Landmarks Commission Debates Significance of 19th-Century Home

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Tuesday August 07, 2007

The Berkeley Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) did not declare the 19th-century dwelling at 3100 Shattuck Ave. a structure of merit or a city landmark Thursday. 

While co-owners Maggie Robbins and Brian Hill can now take the proposed development to the Design Review Commission on Aug. 16, they are worried that the building might come back to LPC for landmarking in the future. 

A group of neighbors turned up at the LPC meeting to oppose the proposed three-story mixed-use building project, which would demolish the current single-story structure on Shattuck. 

They contend that the demolition would cause significant historic and cultural loss for the neighborhood. But project proponents said that the building was dilapidated and would have to be pulled down. 

A Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA) report states that the building is located in the Ashby Station area, which could be potentially eligible for nomination to the National Registrar of Historic Places as a historic district. 

The Ashby Station neighborhood, now an eclectic modern-day transportation hub serving the East Bay with the BART Richmond line and AC Transit, is an example of a 20th-century American streetcar suburb. 

According to the BAHA report, the removal of several blocks of the historic Ashby Station district in the 1960s for the construction of BART did not impede the presence of a “distinct historic context within the ‘Area of Potential Effect’ surrounding the Ed Roberts Campus project site.” 

The building’s owners voiced their difference. 

“There is no recognizable survey recognizing the district as historic,” said Robbins. 

“The city has not recognized the district as historic. The BAHA document is not official either,” she said. “But the issue of historical resource can mean that people can keep raising this issue. If they want to go ahead and landmark it, it’s fine. But they can’t point to it having any architectural or cultural significance so far.” 

Robbins and Hill bought 3100 Shattuck Ave. from the estate of an ailing woman in 2006 for approximately $474,400, with a plan of demolishing the house to build three compact units over a small commercial space. 

“It’s the kind of place we would like to live in,” Robbins said. “Small, energetic and with the promise of transit-oriented development which would help us reduce our carbon footprint. We envisioned a community-oriented business on the ground floor, not a Wal-Mart. As a result we started putting together the paperwork for the landmarks commission and that’s when the neighbors started raising the issue of historic significance.” 

Robbins and Hill held community meetings in February and May to address the neighbors’ concerns but were unable to convince them that the building was historically unimportant. 

One of the principal opponents of the project is Robert Lauriston, who lives at 1918 Woolsey St. 

In a letter to the LPC, Lauriston states that the staff report misinterprets BAHA’s survey map of the neighborhood, which graphically displays the evolution of the streetcar suburb from its origin in the 19th century to its decline in the mid-20th century. 

Lauriston said that the map included 3100 Shattuck in the list of contributing structures in the National Register of Historic Places historic district application form, which neighbors plan to submit to the California Office of Historic Preservation next year. 

Another neighbor said that the building had African migration cultural and historical significance.  

“People are just throwing out these claims,” said Robbins. “We are hoping to hear something specific but we aren’t really hearing anything.” 

Shattuck resident Zoe Smith spoke in favor of the project. 

“Every house in a neighborhood has a story to tell and a significance but it doesn’t mean that it has to be there forever,” she said. “What that corner needs is a high-density structure and a commercial space.” 

Currently, Shattuck Avenue is peppered with a cross section of architectural styles which include Neo-classical row houses, Victorians and the modern concrete-block structure which was formerly a liquor store and most recently the Octopus’s Garden aquarium store, but is now for rent again. The streetcars are long gone.  

Although the original construction date of 3100 Shattuck remains unknown, city and county records estimate it to have been built during 1904 or 1906. 

Berkeley planning director Dan Marks told the LPC that in his opinion the building possessed no special cultural, educational or architectural value and was not eligible for landmark status. 

Describing the wood frame building as unremarkable, Robbins told the LPC that the building was in very bad condition. 

“The exterior is rather plain,” she told the Planet. “It’s not the classically decorated Victorian people think of. There’s a lot of rot and the foundation is shoddy. The plumbing and wiring are both old. The people who sold it slapped a coat of paint inside and outside but that doesn’t solve anything,”  

Landmarks Commissioner and Daily Planet Calendar Editor Anne Wagley made a motion to initiate a study of the structure, which failed to get enough votes to carry. 

“I would like to see an investigation of whether the building is a historic resource because I care about the neighborhood,” Wagley told the Planet. “A building is not historically significant only when it is built by a famous architect. Even though it has a Shattuck Avenue address, it has frontage on a street where people are trying to restore their homes.”