The Future of Historic Downtown Buildings Debated

By Richard Brenneman
Friday December 01, 2006

The future of historic buildings in downtown Berkeley is gradually taking shape as members of two city panels work to hammer out the details. 

A struggle over the fate of older downtown buildings may be shaping up in the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC), the body helping city staff develop a new plan for an extended downtown area. 

While the existing downtown plan, created in 1990, places a strong emphasis on preserving the downtown’s historic character, some DAPAC members—most notably retired UC Berkeley executive Dorothy Walker—had stressed their beliefs that some older buildings need to make room for taller, newer structures. 

Others in DAPAC, like former Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) Patti Dacey, argue strongly for preservation, while expressing a willingness to modify existing historic buildings. 

The new plan at the center of the struggle was mandated in the settlement of a city lawsuit challenging the university’s expansion plans through the year 2020, which call for massive growth of university space within the confines of the downtown. 

Members of a subcommittee formed from members of the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) and the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC) met Wednesday night to examine the work done by consultants hired to assist on the plan’s section on historical resources. 

Architectural Resources Group (ARG) of San Francisco is the same firm that is working on a restoration of Berkeley’s landmarked First Church of Christ, Scientist. 

Subcommittee chair Jill Korte represented the LPC Wednesday, along with Lesley Emmington and Robert Johnson. Dacey and Wendy Alfsen attended for DAPAC, and have both indicated support for the preservationist position. 

Not present Wednesday were DAPAC members Raudel Wilson and Carole Kennerly, whose previous statements at DAPAC have indicated more sympathy for Walker’s position than Dacey’s. LPC member Steven Winkel was also absent.  

ARG senior associate Bridget Maley presented the subcommittee with a preliminary draft of context statement that will provide the framework for calling out specific buildings and features. 

“It is very good and very helpful,” said John English, a preservationist who belongs to neither body but has been faithfully attending the meetings of both. 

The document presented Tuesday doesn’t deal with specific buildings as much as with patterns and themes of development, mentioning individual buildings only as examples. 

Later, more details will be added on individual structures, and maps identifying the individual historical structures within the planning area, as well as those structures identified as notably historical by public and private agencies. 

Wednesday’s subcommittee was notably harmonious for a Berkeley meeting dealing with old buildings—especially in light of the heated battle that ended earlier this month with defeat of the preservationist-backed Measure J after a barrage of negative campaign mailers bankrolled by the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce Political Action Committee. 

The subcommittee plans at least one more session Dec. 13 before bringing its work to a joint meeting of its two parent bodies on Jan. 17. 

The final document will identify buildings that are significant in their own right, along with buildings that contribute to the historic significance of the downtown and—probably—a list of potential historic districts within the planning area.