In their final meeting before voters decide on their future role in city government, Berkeley commissioners added two new landmarks to the city’s legacy.
The future role of the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC)—seen by some as a bulwark of neighborhood and historical preservation and by others as a last resort for the NIMBY-minded—will be decided in Tuesday’s election.
The battle over Measure J, the target of an expensive developer-financed opposition campaign by the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce, dominated the campaign in the runup to the election.
Yet one of Thursday night’s landmarkings—carried out under the old law, which is the basis for Measure J, the initiative that developers want to torpedo—was endorsed by a prospective owner who is also a major donor to the chamber’s war chest.
Panoramic Interests, headed by Patrick Kennedy, is buying the building on Center Street that until earlier this year housed the Act I & Act II Theater.
John English filed a petition to initiative the building as a city landmark—technically, a structure of merit, the designation for less pristine but still noteworthy structures.
Begun as the Ennor’s Restaurant Building, the structure at 2128-2130 Center St., was extensively resurfaced in its incarnation as a theater, with the addition of a marquee and the front windows filled in and covered with tile.
During last month’s commission meeting, Panoramic representative Cara Houfer said the developer plans to restore the building, and another Panoramic representative, Patrick Walker, told commissioners Thursday that “Panoramic Interests thanks John for all his efforts and work and supports his application for landmarking status.”
Walker said that after escrow closes—presumably in January—Panoramic would enter a Mills Act agreement with the city, which gives owners of landmarked buildings a tax break on repairs and restoration.
While LPC member Burton Edwards (listed as a No on J endorser on Chamber postcards) wanted to retain the option of preserving facade left from the structure’s post-restaurant and pre-movie incarnation as a Breuner’s Furniture store, other commissioners seemed to favor the original 1920’s incarnation.
The commission voted unanimously to add the building to the city’s roster of landmarks.
Though homeowner Horst Bansner would seem the obvious candidate to delight in landmarking—he has lovingly resorted his historic dwelling and even hosted a gathering two years ago by the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association to celebrate the home’s 100th year—he urged LPC members not to landmark his dwelling.
The application to designate the striking 1905 Craftsman-style dwelling at 1340 Arch St. was filed by two neighbors, a move they made when they learned of Bansner’s application to build a small by-right dwelling unit in his front yard.
Accessory dwelling units (ADUs), as they are termed by city code, don’t have to go through the usual permitting process for additions if they enclose fewer than 500 square feet of space.
Neighbors Yael and Gavriel Moses filed the initiation petition, pleading with the commission to spare the home’s large front garden area where the ADU was planned.
The home is notable both for its design and because it’s one of the few—if only—examples of a residence designed by John White to have survived the city’s disastrous 1923 hills fire.
White was the brother-in-law of legendary Berkeley architect Bernard Maybeck, and is primarily recognized for two landmark designs, the Le Conte Memorial Lodge, a National Historic Landmark in Yosemite Valley, and the Hillside Club in Berkeley.
The home also witnessed the visits of internationally known figures such as photographers Edward Weston, Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams, anthropologist A.L. Kroeber and his spouse, Theodora, and others drawn by long-time owner Carl Sauer, an internationally renowned geographer.
Because the front garden was integral to the design, the Moseses asked that it be specifically called out for preservation, but Bansner said he wanted to build the small dwelling for his 88-year-old father so he wouldn’t have to negotiate the uphill walk, and later use the dwelling for himself as he grew older.
Bansner said he was also concerned because his application to build the ADU had been pending for almost a year before his neighbors acted.
“I have spent a significant amount of money restoring the home, and I have opened it for fundraisers for BAHA and political candidates, but no good deed goes unpunished,” he said.
But Lesley Emmington, after initial reservations, joined the rest of the commission in approving a landmarking that didn’t call for preserving the garden, allowing Bansner to build an addition so long as it respected the design of the home.
“I’ve always though of it as an amazing house,” said LPC commissioner Robert Johnson, who walks by the home frequently on walks from his own house in the hills.
When it came time to comment on a draft environmental impact report on planned construction at Berkeley High School, LPC members urged Berkeley Unified School District board members to reconsider their plans to demolish the old gymnasium building that houses the warm water pool.
The building houses the only the East Bay’s only warm water pool, which is used by the disabled and people recovering from injuries. Berkeley voters passed a never-funded $3.5 million bond measure in 2000 to rehabilitate the structure, which is rated as seismically unsafe.
Carrie Olson faulted the district for failing to seek out wider community input for their construction plans. “I was supposed to be appointed the preservation community’s representative to the process, but I was not notified at all,” she said.
“We were not properly informed,” said Johnson, and Commission Jill Korte, a project neighbor, agreed, nothing that she had received no notice of the plans.
“This is a resource of record potentially eligible for the National register of Historic Places,” said Emmington, referring to the Beaux Arts building designed by a team of architects headed by Walter Ratcliff.
Olson and Emmington noted that the building has spaces upstairs that at one time were used for classrooms and which could be used for that purpose again, meeting one of the district’s objectives.
“They seriously have to consider the alternatives, and we think the preferred alternation is to preserve the building,” said Johnson.
The deadline for submitting comments to the school board is Thursday, said Commission Secretary Janet Homrighausen.
Disabled community activists, including City Councilmember Dona Spring, have called for preservation of the pool, which she says meets a critical need for the disabled.