Sisterna Project Battle Stalled Over Document Flaw

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday April 11, 2006

The battle between a developer and neighborhood preservationists in the city’s Sisterna Tract Historic District continues, in part because city staff failed to date a key document. 

The struggle has pitted developer Gary Feiner and architect Timothy Rempel against property owners who live near two Sixth Street projects within the new district. 

The dispute landed back on the agenda of Berkeley Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) Thursday after neighbors discovered that Feiner’s contractor had demolished the roof and most of the walls of a Victorian cottage he is turning into a multi-unit residential building at 2104 Sixth St. 

Though Feiner wasn’t at the meeting, Rempel told commissioners a contractor had “innocently removed the roof as a safety hazard.” 

The old roof has been replaced with a steel-framed roof, he said, and the walls will be replaced with materials that match what was removed. 

“We will restore it with historically appropriate siding and trim and bring all the period detailing back to where it should be,” he said. 

Rempel was accompanied by attorney John Gutierrez, who lamented that “Gary Feiner’s progress through this body and the Zoning Adjustments Board has been one of the most tortuous activities anyone has ever had to go through.” 

Neighbors scoffed, and urged the commission to recommend that the Zoning Adjustment Board deny Feiner approval of a retroactive demolition permit that would regularize his project. Under the city’s Landmark Preservation Ordinance, the LPC rules on alteration permits but is not able to deny applications for permits to demolish historic resources. 

But the commissioners couldn’t act on this matter at all because it was not legally before them—the city’s Planning Department had failed to date the Initial Study and proposed Mitigated Negative Declaration included in their packets, which ordinarily would be submitted to the LPC for recommendations to ZAB. 

“Just say no,” said Elise Blumenfeld, who with her spouse and fellow psychotherapist Neal is co-owner of the Victorian at 2112 Sixth St. 

Neighbor Sandy Kasten said that Feiner had removed exterior features that had been singled out for preservation in the landmarking document. 

“All that’s left is part of the exterior siding on the north side,” she said. Approving the demolition, she said, “would be a slap in the face” to neighbors. 

While Rempel denied knowing about the demolition until after it occurred, neighbor Sarah Satterlee called the claim ridiculous. “He lives and works a block away, and his wife is project manager.” 

Rempel angrily declared that his wife was only briefly in charge of the project, but Satterlee produced a Dec. 28 e-mail which seemed to contradict him. 

Neighbor Jano Bogg charged that Feiner had removed the fence that separates the home from his property and replaced it with one higher than city code permits. 

“He claims he didn’t know his contractor had inadvertently knocked down my fence,” said Bogg, who described himself as an outraged neighbor. 

Rempel said the building permit called for replacement of some sections of the fence. 

Planning Director Dan Marks said that “because an ongoing project is being delayed, there is some interest to see it moved forward as quickly as we can.” 

But he also realized the commission couldn’t act because the document in question hadn’t been properly submitted. 

Marks said the corrected declaration would be mailed out the following day. 

Once the document is issued, the commission will have 21 days to comment— but because their next meeting isn’t until May 4, it could reach the Zoning Adjustment Board before the next LPC meeting. 

LPC members then voted to allow their project subcommittee to comment on the document and submit their remarks to ZAB. 

While some commissioners voiced their unhappiness with the developer, member Gary Parsons said he believed the demolition had been an honest mistake. Several of the neighbors shook their heads at the comment. 

The demolition marks merely the latest twist in a project that has been colored by considerable acrimony and delays. It was Feiner’s plans for a much larger pair of projects that triggered the move to create the historic district, which commemorates a working-class neighborhood from the city’s earliest years. 

The project was scaled down after the district was formed and the designs altered to fit in better with the Victorian streetscape, despite Feiner’s protests.  


New landmark 

The commission voted unanimously to declare the house at 2667-69 Le Conte Ave. as Berkeley’s newest landmark. 

Designed by John Hudson Thomas, the building is the architect’s only creation sided with wooden shingles. 

The structure has been sitting vacant, and several windows are broken, much to the dismay of some commissioners..