Historic Building, Green Design Planning Elements Take Shape

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday May 15, 2007

Members of the two city bodies looking at the future of the Berkeley’s historic buildings are nearing completion of a key element of the new downtown plan. 

A joint subcommittee formed of members of the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) and the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee (DAPAC) has been meeting since August to hammer out policies for the new plan—and members said Wednesday they hope to finish their work soon. 

While historic preservation was declared the cornerstone of the city’s last plan, done in 1990, DAPAC members will meet this week to hammer out the centerpiece of their new plan—sustainability. 

A city lawsuit challenging UC Berkeley’s long range plans for development through the first two decades of the new century resulted in a settlement that requires the city to draft a new downtown plan accommodating the 800,000 square feet of construction the university plans there. 


Historic district? 

One of the questions discussed Wednesday was the possible creation of a downtown historic district, a legal entity that would afford some protection to designated historic buildings and given the LPC a say in the design of all new construction within the district. 

“We are going to have to reconcile historic preservation with a degree of flexibility to allow for some development,” said Jesse Arreguin, a DAPAC member. 

Patti Dacey, a DAPAC representative and former LPC member, said to her former colleagues, “DAPAC is looking to you to define a historic district or look where we really need to preserve the historic character of downtown.” 

Steven Winkel, a landmarks commissioner and architect, said members needed to decide if they were going to focus on a map or on specific policies. 

“I don’t see a historic district happening in the near future,” said LPC Chair Robert Johnson. “But if we don’t come up with a policy, DAPAC is going ahead.” He said preparation of guidelines would be a good interim step.  

One problem facing the panel is the lack of a thorough survey of the downtown’s historic structures, although the subcommittee has made a significant start with its own preliminary survey conducted by Architectural Resources Group, a consulting firm retained for that purpose, along with the results of previous studies and other data compiled into a basic matrix. 

A step suggested by Matt Taecker, the planner hired by the city with university funds to help draft the plan, is creation of precincts, or discrete areas within the downtown containing noteworthy buildings. 

“A district would take a higher level of analysis to establish,” he said. 

Winkel said he liked the idea, which has been used in cities like Pasadena. 

John English, a retired planner and preservationist who has been working with the subcommittee on a volunteer basis, has suggested four distinct areas, and members agreed Wednesday that two in particular could be singled out as possible historic districts. 

The first, dubbed “Main Street Downtown,” encompasses the core of Shattuck Avenue in the city center from University Avenue to Durant Street, while the second, “Dwight Station,” includes historic buildings near the intersection of Shattuck and Dwight Way, once a rail transit station. 

Downtown already has one historic district which is recognized by the city, state and federal governments and includes the historic structures around Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park. 

New design guidelines for the downtown intended to preserve the overall historic character and context of existing buildings will also have to include provisions that allow for green building design—structures that consume less energy than typical buildings, Taecker said. 

“Your challenge is how to articulate how to deal with a street facade that is obviously calling out for change,” said LPC member Carrie Olson. 

Jim Novosel, an architect as well as one of the newest DAPAC members, said members faced a real challenge in dealing “with this zoo of architecture that is the downtown.” 

Johnson said the emphasis of any design guidelines should be on the way new buildings relate to the street. “I don’t think we should be encouraging or discouraging any particular style or architect.” 

Several members agreed that the design guidelines included in the existing downtown plan, adopted in 1990, provide a good basis for the new plan. 

Novosel, who agreed to hone the subcommittee’s preservation proposal with Patti Dacey in time for a possibly final meeting on May 23, said “we would be going against the civic grain if we didn’t put historic preservation at the forefront” of the new plan, “but with an opportunity for significant growth.” 

Olson said that if the document’s language about creating historic districts is specific enough, the city should be able to receive state funding for the historic resources survey subcommittee members have sought since the group began meeting. 

“I have been assured by the mayor that this is something he wants,” Olson said. 



DAPAC members received a hefty collection of documents in an email last week, including a 17-page draft of the goals and policies section which includes a section on basic principles for green design and planning. 

The document, part of a 34-page compendium drafted by Taecker, UC Berkeley planners Judy Chess and Jennifer McDougall and Berkeley environmental activist Juliet Lamont, includes critical comments added by DAPAC Chair Will Travis and Planning Commissioner Gene Poschman. 

Travis, whose day job is running the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, wrote that he “found the policies to be directed primarily to environmental sustainabilty at the expense of economic and social sustainabilty.” 

He also found that the proposed language locked in existing technology without encouraging development of new, even more sustainable methods and materials. 

Poschman noted that reliance on transit-oriented development (TOD) ignored the fact that most people who move to such projects continue to rely on single occupant car trips to commute to work. 

He also noted that the TOD section didn’t include a specific call for inclusion of affordable housing and urged inclusion of a provision calling for more units reserved for low- and very low-income families in multi-unit projects than currently called for in the city’s inclusionary housing regulations. 

Other committee members, during earlier discussion of the issues, have called for support for retrofits of existing buildings as a key element of a sustainable development section. 

Patti Dacey and Wendy Alfsen are two DAPAC members who have repeatedly urged retrofits as a means of revitalizing the historic buildings they see as central to the downtown character.