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Commission, Neighbors Unhappy With Sisterna District Projects

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday April 04, 2006

The long-running battle between developer Gary Feiner and residents of the landmarked Sisterna Tract neighborhood has flared up again. 

The city ordered a halt to construction at one of two Sixth Street homes Feiner is turning into duplexes—at 2104 Sixth—declaring that he had exceeded the bounds of his permit and carried out an effective demolition. 

The Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) will take up that issue Thursday night. 

Meanwhile, a commission subcommittee met Tuesday afternoon with neighbo rs and Feiner’s architect to talk about the other building, created after an approved demolition at 2108 Sixth. 

Neighbors made it clear they weren’t happy with architect Timothy Rempel’s creation, nor were they happy with his drawings—which played a majo r role in their decision to approve the project. 

Rempel conceded the key point raised by critics, namely, that the drawings of streetscapes he’d created were not done to scale. 

The architectural drawings themselves—the technical designs used in the actual construction—were to scale, but they didn’t present the house in the context of the streetscape. 

That meant a great deal to Carrie Olson, the LPC member who chairs the subcommittee that has been working with neighbors, the developer and the architect. 


Historic District  

Concern about the projects—originally conceived as more massive modernist creations—played a central role in mobilizing neighbors to create what became the city’s second designated historic neighborhood. 

On March 1, 2004, the Landm arks Preservation Commission (LPC) created Sisterna Historic District 106. 

Psychotherapist Elise Blumenfeld and colleague Sarah Satterlee, joined by 14 other volunteers, including an archeologist, an architect and a woodworker, prepared a lavishly illust rated 48-page application calling for the landmarking of the neighborhood and its working-class cottages. 

In creating the district, commissioners landmarked nine dwellings within the boundaries of the district, including both the home and property at 2104, but only the land at 2108 because the structure had been significantly altered from its original Victorian features. 

Creation of a district imposes guidelines on all new buildings within its boundaries, requiring projects to fit in with the character of the neighborhood. 

Feiner appealed the designation on May 12, and commission hearings in June and July drew large turnouts of preservationists and neighbors on one side and architects and development partisans on the other. 

Feiner’s plans went through numerous revisions and significant downsizing before the LPC finally approved them on Nov. 1. 

Before the approval, Elise Blumenfeld and her spouse, psychiatrist Neal, offered renderings by Oakland architect Charles Coburn, who specializes in restoration s. 

Those sketches drew favorable comments from several commissioners, who said some of the details were more in keeping with the character of the neighborhood than those offered by Rempel. 


Subcommittee meeting  

At issue during Tuesday’s subcommittee me eting were the height and appearance of the home at 2108 Sixth, the structure that had been legally demolished after the LPC declined to landmark it. 

The new home appears to be much taller than was portrayed in the streetscape sketches shown to the LPC a t the time they approved the designs, a point noted by Chair Olson as the meeting began. 

“The roof height is higher than we approved,” said LPC member Leslie Emmington. 

“I believe it’s the correct height,” said Rempel—which a check of the plans by LPC m ember and architect Steven Winkel proved correct. 

The streetscape drawings, which had been ordered by the LPC to place the buildings into context, were done by an assistant from photographs, Rempel said, acknowledging that “in the future when building be tween historic buildings, you should require measurement of the adjacent buildings.”  

Rempel also said he had to convince his client to spend the money to do even the drawings the commission had seen. 

“Story poles would actually be cheaper,” said Winkel, referring to poles erected to the height of proposed buildings and often used in projects in the Berkeley hills to evaluate the impact of designs on neighbors’ views. 

“Story poles would be a fine idea,” said Rempel, who noted that in two hills projects he was working on, the poles were required, as was a verification of their height by an independent surveyor. 

Emmington said the streetscape sketches “are like criminal because they are so far off. We have to keep reminding ourselves when we get excited about a plan that that’s not necessarily what’s going to happen.” 

The height is further emphasized because the demolished structure wasn’t as high in its street-facing facade. 

“Historic districts are supposed to have a ‘feel,’ and that feel is definite ly not here,” said Emmington. 

Winkel said that when construction resumes on the landmarked building at 2104, “we should send a surveyor out to make sure it matches the drawing.” 

“I am very disappointed,” said Elise Blumenfeld, who, with her husband, own s the building at 2110 Sixth immediately south of the nearly completed Feiner duplex. “As citizens we made an enormous effort on this project, and now it feels likes smoke and mirrors.” 

“It doesn’t have any spirit,” said Neal Blumenfeld. 

“I completely d isagree,” said Rempel. 

“I’m talking about the spirit of the neighborhood, said Blumenfeld. 

“I find that very insulting as an architect,” said Rempel. 

“You deserve to be insulted,” said Jano Bogg, a neighbor. 

Reached the following afternoon, Olson said the LPC had learned a significant lesson from the project. “The drawings are very deceptive. We’re given just so much information, and we’ve never been successful in getting the (city) planning department to put up story poles,” she said. “This project m ay give us what we need to require them the next time.” 


LPC meet 

Thursday’s LPC meeting begins at 7:30 p.m. in the North Berkeley Community Center, 1901 Hearst Ave. 

While the notice mailed out by city staff referred to a hearing on “proposed legaliza tion of a demolition,” Olson said the whole project at 2104 is open for a resubmission. 

Neighbors claimed Tuesday that additional demolition had taken place at the landmarked structure, including removal of siding that was specifically singled out for re tention. 


West Berkeley historian and activist Stephanie Manning will lead a Berkeley Historical Society walking tour of the Sisterna Tract on Saturday, May 20. (See article on the historic walking tour series in this issue, page 7) The walk “Sisterna Tract: A Small Chilean Ranch Transformed,” will begin at 10 a.m. For more information, see, or call the Berkeley Historical Society at 848-0181..?