Public Comment

Commentary: Berkeley Iceland: A Treasure that Should Not Be at Risk

By Gale Garcia
Tuesday July 17, 2007

I attended the hearings on the landmark designation for Iceland, our jewel in the heart of Berkeley. Those wishing to preserve Iceland spoke spiritedly on behalf of this well-loved asset—and they were brilliant. They paid tribute with eloquence and soul.  

Perhaps most eloquent were two words spoken by a beautiful girl, who grew shy when it came her time to speak, then exclaimed with vivid simplicity, “It’s Iceland!”  

I first heard the rumor that developer Ali Kashani had an interest in Iceland at about the time that the Drayage Building was sold in 2005. Kashani was prepared to purchase the Drayage when it received the fire inspection from hell, or rather, from Fire Marshall David Orth, who found 255 bogus “code violations” where none had been found in twenty prior years.  

While the rumor of Kashani’s interest was disturbing, I didn’t believe that Iceland could be gone after in the same manner as the Drayage Building. The Drayage was a warehouse next to the railroad tracks occupied by artists of modest means, who, despite the spin and rhetoric, are treated as expendable by our city government. (For those who don’t know the outcome: the artists were evicted; another developer bought and demolished the building, and it’s now a vacant lot).  

But Iceland was a thriving institution, the best youth program this town has ever had, and was beloved by thousands of people of all income levels, all races, all ages. How could those in power think they could get away with destroying something so vibrant and so loved?  

Sadly, no deal on behalf of developers is too heinous for the Bates Regime, and Iceland was assailed with the full force of municipal harassment. Other facilities that use ammonia, much more ammonia than was contained in Iceland’s system, are left in peace. Other facilities have had ammonia leaks. But only Iceland’s cooling system was gone after and destroyed.  

In March and April of 2006, I spoke at length with a manager of the rink. He told me of David Orth treating him “like we were making weapons of mass destruction,” and about ultimately giving up: “We’ve made the decision to sell. They’ve run us out of the business in Berkeley.” He talked about meeting after grueling meeting with City officials: “We jumped through every hoop trying to resolve the situation and had no cooperation on their part.”  

The manager’s statements were confirmed by documents obtained through a Public Records Act Request (PRAR). There were notes about rink employees attending countless meetings with high level city officials including Dan Marks, Mark Rhoades, Joan MacQuarrie, Zack Cowan, and a host of others. Why were so many city employees willing to participate in this witch hunt?  

The PRAR turned up an interesting exchange between the Mayor’s aide, Cisco DeVries, and the rink owner’s attorney Rina Rickles, known affectionately as the “one-woman dream team for developers,” conferring about how to spin the closure of the rink. On January 16, 2007, DeVries suggested for the rink’s press release: “We worked closely with Berkeley’s mayor and city council members to examine a range of options, but unfortunately did not find a workable solution.”  

Why was the mayor’s office collaborating with the developers’ favorite attorney? Why wasn’t the mayor’s office trying to save the rink? And who advised the rink owners to select an attorney who is so closely associated with Berkeley’s big developers?  

The fact that Kashani is now in contract to purchase Iceland makes it clear why city officials went along with the willful destruction of a beloved institution. Patrick Kennedy reigned as Berkeley’s developer-king for almost a decade—a couple of years ago, he stepped down, and Kashani ascended the throne.  

The Save Berkeley Iceland group made the highest bid to buy the building. It is therefore inexplicable why the owners of Iceland are now, in essence, teamed up with their harassers. (To the rink owners: the City’s political machine went after your building—why are you doing exactly what they want you to do?).  

Iceland’s owners have appealed to the City Council, seeking to weaken the landmark designation, a move which Kashani appears to be banking on. That decision will come before the City Council today at 6:00 p.m. If the Council goes along with the wishes of the reigning developer-king, it’ll be a very sad day in Berkeley.  



Gale Garcia is a Berkeley resident who thinks that this time, the Bates Regime has gone too far.