An illegal demolition of a building on University Avenue has made local preservationists question Berkeley’s demolition ordinance yet again.
The proposed project at 1811 University Ave.—scheduled to go before the zoning board Thursday for a demolition use permit and a variance from the University Avenue Strategic Plan—originally had an administrative use permit from the city which allowed a 1,408-square-foot addition
But the constuction work for the addition has meant many of the walls and the entire roof are missing from the building.
“That approval was not for a demolition,” said Steve Ross, secretary to the zoning board. “It was for an addition. In doing the addition, the contractor demolished more than 50 percent of the walls and all of the roof.”
Dr. Barry Kami, who owns the property, received an administrative use permit to renovate his dental office and add 1,686 square feet on Nov. 5, 2005. He was granted a modification to the original permit in 2006 which decreased the floor space addition to 1,408 square feet.
The building permit for the modified project was issued on June 8, 2007, and construction began in September.
According to the city staff report, a building inspector from the city discovered that the contractors had exceeded the scope of work without informing the city or Dr. Kami in November.
“We informed Dr. Kami about the illegal demolition and construction was stopped sometime between November and January,” Ross said. “The removal of an approximately 20 feet length of wall resulted in the removal of more than 50 percent of wall area which was defined as a demolition under the zoning ordinance. Since a technical demolition had occurred, the proposed construction was defined as a new project and will have to adhere to the development standards for new buildings in the University Avenue Strategic Plan.”
According to the city’s demolition ordinance, a building is considered demolished when it is destroyed in whole or in part or is relocated from one lot to another. “Destroyed in part” means when 50 percent or more of the enclosing exterior walls and 50 percent or more of the roof are removed.
In a letter to the zoning board, Dr. Kami stated that the partial demolition of the existing building by his contractor was unfortunate and mistaken, and carried out without his authorization.
“The contractor stated he removed this 20-foot section because of its severe and extensive deterioration, as was later verified by a City of Berkeley building inspector,” his letter said. “I attribute this error by the contractor to the fact that neither he nor my current architect were involved in obtaining the administrative use permit.”
Kami submitted an application on Jan. 4 for a variance from several development standards—including minimum height, ceiling clearance, street setbacks and street improvements—and a demolition permit in order to proceed with the proposed project.
Kami, who has been practicing dentistry at 1811 University Ave. since 1982, stated in the letter that if the board denied him a variance, he would not be able to return to his office to practice because of his inability to fund a project from scratch.
The property site—which has been in Kami’s family for three generations—is part of the city’s pre-WWII Japanese heritage.
In 1942, Dr. Kami’s grandparents and their six children were forced into internment camps, and the property was managed by a realtor friend during their absence. In 1955, after completing military service in Germany and graduating from dental school, Dr. Kami’s father built the current dental office next to the family’s pre-WWII residence.
When Dr. Kami’s grandparents moved to North Berkeley in 1962, the residence building was razed and he took over the property to practice dentistry there.
After receiving the use permit from the city to remodel the office in 2006, Dr. Kami purchased the property from his father.
“The fact whether the demolition is illegal or not is still up in the air,” he told the Planet Thursday. “I was told by the Planning Department that I would need a variance to move ahead with the project.”
According to Ross, exceeding a project’s scope of work either intentionally or not becomes a major problem for the applicant.
“They have to meet new requirements,” he said. “Penalties for illegal demolition include holding up a project and paying twice the amount for an application fee. ... We don’t get this kind of a situation very often, but when retroactive demolitions like this occur, the zoning board may go as far as not approving the project.”
Carrie Olson, a Berkeley landmarks preservation commissioner and a former planning commissioner, said that that she feared that the zoning board would give the project a green light, something she said it has done for other “accidental demolitions” in the past.
According to Olson, developers have used loopholes in the city’s demolition ordinance to get away with illegal demolitions for more than a decade.
“The sad part is, the city is not really doing anything to prevent illegal demolitions,” she said. “The two I have been directly involved in ended up with zero consequences except a delay for the project. Mark Rhoades, the city’s former current planning manager, told me once that a delay was punishment enough. I so totally disagree, because it gives the applicant the potential for more of a project than the discretionary ZAB process might have allowed them to have.”
Zoning Adjustments Board member Jesse Arreguin told the Planet that the city ought to take illegal demolitions seriously.
“There have been situations in the past when the Zoning Adjustments Board has approved a demolition permit after the demolition occurred,” he said. “If the building has already been demolished, then there is no use permit. The only recourse ZAB has is if they deny a new permit or demolition permit.”
Olson said that she runs across illegal demolitions every year.
“Once I was on the phone with the planning department saying that I was watching a building being demolished illegally but they are never quick enough. It’s up to the neighborhood to keep a lookout,” she said. “I have never really known the city to actually punish anyone for an illegal demolition.”
According to Olson, the city embarked on a project to redraft its zoning ordinance almost a year ago to give it more clarity.
“The last person whose desk that sat on was Rhoades,” she said. “We still don’t have a revised ordinance. The planning commission should take upon themselves the responsibility to finish it.”
Phone calls to Fatema Crane, project planner, and Dan Marks, the city’s planning director, for comment were not returned.
Olson recently protested the removal of tall metal-sash windows from an unoccupied one-story World War II-era building at 1050 Parker St. even though no demolition permit had been issued by ZAB.
By law, demolition permits for any building over 40-years-old in a commercial zone must first be reviewed by the Landmarks Preservation Commission to determine whether the structure has any historic significance.
San Rafael-based Wareham Developers, who had purchased the property from Pastor Gordon W. Choyce’s Jubilee Restoration organization in June, said the windows had been removed as part of an asbestos abatement project.
The Landmarks Preservation Commission had asked for the inclusion of the loss of character-defining features in the revised demolition ordinance.
“If you strip everything beautiful off of a building,” Olson said, “it strips it of anything recognizable.”