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Landmarks Ordinance Draft Adds a Few Surprises By JUDITH SCHERR

Friday March 10, 2006

While Councilmember Laurie Capitelli lauded the proposal for a new Landmarks Preservation Ordinance which was approved by the City Council Tuesday night, saying it will give people more power to preserve their neighborhoods, Councilmember Kriss Worthington, argued that the revised law will open the door for “a whole bunch of developers who want to steamroll over historic resources.” 

On Tuesday, the council approved in concept Mayor Bates’ most recent proposal for a revised landmarks’ ordinance, including two more last-minute changes added during the council meeting by Bates and Capitelli. 

Bates’s last modification, brought forward for the first time during the meeting, further redefined “structure of meri,” a concept retained from the current ordinance to designate a historic resource which is not important enough on its own to become a designated landmark. In Berkeley, buildings in this category, which are seldom designed by famous architects, are often found in the flatlands. They have sometimes been modified over the years, but retain historical significance.  

This redefinition, passed on a slim 5-4 vote, with councilmembers Dona Spring, Kriss Worthington, Linda Maio and Betty Olds in opposition, added that the qualification that to be designated as a structure of merit a building would also have to be located in a city historic district, of which there are fewer than half a dozen at present. (Already-designated structures of merit would be grandfathered in.)  

Another set of amendments was proffered by Councilmember Laurie Capitelli in the form of a two-page handout which had not been included in the council packet, but was distributed during the meeting. His proposal added a new category, Neighborhood Conservation Districts, further restricted the definition of structure of merit, and provided for marking “historical points of interest.” It was accepted without a vote by Bates as the maker of the main motion. 

The mayor’s proposal, as posted on the Internet on the afternoon of March 3 plus the two revisions, passed in a 7-2 vote, with only Spring and Worthington opposing. 

Other provisions establish a Historic Preservation Officer within the Planning Department, and refer most projects involving older buildings to the Landmarks Preservation Commission for evaluation. 

Staff will draft ordinance language for the proposal as approved, send the draft to the Planning and Landmarks Commissions for comment, then bring it back to the council for a public hearing July 11, at which time the City Council will probably take its final vote. However according to Bates Capitelli’s amendments will “take a long time to figure out” and will probably be added after the enactment of the rest of the ordinance. 

Addressing the revamped structure of merit process at the meeting, Worthington said it discriminates against lower-income people in the flatlands, because that is where most structures of merit are located. Further, he argued in a phone interview, “historic preservation is one of the forces that has maintained rental housing in Berkeley,” having slowed the conversion of rental housing to condos.  

Capitelli said in a phone interview Thursday that Worthington’s argument is based on a fear that the proposed ordinance will allow development such as occurred in the ‘60s and ‘70s, where developers came in and “dramatically increased density,” with structures he calls “aircraft carriers.” 

In fact, Capitelli said, his amendment will bring even greater protection to the neighborhoods. He said that in the Neighborhood Conservation Districts he’s proposing, residents will come together and decide that their area must adhere to certain design and preservation guidelines. 

“People don’t have to worry,” Bates said by telephone Thursday, noting that his ordinance will counter overdevelopment. His proposal allows for the creation of “buffer zones,” which could reduce density requirements in areas situated between commercial and residential areas. 

Veteran Landmarks Commissioner Carrie Olson left Tuesday’s meeting so angry that she was unable to talk to a reporter. In a later phone interview, she blasted the mayor for having substituted a new formula for designating structures of merit. 

“Why not include it in the proposal that came out on Friday?” she said. “Tom slid it in at the last minute.” Olson pointed out that there can be two significant structures in a row that would not constitute a district but that should be preserved. 

Olson further argued against Capitelli’s amendments, saying that his redefinition of structure of merit “raised the bar,” making the protection of these structures more difficult. 

And she questioned Capitelli’s concept of historical points of interest, saying it could mean that all that would remain of these structures is a plaque. 

Berkeley resident Sharon Hudson cautions that the impact of the new ordinance is still unknown. 

“A lot will depend on how the Landmarks Preservation Commission modifies the concept of ‘integrity’ to fit local definitions,” she said. (Integrity means the degree to which a structure still reflects the original design.) “The devil is in the details,” she added. 

The new ordinance will include hiring a Historic Preservation Officer. Bates says that person, who will staff the Landmarks Preservation Commission, will be able to facilitate the commission’s work, but Councilmember Spring argues that, because the officer will report to the director of the Planning Department, and because the planning department has not supported preservation of buildings as structures of merit, the officer will play a negative role in the preservation of Berkeley’s history. 

The Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association had already registered its opposition to the proposal, which, it said in a March 7 letter to the council, would “continue to reduce significant landmark preservation provisions and protections that are currently established in Berkeley’s Landmarks Preservation Ordinance.”