Public Comment

Commentary: Devil Is In the Details of Revised LPO

By Alan Tobey
Tuesday April 18, 2006

It was a shame to once again read in the Daily Planet an inaccurate and one-sided account of the proposed revision of the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance (“Preservationists Vow to Take Landmarks Law to Voters,” April 11).    

To begin with, the opening sentence stated “Mayor Tom Bates’ proposal to weaken the city’s landmarks ordinance” as if that were undisputed fact. But the reality is different. The mayor’s proposal is a balanced one that represents a careful compromise of the different views in the community. Though it does propose some constraints on new structure of merit designations, the proposal also adds significant new protections: a guarantee that for the first time every building over 50 years of age that’s subject to a permit application will be reviewed for potential historic status, a new “request for determination” process that would help focus development interest away from historic properties, and the reduction by half of the number of signatures required for an historic initiation by the public. The resulting ordinance may not make extremists happy, but as an acceptable civic compromise it will net increase the city’s overall ability to protect its historic resources. 

In the story, LPC member Carrie Olson misremembers history by claiming that “at the very last minute he [the mayor] added structures of merit only in historic districts.” The facts are different: this proposed change to structure of merit was included in Mr. Bates’ original LPO proposal dated November 29, 2005, more than two months before the council’s vote, and it has been well discussed ever since, including at the first public hearing. It was a solid council majority, not just the mayor, that voted to return it to the proposal as an amendment. 

We have not yet even seen the markup language of the proposed LPO revision, which is due from city staff in early May. Wouldn’t it be reasonable that the hyper-preservation community look at what the council may actually pass before threatening an initiative to replace it? Or are they simply trying to intimidate the council into not approving the consensus ordinance by making this narcissistic and misguided threat? 

The LPC majority is being cynical and disingenuous in now praising the merits of “the LPC proposal” to revise the LPO, which would be the basis of their initiative. After slowly working on that proposal for more than five years, last June the LPC voted to withdraw it from council consideration because the commission majority could no longer support its recommendations. If it was unworthy of LPC approval last June, why should we consider it worth implementing today?  

We should note that the mayor’s proposal, with some amendments from councilmembers, received a 7-2 approval by the City Council—hardly a sign that Berkeley citizens should consider it extreme or dangerous. The two councilmembers who voted against it—Dona Spring and Kriss Worthington—mostly expressed concern that the new ordinance still focused too much on protecting fancy buildings by renowned architects and not enough on “vernacular” buildings and streetscapes in ordinary flatlands neighborhoods. Councilmember Capitelli’s approved amendment to the proposal, calling for careful study of “neighborhood conservation districts,” would directly address that concern and potentially add additional protections. 

Fortunately, we will soon have a chance to take a close look at the actual language of the proposed new ordinance before it comes before the City Council for a public hearing and vote. All of us involved in this revision know that the devil is in the details, and we do expect that a good deal of further conversation will be needed to ensure that the ordinance meets its objectives without introducing loopholes or adverse unintended consequences. Structure of merit will certainly receive detailed council reconsideration along the way. Helpfully examining and perfecting the final ordinance will require cooperation and a sense of good will across a wide spectrum of the community— good will which the extreme preservationist community seems consistently interested only in poisoning. 


Alan Tobey, a Berkeley resident since 1970, worked for the original passage of the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance and has closely followed its proposed revision for the past two years.