Plans to demolish the landmarked Copra Warehouse (Durkee Famous Foods) in West Berkeley to make way for the construction of a four-story, 106,795-square-foot research and laboratory building were criticized by the Berkeley Landmarks Preservation Commission on Thursday.
San Raphael-based Wareham Development, the principal developers of the project at 740 Heinz St., asked the commission to review a preliminary proposal for the project, which would preserve only the northern facade of the building.
Wareham, which leases the Heinz Street building from Garr Land Resources and Management Company, will return with an official application to the landmarks commission at a later date and is scheduled to brief the city’s Zoning Adjustment Board about the project this month.
The proposed project would also require an environmental impact report under the California Environmental Quality Act since the developers plan to demolish a majority of the landmarked building.
Commissioners expressed concern about the height of the planned building—at 89 feet, is almost double what zoning currently allows in West Berkeley—and stressed that preserving a single brick facade would not help retain the building’s past glory.
Built in 1916, the brick-and-steel-frame Copra Warehouse is one of eight structures in the Durkee Complex, which was designated a City of Berkeley landmark in 1985.
Only three—the Copra Warehouse, Durkee Building and Spice Warehouse—of the original eight remain. The others were demolished to construct new buildings and parking.
An example of Berkeley’s early industrial beginning, the Durkee Complex, according to its landmark designation, serves as a living reminder to the neighborhood and the city of West Berkeley’s economic and cultural growth for .
Under the city’s Landmark Preservation Ordinance, the landmarks commission can approve demolition permits if it finds that a landmarked structure could not be preserved after considering the economic feasibility of the project’s alternatives, among other factors.
Chris Barlow, representing Wareham on Thursday, argued before the commission that it was economically unfeasible to rehabilitate and adaptively reuse the Copra Warehouse. Wareham, which has proposed several designs for the lab space in the past six years, contends that the cost of retrofitting the warehouse will be prohibitive.
The most recent design is a glass structure that would incorporate the existing north wall of the building, Barlow said, adding that an information kiosk on Heinz Street will contain history of the Durkee Famous Foods site along with pictures of its original structures.
“The project was driven by market demand for a lab facility,” he said, pointing out that two major research firms had relocated to Emeryville from West Berkeley due to lack of space. “The north facade is being preserved and incorporated into the building, since it was identified as the most important façade. We have come up with a design that is stunning, world class and represents what was there before.”
Landmarks commissioner Robert Johnson described the project as a “big glass block.”
“It just seems to me to be some kind of a joke,” he said. “I don’t see how this thing, this spaceship, in any way relates to the old building. If you are going to be demolishing it anyway, don’t tack on something to it.”
A few commissioners questioned the statistics used by the developer to justify its inability to preserve the building.
“I agree with Bob,” commissioner Miriam Ng said. “Why don’t you just put it out of its misery?”
Steve Winkel, commission chair, pointed out that the scale of the proposed building made the brick façade look tiny in comparison.
“Looking back, I am nostalgic about one of the earlier designs,” Winkel said. “If this is what preserving the building takes, then preserving what you are proposing is pointless.”
Carrie Olson, another commissioner, called Wareham’s efforts to save the warehouse “disingenuous.”
“Frankly, what I see is an attempt to not preserve this building,” she said. “We are being shown something that will encourage us to demolish it. This has been the modus operandi of Wareham. Every time Wareham has brought in a design in the past, they have hit us at the end of the meeting. We see it for a few minutes, and then they disappear and we hear nothing till they come a year later with a new proposal. If the powers that be want this building then they can have this building.”
Olson added the commission had never seen a project of this magnitude proposed in West Berkeley.
“I am especially shocked that you are suggesting something that is almost twice the height limit of what is allowed—45 feet,” she said. “I am glad you are going to the zoning board. Let’s see what it says. Compared to that we are just small play.”