Amidst a packed crowd of cheering children and their adult allies, the Berkeley City Council voted 5-4 Tuesday night to uphold the landmark status of the historic Berkeley Iceland. The vote reflected an ideological split between those councilmembers (Gordon Wozniak, Betty Olds, Kriss Worthington, Dona Spring and Linda Maio), who recognized the building’s historic features and expressed excitement about future prospects for the site, and a group of bitter naysayers (Mayor Tom Bates, and Councilmembers Max Anderson, Laurie Capitelli and Darryl Moore) who predicted that Iceland would be overrun by rodents and become a public nuisance. This powerful demonstration of “people power” led Councilmember Olds to acknowledge that the coming together of such a diverse group might “scare” some people; the victory was a classic case of grassroots organizing overcoming big money real estate interests.
The scene at Berkeley City Hall on Tuesday night was one for the ages—every seat occupied by children or adults holding signs and wearing bright blue “Save Berkeley Iceland” T-Shirts. The Council’s deliberation reflected a profound division between those who believe in a positive future for both Iceland and Berkeley, and a group of politicians led by Max Anderson who seemed to have given up on anything positive ever happening to boost the city’s communal spirit.
Attorney Rena Rickles, the East Bay version of San Francisco’s Andrew Zacks, began the hearing by disparaging Iceland’s historic status and the community efforts to preserve the building. Rickles introduced the theme that a land-marked Iceland would be a public nuisance, an unfounded idea subsequently reiterated almost verbatim by Councilmembers Anderson and Moore, as well as by Mayor Bates.
In response to Rickles, Save Berkeley Iceland representative Elizabeth Grassetti gave a stirring speech in which she declared that Iceland had been built by Berkeley, for Berkeley, and still had the ability to transform the city’s vision of diversity “into reality, not just a dream.” Grassetti noted that Iceland brought together rich and poor, and people of all races, and that “all were equal on the ice.”
Tom Killilea, executive director of Save Berkeley Iceland, followed Grassetti and dispelled the many myths included in Rickles’ testimony. By this point it had already become clear that pro-demolition forces knew they had to shift the argument away from Iceland’s obvious historic status, and instead argue that the Council’s upholding this status would leave the building a public nuisance.
Councilmember Max Anderson was the point person for the pro-demolition forces. Despite a roomful of children at the hearing, Anderson insisted that the only people who cared about Iceland were those who had fond memories of their youth; he even compared Iceland to the feeling he got attending his high school reunion.
Although Anderson represents the district that includes Iceland, he seemed unaware that the facility has only been closed for six months, not thirty years. Instead of applauding youth involvement in trying to save their ice skating rink, Anderson treated their effort with condescension.
And then politicians like Anderson wonder why young people are turned off by the political process.
After Anderson tried to argue that a landmarked Iceland would be a rodent-infested public health hazard, Tom Bates echoed his conclusion that saving Iceland would be bad for Berkeley. Bates said that only the façade should be saved, and urged that a plaque be installed to remind future residents of the former historic building on the site.
Bates’ call for a plaque brought an avalanche of boos from the audience.
Responding to Anderson and Bates was Councilmember Wozniak. He reminded the council that Harrison S. Fraker, the dean of the UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design, had described Iceland as a “national treasure, “ and determined it was “undisputedly” an historic landmark. Wozniak also stated that “a skating rink is a treasure that deserves every effort to be saved.”
Wozniak, Olds and Maio all expressed excitement that a broad-cross section of the community had come together to save Iceland. These politicians were genuinely happy to see democracy at work, and appreciated a scene that resembled an old New England town meeting. Olds captured the sentiment best, noting “many people are scared to see how many people really care about saving Iceland, and slapping these people down is not something I will do.”
Olds brought the crowd to its feet when she declared “once its gone, its gone.” She said that Iceland contained the history of the community and that “all have come together in that building.”
Olds and Wozniak are often viewed as conservatives on the Council, yet they had a far keener understanding of community building than so-called progressives like Anderson and Moore. The latter two could find no joy in this process of community togetherness, and both argued the NIMBY line that because people living near Iceland wanted it torn down, the Council should vote to do so.
(These same councilmembers ignored neighborhood resistance to a housing development known as the Trader Joe’s project, yet took the opposite position regarding Iceland. There was no evidence presented that Anderson’s district actually wanted the landmark demolished.)
Councilmembers Worthington and Spring were always solid Iceland supporters. Worthington made the critical point that developer attorney Rickles had conceded that by only making the façade a landmark—the Anderson-Bates “fallback” position—that landmark status for the building would not be justified.
All in all, hope triumphed over fear, and a rare opportunity for young people to see the value of participating in our democratic process. As youngsters like 10-year-old Marie and her fellow skaters from King Middle School filed out of City Hall, smiles replaced the anxious faces that preceded the vote.
Many of the kids wore shirts from the Berkeley Bulldogs, a youth hockey team that played at Iceland from 1940 until the facility closed earlier this year. Iceland also had the only girls hockey team in the area, and the number of girl skaters at the hearing exceeded that of boys, showing Iceland’s value in enhancing gender equity in recreational facilities.
Now the future of Berkeley Iceland must be worked out between the owner and the hard-working volunteers at Save Berkeley Iceland (go to http://saveberkeleyiceland.org for information.) An economic plan has been developed, over $500,000 has been raised in the past week, and optimism is high.
Thanks to a huge grassroots volunteer effort and five principled councilmembers, Berkeley has put community interests over private profits. May the saving of Iceland be the first step toward a community that works together to build a better future.
Randy Shaw is the editor of BeyondChron, where this article first appeared. He can be reached at email@example.com.