Landmarks Preservation Commissioners looked at the latest draft of Mayor Tom Bates’ revision of the city’s landmarks ordinance and scheduled a special May 25 meeting to address their concerns.
With the strong support of developers, the mayor is pushing for revisions that could significantly weaken the law that developers see as a major stumbling block.
The vote to hold the special session was the first thing the commission considered before launching into their discussion of the ordinance.
The reason for the meeting? The Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) has until June 8 to submit comments to be included in the initial environmental study city staff is preparing on the proposed revisions.
The City Council is slated to adopt the ordinance in July, replacing the city’s existing Landmarks Preservation Ordinance (LPO).
City planning staff presented the commission with a notice of intent to adopt a negative declaration, an action which, if approved by the council, would hold that the new LPO would cause no significant environmental impacts as spelled out in the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
In addition to the declaration, commissioners received a five-page memorandum on the revisions from Planning Director Dan Marks, who attended the meeting to answer questions.
City staff revised some of the proposals originally made by Mayor Bates and City Councilmember Laurie Capitelli, a Realtor, in order to derail issues in the original proposal that might have triggered the need for a full environmental impact report—a more exhaustive process than the negative declaration staff now proposes.
One of the key revisions is to eliminate a proposal that would allow the controversial Structure of Merit designation only within officially designated historic districts or in a block with an existing landmark—changes Marks’s memo said “would make a negative declaration more difficult to sustain.”
After consulting with Bates and Capitelli, Marks composed less restrictive language that doesn’t mandate that the building be in a district or the same block with a landmark.
Another key change would impact the process when an application for a demolition is proposed. Under the current law, the LPC weighs demolition proposals against the private economic interest of the project applicant and feasibility, while the revision would allow the deciding body—ultimately the city council when appeals are made—to weigh a landmark against the “overall public benefits of a project,” which would bring the proposal a step closer to the statement of overriding consideration required by CEQA before demolition of a historic resource.
This provision concerned Commissioner Patti Dacey.
“To pretend this doesn’t leave the door open to demolitions is dreaming,” she said.
Commissioner Lesley Emmington said she was concerned in part because none of the justifications cited for the changes were valid, particularly the allegation that the existing ordinance was in conflict with the state Permit Streamlining Act (PSA) that governs building and use permit applications.
“Our ordinance is in compliance with CEQA and the PSA,” said Emmington, citing the state Office of Historic Preservation’s certification of the city’s current ordinance.
Commissioner Carrie Olson said she dreaded the impacts of a law that would refer all discretionary permits to the commission, placing an even greater burden on the commission and requiring applications to fill out paperwork—which she said was almost certain to provoke public animosity towards the LPC and could “submarine” the commission’s support.
As for the structure of merit, “There are powerful forces that want to get rid of it,” she said. “The developers don’t want it, so the rest of us get it taken away from us.”
While the commission and ultimately the City Council struggle with the revision, some preservationists are taking another tack—gathering the signatures to submit the existing ordinance, plus a few minor revisions, to the voters, a process that would block any council changes.
“One of the things the mayor doesn’t want is to preserve a level playing field,” said Roger Marquis, an activist who belongs to the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association.
If approved by the voters, the measure would become law in a form that could only be altered by another initiative.
Commissioners heard from proponents and opponents of a proposal to landmark the Bevatron at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), but continued the hearing until their June 1 meeting.
The hearing began with pleas from two LBNL researchers to deny the landmark application so a new building can be constructed to house experiments in cutting edge science, which they said would be the most appropriate memorial to the Bevatron.
A particle accelerator, the Bevatron provided the technology to enable experiments that led to the Nobel Prize-winning discoveries of several subatomic particles.
Physicist Owen Chamberlain, a Nobel Laureate who died Feb. 28, was a leading proponent of preservation of the Bevatron and its building as a national monument to the “Big Science” of the Cold War Era.
But Ben Feinberg, an LBNL physicist since 1976 and head of the lab’s Advanced Light Source, was joined by Allen Smith, who worked at the Bevatron from its inception to its closure in 1993, saying demolition and a new facility would be the best tributes—along with a memorial accessible to the public.
Because the lab and its facilities have been off-limits to the general public since Sept. 11, 2001, the pair suggested a memorial at the Lawrence Hall of Science, plus a second commemoration in whatever new facility was built.
While some of the landmarking proponents talked about the unique and monumental scale of the Bevatron and its building, most said they feared the potential exposure to asbestos, lead and radioactive waste that might come from demolition and trucking the resulting waste through the city—concerns outside the LPC’s purview.
Commissioners also voted to continue a hearing on the unauthorized demolition of a landmarked structure in the West Berkeley, the Clara Ballard House at 2104 Sixth St. A complicated provision of city law defines demolition as removal of more than 50 percent of a structure. Under Berkeley’s Landmark Preservation Ordinance the Landmarks Commission is supposed to rule on whether or not a demolition of a historic resource is allowable under the California Environmental Quality Act, but the Zoning Adjustments Board has already acted to retroactively bless the demolition.
A contractor demolished the roof of the structure, one of the landmarked Victorian cottages in the Sisterna Tract Historic District. The home is one of two that is being converted into a duplex by developer Gary Feiner. Timothy Rempel, Feiner’s architect, spoke for the developer at the meeting, as did attorney John Gutierrez.
Commissioner Carrie Olson said the issue was important, because the landmark’s demolition was the first she’d encountered during her long tenure on the LPC.
City staff offered the commission a mitigated negative declaration under CEQA, with the mitigations being the specified final construction details. However the LPC declined to act unless Rempel presented samples of the actual materials to be used in replacing key architectural details and siding removed from the home.
Rempel said he was given to believe that the commissioners would approve the demolition, as had members of the Zoning Adjustments Board a week earlier. Olson said the full commission has always looked at materials before issuing approvals, a step which gives the public an opportunity to comment.
In voting with the majority to continue the hearing until June 1, a reluctant Steven Winkel said the only reason he did so was to let the commission get on with the rest of the items on their agenda, since only seven members were present and five votes are needed to take action.
“We need to make sure the public is adequately noticed,” Winkel added.
Neighbors of the projects have had a testy relationship with Feiner, and the creation of the historic district was spurred in large part because of their objections to an even larger earlier version of his project.
Because of the illegal demolition—a misdemeanor under city ordinance—city officials issued a stop-work order halting further construction on the house, That order didn’t stop work on the adjacent conversion at 2108 Sixth St., which has been proceding.
Commissioners also said they would be looking at the issue of the fence at 2104, after neighbor Jano Bogg said his existing fence had been demolished and replaced with one he didn’t like.
No plans for the fence replacement had been submitted to the commission, though the panel has oversight of any replacements.ª