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Council OKs Iceland Landmark, Group Hopes to Save Rink

By Judith Scherr
Friday July 20, 2007

Applause rang out in the City Council Chambers Tuesday as dozens of people, many sporting blue “Save Berkeley Iceland” shirts, cheered the 5-4 council vote to uphold a city commission’s decision to landmark the 67-year-old structure that houses the ice skating rink at Derby and Milvia streets.  

While supporters of the nonprofit Save Berkeley Iceland hope the landmarking will facilitate its purchase of the site, there is no guarantee that will happen. A for-profit developer already has an option to buy the property, where he has plans to build townhouses and a child-care center, something that would be more difficult—but not impossible—in the context of the landmark designation.  

Councilmembers Gordon Woz-niak, Dona Spring, Kriss Worth-ington, Betty Olds and Linda Maio voted to uphold the Landmarks Preservation Com-mission’s April landmark designation.  

Tuesday’s 6 p.m. meeting, called for the purpose of the council vote, came one week after extensive debate at a public hearing where speakers focused less on the historic value of the site than on the question of whether it should be redeveloped for housing/child care or if the use should return to ice skating.  

Councilmembers, however, were required to make their decision based solely on the historic value of the structure in question.  

“The issue before us is not whether [the ice rink] is a viable option for this site,” Wozniak said. “It’s whether this is truly a landmark.” Addressing the council on behalf of East Bay Iceland, owners of the property, attorney Rena Rickles said landmarking would be “punitive” and “significantly impair a sale under contract.”  

Berkeley Iceland has been shuttered since the end of March. “We essentially have a beached whale in the neighborhood,” Rickles said. “Beautiful when alive, but when it’s dead, it stinks.”  

Similarly Councilmember Max Anderson, in whose district the rink is situated, said he feared the property would fall into disrepair, attracting rats and graffiti. “I don’t want to watch the building decay and decline and become a detriment to the community.”  

But in a phone interview Thursday Caroline Winnett of Save Berkeley Iceland said the group had asked the owners if they could lease the property so that it didn’t have to close at all. And, alternatively, she said, they had offered to clean up trash and graffiti at the site free of charge.  

Anderson argued on Tuesday that Save Berkeley Iceland’s business plan is unrealistic. “No amount of nostalgia and wishing will make it otherwise,” he said.  

Mayor Tom Bates, who also opposed landmarking, suggested that instead of saving the structure, a plaque commemorating Iceland’s history should be installed. This caused the audience to erupt in laughter and catcalls.  

Speaking for Save Berkeley Iceland, Elizabeth Grassetti told the council that the rink “represents values of community spirit of the late 1930s—it was built for the people by the people.”  

Voting to uphold the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s designation means an eventual developer will either have to preserve the exterior walls of the site, as well as the packed earth berms on the north and the south sides of the structure, or go through an extensive environmental review process to make changes.  

Developer Ali Kashani, president of Memar Properties, Inc. of Oakland, has an option to purchase the site where he has said he wants to build housing and a child-care center. California state law allows developers to build higher than local zoning laws otherwise permit when they include child care in the project.  

After the meeting, Kashani told the Daily Planet that he might still purchase the property, despite the landmarking. “It depends on the [sale] price,” he said.  

Winnett told the Planet after the meeting, that while “the owners have the right to sell to whom they want, the assumption is that a developer will not find the [landmarked site] economically attractive.” 

Now that the site is designated a landmark, Winnett said Save Berkeley Iceland is anticipating two significant donations. The nonprofit group is trying to raise $2 million for a down payment on the site, although it legally cannot negotiate with the owners, East Bay Iceland, while Kashani is exercising his option.