Thirty-two years ago right here in Berkeley hundreds of wonderful old brown shingles, stucco bungalows, and Queen Anne Victorians were being torn down to make way for apartment buildings designed so poorly they were referred to as “refrigerator boxes.” Thousands more wonderful structures were threatened with plans to widen and connect streets, expand the University, and combine lots in the heart of residential neighborhoods so that taller apartment buildings, sometimes up to 10-stories, could be built. No neighborhood was safe, and it seemed no one could do anything to stop it.
Then, a handful of courageous residents stepped forward to claim Berkeley’s future. They fought against all odds and the big money of developers, and achieved approval of the Neighborhood Preservation Initiative (NPO) on the ballot and pressured the Council to approve the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance (LPO).
Today, neighborhoods have been re-zoned, and residents participate in the process of deciding the future of their neighborhoods. Less than 300 landmarks, structures of merit, and Historic Districts have been approved, less than ten buildings and sites per year have been protected from the wrecker’s ball. They range from Maybeck’s lovely First Church, Christ Scientist, Morgan’s stately Berkeley City Club, the astounding Hearst Memorial Mining Building and South Hall on campus, to the more humble homes marking Berkeley’s beginnings in the Sisterna West Berkeley neighborhood, the restoration and reuse of the Golden Sheaf Bakery as the JazzSchool and Aurora Theater which give special ambience to our Downtown Arts and Theater District, the Adeline-Ashby area with its unique antique row, the Kawneer “sawtooth” industrial building that now beautifully houses artists and crafts people. Not just structures have been recognized, but also the stone pillars in North Berkeley and the Claremont, and places like Rose Walk—places that define us as a City.
Today, the continuation of honoring all Berkeley neighborhoods and protecting them from needless demolition and inappropriate development is threatened once again unless we come together to approve Measure J on November 7th. Just think what Berkeley would be like if we hadn’t had the LPO for the past 32 years! Measure J updates the LPO with six provisions recommended by the State and has been certified to be in compliance with State and National law and, most importantly, it safeguards the LPO from City Hall politics in the future.
We need Measure J for three important reasons: First, it’s fair. Unlike the Mayor’s proposed alternative, under Measure J, everyone—owners and neighbors alike—will have a fair and equal chance to comment on whether any structure or site should be designated as an historic resource. Decisions won’t be tipped in any particular way, but instead will be made on the basis of how important an example it is, and on its integrity. Final judgments on designations are made by the people you elect, the City Council in open meetings.
Secondly, it’s environmentally sound. Today, when we understand much more about what hurts our environment, we know we must act green. Measure J proudly carries the Green Party endorsement. The Mayor’s proposed ordinance increases demolitions that fill up our landfill, and wastes energy and fouls our air trucking it there. Compare that result to what happens under Measure J which encourages adaptive re-use and restoration of existing buildings. Measure J also has the happy result of increasing economic vitality because people like to go to commercial areas that are a mix of old and human-scale new buildings that respect their surroundings.
Lastly, Measure J provides a legacy for the future by protecting our neighborhoods. These are the places that we call home, the special places of our lives that once gone, can never be replaced. These are also the places where most of our affordable housing exists—smaller, older apartment buildings which are especially vulnerable to demolition under the Mayor’s proposed ordinance. That’s why almost every neighborhood organization in the City and the highly respected Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association have endorsed Measure J.
The strength of Measure J is that in this City of adventuresome politics, supporters come from every neighborhood. We support different candidates, hold widely divergent opinions, and cross all lines. But we are working together, because a Yes Vote for Measure J is a vote that saves everyone’s future.
Shirley Dean is the former mayor of the City of Berkeley.