Commentary: Why Attack the Landmarks Ordinance? By Roger Marquis

Tuesday January 17, 2006

You’d never know it from reading his press releases, but Mayor Bates is pushing a proposal to effectively eliminate Berkeley’s Landmarks Preservation Ordinance (LPO). He recently told a group of concerned citizens, “This is going to happen, I have a majority on the council.” But there’s more to it than a council majority. 

Across the bay in Palo Alto, where I once lived, demolitions have averaged nearly 150 per year since its preservation ordinance was lost in 2000. As a result that city no longer has a single neighborhood which qualifies as an historic district. Mayor Bates is proposing the same fate for Berkeley. I wonder if we are ready for McMansions and tract condos by the hundreds? 

Interestingly, the mayor’s proposal starts off recognizing Berkeley’s unique architecture and neighborhoods and the need to conserve both. Reading farther into it, however, makes clear the proposal’s intention is exactly the opposite. Most importantly the proposal would prevent consideration of neighborhood context by eliminating the “structures of merit” category entirely. At the heart of the issue are these structures of merit, buildings which were not designed by a famous architect like Julia Morgan or lived in by a famous person but are fundamental to the character of their neighborhood. Without this category the LPO would only apply to the few dozen stand-alone structures which qualify for the state or national registers. This revision alone would attract developers to traditional neighborhoods, away from the city’s many blighted lots. It is not a smart-growth proposition by any measure. 

Why are Mayor Bates and the Planning Department spending so much time and effort attacking the LPO? The reason most often cited is that it is in violation of the state Permit Streamlining Act (PSA). However, no developers have complained of PSA violations nor have any been attributed to the LPO. In truth the PSA and state environmental law (CEQA) explicitly allow for more than enough time to perform historic reviews. 

Obviously, the Permit Streamlining Act is a red herring. The real beneficiaries of Mayor Bates’ LPO revision efforts would be big developers. The same individuals who don’t actually live in Berkeley and are frequently afforded subsidies, fee reductions and zoning “adjustments” while our local homeowners, carpenters, painters and electricians are shortchanged by increasing permit delays and fee hikes. This local version of corporate welfare is no different from that practiced by Schwarzenegger in Sacramento or Bush in Washington. 

Politics aside the real question is what would Berkeley look like in 10 or 20 years were the mayor’s LPO revision efforts to succeed? We need only look back 40 years for the answer. Demolition permits were doled out by the dozen in the 60s and early 70s. It was during this time that Berkeley lost many residents to suburban flight, property tax rolls fell, crime increased, and civic pride plummeted. The city is still suffering the effects of those demolitions. We responded by passing a Neighborhood Preservation Initiative in the 1973 election from which the council created the LPO in 1974. Have we already forgotten why? Do we really need to relive the city’s most difficult decade to remember how quickly neighborhoods can decline?  


Roger Marquis is a local computer security consultant and a UC graduate.