DAPAC-Landmarks Move to Finish Downtown Report

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday August 31, 2007

The joint subcommitee of the Berkeley Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) and the Downtown Area Planning Advisory Commission (DAPAC) met Monday to develop a final version of the Historic Preservation and Urban Design chapter which DAPAC is scheduled to consider this fall. 

The DAPAC-LPC subcommittee has finished making changes to most of the document with the exception of a couple of goals and the strategic statement. Members decided to continue the issues to another meeting in September. A date has not been set. 

DAPAC chair Will Travis asked subcommittee members to abandon the idea of a historic district during public comment. 

“I don’t believe you have made a compelling case as to why a downtown historic district is necessary or how it would make the downtown more vibrant, more attractive or more successful,” he said. “The Landmarks Preservation Commission is responsible for seeing that Berkeley’s historic architectural resources are protected. The LPC already has all the authority it needs to ensure that any remodeling, alteration, expansion or any other change to a designated landmark or a structure of merit will be in keeping with the integrity and character of the historic structure. The LPC can add more buildings to this inventory of historic resources at any time. And any proposed demolition of any building over 40 years old is referred to the LPC, which can decide whether the building is worthy of being designated and spared from destruction.” 

DAPAC member Wendy Alfsen said that she was in favor of improving downtown but did not want to turn it into a monolith. 

“I don’t want the new buildings to look like they were plunked down from outer space,” she said. 

Deborah Badhia, director of the Downtown Business Association, said that the vitality of storefronts was important for a successful downtown. 

“One of the reasons why some of the buildings haven’t done well is because of the lack of detail to retail space,” she said. “It’s squeezed in at the last minute.” 

At Badhia’s urging the subcommittee added “street-level commercial spaces” to the list of factors which would encourage appropriate new development downtown. 

Travis also said that although downtown Berkeley had many historic resources that should be protected by the LPC under existing laws, ordinances and procedures, there was also an abundance of undistinguished buildings and underutilized properties. 

“These resources represent our best opportunity for changing the face of downtown and making it into the attractive, innovative, prosperous and sustainable community we all want.” 

Travis criticized the LPC and said that there was nothing in the commission’s charter, experience or expertise that suggested that it was the best institution to act as an advocate for change and the catalyst to stimulate downtown. 

“All new development must be of the highest quality so that one day it too will become an historic landmark,” he said. “The best way to achieve this is to set clear use, height, and appearance standards. The Zoning Adjustments Board had the primary responsibility for administering these standards. No compelling argument has been advanced as to why it would be better for the LPC to do this job downtown than for the ZAB to continue to do it. In fact, your subcommittee has often noted that the LPC has not been able to carry out all of its current responsibilities.” 

Doug Buckwald performed a song titled “Hello DAPAC” to the tune of “Hello Dolly.” 

“It’s sad we have lost as much as we have of what we have downtown,” he said. “The main thing that governs any district’s character is history, otherwise they are all the same.” 

The DAPAC subcommittee has been meeting for over a year now to work on historic preservation issues for the Downtown Plan. 

After working with the Architectual Resources Group on a study of existing buildings, the project was turned into a context statement for the environment review process. 

Later, staff also asked the subcommittee to rate the integrity of each building so that the LPC could determine whether or not it should be protected so that developers had some knowledge of which buildings were eligible to be demolished. 

After the subcommittee rejected the focus, it decided to develop the historic preservation chapter for the Downtown Area Plan instead.