Preservationists Vow to Take Landmarks Law to Voters

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday April 11, 2006

Responding to Mayor Tom Bates’s proposal to weaken the city’s landmarks ordinance, Berkeley preservationists say they’ll be taking the issue to the voters. 

Computer security consultant Roger Marquis told the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) Thursday that he’ll present them with a copy of the initiative at their meeting May 4. 

“Right now we’re calling it the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance 2006 Update Initiative,” said Marquis, who is spokesperson for the committee preparing the measure. 

Meanwhile, Planning Director Dan Marks told the commission his staff is drafting a formal version of the mayor’s proposal, which will also be presented to the council in May. 

Marks said either he or Deputy City Attorney Dan Marks would make the presentation. 

“The mayor has prepared revisions that would significantly weaken the ordinance,” Marquis told the commission. “We are preparing an initiative to put an updated version of the current ordinance before the voters.” 

Marquis said the initiative would include an ordinance similar to the proposal drafted by the LPC. Another version had been drafted by the Planning Commission, and the mayor’s version incorporated features of both. 


Mayor’s revisions 

Marks said his staff is preparing two versions of the ordinance offering different treatments of the city’s most controversial landmark category, the structure of merit. 

These are typically buildings that have been significantly altered since their construction but which still contain significant features of the original. The other category, landmark, is usually bestowed on a more pristine structure. 

In one version of the ordinance Marks is preparing, the structure of merit designation and the protections it carries could only be applied within designated historic districts. 

That version is strongly backed by developers and attorney Rena Rickles, who frequently appears to argue their cases before city commissions and the council. 

A second version would continue the present law’s practice of allowing its application anywhere in the city.  

In both proposals, a landmark category of designation could be named anywhere in the city. 

Marquis said his version will also allow its applicability throughout the city, a position backed by the LPC majority. 

Both the landmark and structure of merit designations carry protections under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). 

Marks said the mayor’s ordinance would also include a third, new form of designation called a “neighborhood point of interest,” which would carry no CEQA protections. 

The mayor’s proposal also calls for the creation of a new city post, Historic Preservation Officer, who would also serve as the LPC’s secretary. Marks said current LPC Secretary Janet Homrighausen would be well-qualified for the post. 

The mayor’s proposal also creates a new process called a Request for Determination, which would allow owners to determine if their properties might be potential landmarks.  

LPC member Carrie Olson had few kind words for the mayor and his proposal. 

“It was worthy of Tom Delay,” said Olson, comparing Bates to the now discredited House GOP leader. “At the very last minute he added structures of merit only in historic districts. There was no opportunity for public comment ... this guy learned his craft well in Sacramento”—referring to the mayor’s years in the state Assembly. 


Initiative proposal 

Marquis said his group’s initiative “basically updates the current ordinance with a few changes to reference the state Permit Streamlining Act and its timeline, and incorporates a few other changes recommended by the state Office of Historic Preservation.” 

The current ordinance was adopted in 1974, a year after Berkeley voters approved the Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance that mandated the landmarks ordinance (LPO). 

The initiative, which will require 2,007 valid signatures of Berkeley voters to qualify for the November ballot, will preserve the existing structure of merit category, he said. 

“Structures of merit are basically local resources that may or may not be eligible for the state or national registers (of historic places), but they are important elements of the neighborhood context,” Marquis said. 

The LPO proponent said he didn’t want to get into more specifics of any changes in the proposed initiative until the committee’s attorneys had finished vetting the draft, which should happen later this week. 

Marquis said the initiative will include a call for a survey to identify potential landmarks, something the mayor has also called for. 

“The mayor and the planning department say they want a survey but the city already lost out on a $25,000 grant to conduct a survey because they didn’t apply on time,” said Marquis.  

Marquis said proponents expect to face an intense campaign against the initiative, financed by developers—who are largely critical of the existing ordinance, and especially of the structure of merit. 

“Fortunately, Berkeley voters tend to take the time to look behind the rhetoric,” he said. 

Marquis said the ordinance would concentrate new development on vacant sites, including the locations of old gas stations, rather than on sites occupied by 19th-century Victorians and other historic structures..