2004, in the declaration of the Sisterna Tract Block 106 Historic District by the LPC. They had received a copiously illustrated 48-page report, now in the city history section of the Berkeley Public Library. I say this to other would be landmarkers, as it would have helped us to have seen such a document. It was composed by Lise, Sarah Satterlee, and 14 other volunteers, including an architect, a woodworker and an urban archaeologist.  

At the celebration party Lise said, (quoted in the Daily Planet on March 9, 2004): “Usually, when people think of Berkeley, they think in terms of the university, or Maybecks in the hills. But this district grew out of a fascination with the discovery of a rich, unexpected history, peopled with immigrants, often Spanish speaking—such as the Chilean Sisterna—driven from distant homelands by poverty, famine, and oppression. This was a record of a working class town that began before there was a gown (UC).” 

What she didn’t say at the party was that this was won over the dead body of City Planning, and that the LPC was hardly filled with historicizing zealots. We eked out a 5-4 vote by dint of persistent neighborhood turnout at long meetings. The commissioners seemed to lean over backwards accommodating real estate speculators and their retinue of lawyers and architects. The LPC proved timid in challenging the Planning Dept., despite its obvious bungles, such as chronic failure to notify neighbors of meetings.  

The tax revenue hungry city, pushed by the real estate/building lobby, touts the new ordinance as reining in a LPC run by typical Berkeley nuts—the kind the corporate media loves to portray. The real problem lies in the opposite direction. We had been astonished to learn later—not from Planning or the LPC—that other cities actually encourage historic and neighborhood preservation. Berkeley, despite the liberal image we all love, has yet to do so.