By Shirley Dean
Some have asked why I’ve become involved in the current effort to save Berkeley’s Landmark Preservation Ordinance (LPO). I’d like to tell people about that and why it is so important to vote Yes on Measure J this coming Nov. 7.
Around 35 years ago, when the city didn’t have the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance that we have today, I and other members of my neighborhood rallied together to save a charming, beautiful well-preserved Victorian home that was located on the southwest corner of Bonita and Berryman Streets. It was painted a medium shade of gray and sat well back from the sidewalk surrounded by an old garden of bushes and flowering plants. It was rumored to have been the home of the daughter of the family that lived in the Bryne Mansion (since destroyed by fire) that stood a short distance to the east between Oxford and Spruce. Built in about the same style, it was one of the loveliest homes I have seen in the 50 or so years that I have been living in Berkeley.
Our neighborhood quickly formed the Bonita Berryman Neighborhood Association and presented the City Council with over 1,000 signatures (gathered in just one week) of people in the area who opposed the demolition of that home and two others in order to construct a large, blocky apartment building. Hundreds of people wrote letters and appeared before the Planning Commission, Zoning Board and Council with their passionate pleas of support for our cause. It was all to no avail.
Today, you can drive by that corner and only imagine the lovely structure that once stood there and how its history has been lost. What you see today is the building that replaced it and how that building impacts its neighborhood. What you can’t experience is how the loss of that building changed the people and their lives in that neighborhood.
Not too long after we tearfully watched the bulldozers rip down that wonderful piece of history, many of us joined together to convince the City Council to adopt a Landmarks Preservation Ordinance. It wasn’t easy, but 32 years later that same LPO is alive and well providing protections for the historic structures and sites that contribute so much to the beauty and livability of this city.
Today our Landmarks Preservation Ordinance is facing the biggest threat in its history under the strange logic that somehow making it easier to demolish older structures provides better neighborhood protection than does our current ordinance. I don’t know how to say it any other way—this is absolute nonsense on its face.
We are being told that our existing LPO violates the state Permit Streamlining Act (PSA). The LPO has been law for over 32 years and after countless decisions, no part of it has ever been struck down by the courts. A law suit mentioned at a council meeting as an example of a PSA violation turns out to have nothing to do with the LPO—it involved a staff mistake on the date that the PSA was to start being counted. Six years ago, the state Office of Historic Preservation certified our LPO as being fully in compliance with all applicable state laws! Nothing has changed since then.
Some people have taken great delight in pointing out what they believe are examples of “bad” decisions to landmark certain buildings. What they don’t tell you is that Landmark Preservation Commission decisions must be confirmed by the council before they are final. If a decision is “bad” it is the fault of the council that made that decision, not the fault of the law. What they also don’t mention is that the vast majority of these so-called “bad” decisions never became landmarks in the first place because decisions were reversed by the City Council!
Throwing out the LPO because someone doesn’t think that a structure or site shouldn’t be recognized as a historic resource when it wasn’t recognized in that way anyway, is just one more example of the strange logic being used to defeat Measure J. Why is getting rid of the LPO so important to the Mayor and some members of the City Council?
Measure J makes permanent the City’s 32-year-old LPO plus six updates that have been suggested by the state Office of Historic Preservation. If Measure J is defeated an ordinance proposed by the mayor is waiting in the wings to replace it. The mayor’s ordinance is heavily backed by developers. If Measure J is defeated, Berkeley will be condemned to relieve our history of demolishing charming, irreplaceable buildings that enhance neighborhoods only to replace them with large, non-distinct buildings that intrude onto neighborhoods. Haven’t we learned anything? We can have appropriate development AND retain our Landmarks Preservation Ordinance which preserves our neighborhoods. Vote “Yes” on Measure J on Nov. 7.
Shirley Dean is the former mayor of Berkeley.