Public Comment

Commentary: Mayor Bates’s LPO Changes Would Harm Flats Most By MICHAEL KATZ

Tuesday February 07, 2006

I urge the City Council to vote against Mayor Bates’ proposal to alter the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance, or LPO. (This is item 17 on their Feb. 7 agenda.) Among many good reasons to oppose the mayor’s proposal, let me emphasize two. 

First, there is no evidence that the current LPO is broken. On the whole, it is serving all of Berkeley’s constituencies well—allowing vigorous housing construction, while helping to preserve the city’s historic fabric. So let’s not “fix” what ain’t broke. 

Second, I’m particularly disturbed by the mayor’s proposal to severely restrict structure of merit designations to certain “historic districts.” To be blunt, this would further segregate the city. It would force more teardowns, and force more replacement structures of low quality, on poorer neighborhoods. 

I write as someone who’s fortunate to live in a North Berkeley neighborhood with several landmarked Maybeck houses. And then there are houses like mine: designed by no one famous (reportedly by one of Maybeck’s students) and maybe not an outstanding example of any particular style. Still, it survived the 1923 fire, and it fits in nicely with nearby houses. If a future owner wanted to demolish it, my neighbors would have no trouble winning “historic district” status and inhibiting the teardown. 

Under the mayor’s proposal, this tool would become almost unavailable to residents of many South, West, and Central Berkeley neighborhoods that already suffered from whirlwind redevelopment in the 1950s through 1970s. What the mayor really seems to propose is a vicious cycle: Because some parts of town are now stuck with a large share of the tilt-up eyesores from that go-go period, they won’t qualify as “historic districts,” so they can’t restrict further new developments that might look just as mistaken within a few years. 

There are many respects in which Berkeley needs to move beyond rhetoric and really strive harder to be “one city.” Selectively restricting development controls in the flatlands would move us in exactly the wrong direction. Maintaining all neighborhoods’ ability to protect their architectural fabric and livability would be a small, but important, step in the right direction. 

For that reason, I encourage councilmembers to reject the mayor’s proposed changes, and to instead keep the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance intact.  


Michael Katz is a Berkeley resident.