Public Comment

Commentary: Bates’ LPO Serves Developers, Not Citizens

By Neal Blumenfeld
Tuesday July 11, 2006

Because you can easily see 10-story buildings, large condo projects and several giant transit villages in the pipeline, it hardly seems that large-scale real estate development in Berkeley needs a boost. Yet the Planning Department, along with the mayor and his followers on the City Council, has drafted a new landmark ordinance that will be presented to the City Council. The bureaucratic language crafted by our local Machiavellis in the city attorney’s office—likely still spinning the regs as I write—will make you run up to Tilden for a breath of clean air, vowing you will never come within earshot of City Hall again.  

But the deal, folks, is that the new “compromise” Landmarks Preservation Ordinance (LPO) adroitly circumvents the old LPO, fought for over a generation ago as part of neighborhood preservation. Local activists achieved this after “boxes made of ticky tacky” popped up over much of Berkeley. Now, via a reasonable-seeming provision, the new ordinance puts citizen landmarkers back where they started from—out of sight. But you must bear with me and wade through, um, ticky-tacky City Hall-speak in order to see my point. 

The finely crafted loophole is the preemptive exemption/entitlement: an advance request for determination (RFD) to find if a given property has historic merit. A property owner or his agent can do this before any project is even proposed, hiring their own historic consultant from a list approved by the Planning Department. The consultant then submits an opinion to Planning, one that the owner can live with, to wit: this property is not a landmark. If Planning agrees—and who in recent memory recalls Planning disagreeing with a developer; they get their fees, ahem, from the same developers—they endorse the report and recommend that the Landmarks Commission (LPC) concur with the decision of “no historical features.” 

Now I was taught in fourth grade civics that, theoretically, the LPC could disagree with Planning. Of course, I was also taught that Congress was not supposed to play dead toward the president. My civics teacher failed to mention the power of the military-industrial complex or the oil megacorps in DC. And they certainly didn’t bring up the influence of large-scale developers on local politicians and bureaucrats, even liberal ones who call for Bush’s impeachment while greasing the skids locally for faster demolitions.  

Back to the RFD saying “no history here,” which is now in the hands of the LPC. With a certified report from an expert endorsed by Planning, what are the odds that the LPC , who serve at the pleasure of the majority pro-developer council, will challenge the point? Furthermore, LPC’s members can be removed at will, as Patti Dacey was recently. She made the mistake of casting a swing vote that criticized an illegal demolition in West Berkeley, an area developers claim as their new playground.  

My civics teacher reminds me that citizens still have a theoretical chance of challenging the RFD. To quote George W.’s father: “there must be a level playing field.” With a time-frame that is greatly curtailed, using the Permit Streamlining Act as an excuse, and facing an arcane language to decipher, citizens and neighbors will be playing serious catch-up ball with a ticking clock.  

So let’s pull together and stop this preemptive exemption, especially the two-year-plus contraction carte blanche, tailored for unchallenged demolitions. Why in the world does the LPC need to be “reined in?” They have never been the anti-developer zealots who make good copy for the San Francisco Chronicle and the East Bay Express’ standard lampoons of Berkeley’s lefty nuts. They as often as not lean over backwards to accommodate real estate speculators and their retinue of high-price lawyers and architects. 

But, aha! They have shown some independence and occasionally functioned as a court of last resort for citizens and neighbors. Fighting city hall and developers even 5 percent of the time must have been too much for corporate and city hall types, trained in the sixth year of the Bush to expect getting their way 100 percent. Taking a page from Karl Rove, they punish those who, even timidly, don’t follow orders. This new LPO preemptive exemption clause will, subtly but definitively, align the LPC even more than it already is with the developer-Planning complex. It will no longer be even occasionally user friendly, as it is now, for the people. Its original purpose, an independent forum for citizens to have input into their neighborhood and their city, will be lost and very hard to retrieve. 


Neal Blumenfeld is a seasoned but  

wounded veteran of the Sisterna Historic District Wars.