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Commission Blasts Review of Mayor’s Landmarks Proposal

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday May 30, 2006

“All these years I’ve been speaking about the Landmarks Demolitions Ordinance, and here it is,” said Carrie Olson. 

A veteran of the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), Olson led the panel’s critique Thursday night of the city planning staff’s proposed environmental review of the proposed new landmarks ordinance based on proposals by Mayor Tom Bates and City Councilmember Laurie Capitelli. 

The commission’s meeting was a special session called just to consider their response to the proposed negative declaration submitted by city Planning and Development Director Dan Marks on May 1. 

A negative declaration is the least restrictive document possible under the California Environmental Quality Act, a finding that a proposed project—in this case, a municipal ordinance—carries no adverse impacts. 

While Marks wrote that “the city has found no substantial evidence ... that the project (the ordinance) may have a significant impact on the environment,” commissioners clearly disagreed. 

A source of particular concern was a provision that allows for demolition of a landmark to make way for a project “necessary to achieve an important public policy” where “the expected benefit” to the public “substantially outweighs the detriment” of demolition. 

At the very least, said commissioner Steven Winkel, any such demolition would require an environmental impact report under state law. 

No language in the proposed declaration “exposes the gravest threat in this ordinance to historic resources,” said Olson. 

Winkel said the provision “is significant enough that you could focus an EIR on that single issue.” 

Olson traced the origin of the provision to Deputy City Attorney Zac Cowan, “who said we should be able to demolish historic resources to build affordable housing.” When the LPC didn’t include the provision in their proposed revisions of the current ordinance, he said, ‘Don’t worry, staff will bring that back in its own draft.’” 

Because of the city holidays on Friday and Monday, Cowan was unavailable for comment. 

Another provision would effectively permit demolition of structures of merit—the city’s category for landmarks that have been altered over the years—when the value of preservation is “outweighed by the project’s public benefits in relation to General Plan policies.” 

At Winkel’s suggestion, commissioners agreed to call for a focused EIR on the proposed ordinance, one that would examine in depth the proposals’ potential impacts on the city’s aesthetic and cultural resources and on existing land use policies. 

Only three members of the public spoke at the meeting—preservationists John English and John McBride and Alan Tobey of Livable Berkeley, a group of infill development proponents whose members often find themselves at odds with ardent preservationists. 

English said the demolition-for-public-benefit provisions, “whatever that may mean ... would assign an unwonted, unwanted role of having to weigh the merits of new projects” against the value of landmarks. 

“It poses such a threat to Berkeley’s landmarks that an environmental impact report is needed,” he said. 

Commission Patti Dacey said the provision was especially ominous in light of sympathy for landmark demolitions she had heard from members of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee, the group appointed by the city council and planning commission to provide city staff guidance on preparing a new downtown plan mandated in the settlement of the city’s suit against UC Berkeley’s 2020 Long Range Development Plan. 

“One DAPAC member even said we should pull down landmarks to build a park,” Dacey said. 

English said other provisions of the proposed ordinance, including a mandatory review of all building permits, “even to nondescript buildings” over 50 years of age, would swamp the commission with busywork at the expense of fulfilling their charge to preserve the city’s significant landmarks. 

”I agree with John English’s comments,” said Tobey. 

Tobey said the while it was easy to find faults with the mayor’s proposal, “I challenge you to do what the (city) council asked you to do, to work on a policy direction and not simply list what’s wrong with the proposal but work on a compromise the council could pass.” 

McBride said the public benefit language “is clearly for the City Council’s benefit,” and not for a commission which is specifically charged with preservation. 

Olson said she was also concerned with another provision that would increase the age of buildings eligible for landmark status from 40 years to 50—a measure that would exclude, at least for several years, buildings of significance built in the era of the Free Speech Movement and the antiwar movement of the early 60s which now fall under the LPC’s purview. 

Commissioners delegated the responsibility for drafting the official response to the city, which has to be submitted by June 8. Olson will consult with two or three other commission members, then submit the final draft for inclusion on the consent calendar for Thursday night’s meeting.