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Landmarks Panel Delays Decision on Gym, Warm Water Pool

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday May 08, 2007

As in the recent successful battle to landmark Iceland, most advocates of landmarking the old Berkeley High School gymnasium are more concerned with its current use than its history. 

Advocates from the disabled community have spearheaded the push to landmark the aging and ailing gym because it houses the East Bay’s only public warm water therapy pool. 

They turned out in force at the Landmarks Preservation Commission Thursday night because the building and the pool it houses have been targeted for demolition by the city’s school board. 

Trustees of the Berkeley Unified School District voted in January to demolish the building and replace it with classrooms and a new gym built to modern seismic safety standards. The site could also include a new warm pool—but no school district funds would be used. 

In 2000, Berkeley voters passed Measure R, authorizing $3.25 million in bonds to “reconstruct renovate, repair and improve the warm water pool facility at Berkeley High School.” 

The city and the school board divided responsibilities, with the city responsible for the pool and the school district for the building. 

Neither agency took action following the vote, and by March 2005, the city had learned that the cost of renovating the pool would cost twice as much as the never-issued bonds, or between $6.3 million and $7.5 million—well out of reach for a cash-strapped city government. 

When the school district released the draft environmental impact report on its South of Bancroft Master Plan late last year, both city Planning Director Dan Marks and Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association President Wendy Markel wrote letters protesting the planned demolition of the gym. 

The board approved the plan—including demolition—on Jan. 17, prompting a Feb. 23 lawsuit by the newly formed Friends Protecting Berkeley’s Resources. 

Marie Bowman, one of the group’s leaders, appeared at Thursday night’s meeting. 

Bowman urged the commission to landmark the building, “a resource worth preserving for future generations to enjoy.” A preservationist who is also a pool user, Bowman said the school district should emulate Richmond, which is saving is own community pool, the Plunge. 

School board member John Selawsky, who, while acknowledging that the building has architectural merit, said Berkeley voters weren’t likely to approve restoration costs of $15 million to $20 million. 

Preservation of the building and the presence of a warm water pool in Berkeley “are two separate issues” which were being conflated and confused, he said. 

While former school board member Terry Doran dismissed the structure housing the pool as “an old, barn-like structure,” others praised the design. 

JoAnn Cook, though a pool user, said she was concerned that a decision to landmark the building would lead to a prolonged closure. “I’m very confused on this issue,” she said. 

A strong voice for preservation came from a new audience member, Lesley Emmington, who until recently sat on the commission. “That building needs us to take care of it,” she said, “It’s part of our heritage, and it’s one of the few dignified buildings in that part of the downtown.” 

One of the voices for preservation came from an unexpected source, Anny Su, an architectural historian who formerly worked for a consulting firm that had furnished a report to the school district. 

The gym “embodies irreplaceable architectural and historical value for the city of Berkeley and immense cultural value for the city,” Su said. 

In addition to being the first gym of its kind in the state, the building was also part of the first master-planned high school campus in California, she said—a fact that Josh Abrams, who was sitting in for absent LPC member Steve Winkel, said might influence his vote. 

But Abrams also said he wanted to hear more from the district. 

Gary Parsons, an architect who often votes with the strong preservation majority on the LPC, said he was conflicted about the structure, which he said he thinks is both significant and a bad design. “It certainly hasn’t improved over the years,” he said. 

While Commissioner Jill Korte proposed a resolution calling out details of the structure to landmark, commissioners ultimately voted to postpone action for the second time, with a vote possible at the LPC’s next meeting on June 7. 


1340 Arch Street 

While most commissioners said they wouldn’t reject the addition of a new by-right dwelling in the front garden of the recently landmarked home on Arch Street, they didn’t find much to like in preliminary plans they were shown Thursday night. 

Normally an addition that can be built by-right under city law, the structure must pass muster with the LPC because they landmarked the existing home, a 1905 Craftsman, last November. Owner Horst Bansner had objected to the landmarking application, which had been filed by neighbors after he told them of plans to add the additional dwelling for his father. 

While neighbors still spoke in opposition to any plans to add a structure in the unique garden in front of the home, commissioners found fault with the design itself, which was too ornate in part and too stark in others. 

“The front seems to be developed in one way and the sides in a different way,” said Parsons. 

Commissioners also wanted to see poles erected to show what impact the new structure would have on the views of the existing house from the sidewalk in front, which is considerably lower than the house itself. 

Members faulted city staff for not providing them with an initial statement, a document they said was required under the California Environmental Quality Act when alterations were made to historic structures. While city staff said that the report wasn’t needed, the commission disagreed and voted to ask for the document to be prepared. 

They also voted to delay action until Bansner returned with a report on story poles verified by a licensed surveyor.  


2411 Fifth Street 

Commissioners gave their retroactive approval to the removal of siding from a recently designated structure of merit—the city’s category for historic resources of less than pristine integrity—while withholding a decision on a plan to move and raise the Victorian cottage slightly and to build a new residence at the rear of the property. 

Architect Ed Levitch presented preliminary sketches for both structures, but only sought official action on removing the siding on the existing cottage—a retroactive approval, given that city planning staff had already but erroneously issued the permit without LPC approval and the siding had already been removed. 

Levitch said the owner, Laura Fletcher, wants to transform the existing 1892 Queen Anne cottage into two dwelling units, one on each floor. 

She will also be seeking approval of an additional new two-story dwelling at the rear of the property, and Levitch presented preliminary plans for comments. The commission will have say over the final plans for both projects. 

The property had been designated a structure of merit in November over Fletcher’s objections.