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Landmarks, Condo Conversion Likely to Make Ballot

By Richard Brenneman and Judith Scherr
Tuesday June 06, 2006

A small revision of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Ordinance (LPO) appears headed to the November ballot: supporters turned in 3,200 signatures on Monday. 

And an initiative that would allow the conversion of 500 Berkeley apartments into condominiums each year could pass its first hurdle this week when supporters turn in signatures to place the measure on the November ballot. 


Landmarks law 

Co-chair Roger Marquis and supporter Julie Dickinson gave City Clerk Sara Cox the petitions for the Landmarks update. 

“It looks like you’re in good shape,” Cox told Marquis. 

“I guess I could make one more run through City Hall,” he replied. “I wonder if Tom Bates is in his office?” 

“A sense of humor never hurts,” Cox replied. 

Mayor Bates is the least likely signatory of the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance 2006 Update Initiative. The petition is a direct response to the mayor’s own proposed new ordinance. 

The mayor’s version, with some tweaks by City Councilmember Laurie Capitelli, would limit the power of the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), the body charged with implementing the law, and transfer more of its responsibilities to city staff. 

The Bates version would also greatly increase the commission’s workload, say critics, by forcing the panel to review minor alterations to non-landmarked buildings. 

Both the LPC and the Planning Commission had prepared versions of a new ordinance, mandated, the City Council said, to bring the existing law in line with the state Permit Streamlining Act, which sets deadlines and time limits on how long the city can take to process construction applications. 

Marquis and Co-Chair Laurie Bright said their initiative resolves all the legal issues. 

The LPC has found itself increasingly at odds with the council and Planning Commission. 

The council has overturned several designations of structures of merit—one of two city landmark categories—that were created in response to development proposals. 

That category was created to allow for designation of buildings that may have been altered since their construction so that they are less pristine that those that qualify for the landmark designation—although both categories are entitled to the same protections under city law and the California Environmental Quality Act. 

The mayor’s proposal would have eliminated the category except in the city’s few historic districts, though city planning staff has prepared two versions of the ordinance, including one alternative that would basically leave the category intact. 

The mayor’s proposal also creates a new process called a Request for Determination that would allow a property owner to ask the LPC for a preliminary evaluation of whether a structure might qualify as a landmark. 

Several LPC members have said that process, plus the need to review routine construction permits, would place an impossible burden on a commission whose monthly meetings usually end near midnight. 

The mayor’s proposal has the strong backing of developers, who have been the loudest voices raised against the current ordinance and the commissioners who oversee its application. 

Rena Rickles, an Oakland attorney who is the developers’ lawyer of choice in battling the commission, has told the City Council that the structure of merit should be abolished. 

“[W]e are trying to find a new path that recognizes the importance of protecting neighborhood character but acknowledges that it is sometimes a different issue than historic preservation,” wrote the mayor in introducing the original draft of his proposal. 

LPC members Lesley Emmington and Patti Dacey, among others, have argued that because many structures in the city’s “flatlands” have been altered in comparison to those in the city’s hills, the structure of merit is essential to preserving neighborhood character in city’s middle- and working class-neighborhoods. 

Cox said that now the petitions are in her hands, the identities of signatories are granted absolute confidentiality “equivalent to a vote.” 

Supporters were required to submit 2,007 valid signatures, or five percent of those who voted in the last general election. The figures rise to 10 percent for a special election, and 15 percent if the petition calls for a charter amendment, Cox said. 


Condo Conversion 

Condo conversion initiative spokesperson David Wilson said his petitions would be turned in “early this week.” 

Berkeley’s current ordinance limits condominium conversion to 100 units per year. The initiative would allow up to 500 conversions when the vacancy rate is at 5 percent, as established by independent analysis. 

The initiative sets a conversion fee of $8 per square foot, whereas the present ordinance sets the fee at 12.5 percent of the selling price. 

The initiative gives tenants the right of first refusal and offers a 5 percent discount to tenants who lease an apartment, but mandates that the tenants leave the unit if they do not opt to purchase it. However, if they are forced to leave the unit, they receive 2 percent of the selling price. 

At present, a tenant whose unit is rent-controlled and who declines the purchase of the unit is given the right to lifetime occupancy subject to rent increases allowed by the rent stabilization board. (Units built since 1988 do not fall under the rent stabilization ordinance.) 

Rent Stabilization Board member Jason Overman opposes the initiative, which he says sets up a false dichotomy between those who aspire to own their own homes and apartment dwellers. Instead, Overman advocates city assistance to first time homeowners. Further, he said he doesn’t see the need to raise the limit beyond 100 conversions per year to what he said would be “opening up the floodgates to having lots of rental units taken off the market.” 

Speaking for those circulating the initiative, Wilson said that, in fact, easing condominium conversion provides the best path to homeownership. A $400,000 condominium could cost less than rent, he said. 

While some opponents say that the most affordable apartments—those under rent control—will be the first to be converted to condos, Wilson said that is a moot point, since, given the restrictions on rent control, only about 20 percent of Berkeley’s apartments are below market rate. 

And while it is true that a tenant may face eviction because of a homeowner move-in, when a unit is converted, “the tenant can go out with $8,000—that is not at all bad,” he said. 

Opponents of the initiative “are going to try to turn the initiative into a landlord versus tenants issue,” which, Wilson said, it is not. Noting that the percentage of apartment dwellers has diminished to 38 percent with respect to homeowners, Wilson said: “There is no conceivable loser.”