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City Council Delays Iceland Decision

By Judith Scherr
Friday July 13, 2007

The public hearing at the Tuesday night City Council meeting was supposed to focus on whether the council should uphold or overturn a commission’s landmark designation of the 1939 art deco structure that houses Berkeley Iceland at Derby and Milvia streets. 

But the public in attendance, mostly members or allies of a new nonprofit corporation Save Berkeley Iceland, testified less about the site’s architectural features and more about the need to save what one supporter called a “community jewel” as a space to skate. 

Even the potential developer of the site, Ali Kashani, president of Oakland-based Memar Properties, and his supporters focused in on issues outside the question of landmarking the property, talking about the nature of the project he is proposing, that he said would include affordable housing units (required by law) and a partnership with the YMCA to consolidate its scattered programs for young low-income children. 

The council voted unanimously to delay a vote on the question, instead setting a special meeting next Tuesday at 6 p.m. for that purpose. Councilmember Gordon Wozniak said he hoped that during the week rink owner East Bay Iceland would meet with Save Berkeley Iceland supporters to carve out a mutually satisfactory agreement. 

But in a Wednesday morning phone interview, Kashani said Save Berkeley Iceland’s participation is no longer an option because he has a “binding purchase agreement” with East Bay Iceland. That agreement precludes the owners from entering into discussions with a third party, he said. 

Kashani said his proposal includes building townhouses, either rental or condominiums, and partnering with the YMCA. It is premature to talk about how a landmark designation would affect his plan to purchase the site, he said, noting there is an “inspection period” during which he can decide if he wants to move forward with the purchase. 

The stated purpose of the hearing was for the council to decide whether to uphold the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s (LPC) designation of Iceland as a landmark. The commission’s designation specifically calls for maintaining the exterior walls of the structure as well as the grass berms, which are the mounds in front of the building. 

“They don’t care about saving any more of the building than we do, unless it can be used for an ice rink,” Jay Wescott, general manager of East Bay Iceland, told the council.  

Only the west exterior wall of the building merits landmark status, Wescott said. Saving other exterior walls and the berm would make the building “unappealing to another buyer,” he said. 

While underscoring the belief that the historic site should get landmark status, Save Berkeley Iceland proponents did not deny their overriding motivation was to save the structure for ice skating. 

Tom Killilea, executive director of Save Berkeley Iceland, told the council, “It’s become apparent that the real purpose of this hearing is not strictly just a designation as a landmark of Berkeley Iceland, a historic site that is more than an ice rink. The result of your decision will determine whether Berkeley has a chance to hold onto a public commons that few other cities in this area can brag of.”  

Killilea pointed to a financial plan he had distributed to the council, showing that a nonprofit would be able to make the facility work financially, whereas a for-profit organization could not. 

Under new nonprofit management, Killilea said the facility would be more than a skating rink, adding features to become the heart of a community recreation district, partnering with the YMCA, the city’s recreation department and the schools, whose new ball fields are being built across the street. 

In a similar vein, Fran Gallati, president and chief executive officer of the Berkeley-Albany YMCA, told the council his organization was approached by Kashani. 

”He gave us an opportunity to meet our objectives at the Y,” Gallati said, explaining that the YMCA works with 500 Head Start and Early Head Start children at a number of centers. The Iceland location would give the YMCA “an opportunity to consolidate all of our sites in South Berkeley, decrease the management overhead, and improve our ability to attract and retain and pay better teachers, which is really going to make a difference with these kids.” 

While much of the discussion was on the future use of the site, speakers at the public hearing also addressed the question at hand: whether the council should overturn the Landmark Preservation Commission’s decision to designation the site as a historic landmark. 

Supporting East Bay Iceland, Mark Holbert, preservation architect and Berkeley resident, called for preservation uniquely of the building’s western façade. Requiring preservation of more than that would be “a punitive act to force a single use,” he said. 

In its designation, the LPC said the berms have a function as insulation, and included them in elements of the site to be preserved, but Holbert disagreed: “There is no evidence to support the findings that the berms are an example of the use of earth-sheltered construction,” he said. “The technique is called ‘cut and fill,’ [and] offers no more thermal value than the earth below any building.” 

Jill Korte, a member of the LPC, told the council that the structure has a “high level of integrity.” 

She said the structure is “essentially unaltered,” which is why eventual alterations should come in the context of an environmental review. (A site designated as a landmark can be demolished or altered, but requires extensive review before that can take place.) 

Leslie Emmington Jones, also an LPC commissioner, said the building represents a time when, despite the Depression of the 1930s, the Berkeley community came together to privately fund the rink for community use. “It’s a magnificent temple to public participation and public architecture,” she said.