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Landmarks Commission Approves Mills Act Contracts

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday October 09, 2008 - 09:21:00 AM

The Landmarks Preservation Commission approved Mills Act contracts Thursday for two historic Berkeley landmarks—the Durant Hotel and the Charles Keeler House. 

Enacted in 1972, the Mills Act is a state economic incentive program offered to owners of historic buildings for restoration and preservation. 

The act allows cities and counties to enter into contracts with owners of qualified historic properties who receive property tax reductions and use the savings to rehabilitate, restore and maintain the building. 

Designed by Bernard Maybeck, the Charles Keeler House at 1770-1790A Highland Place was built in 1895 and belongs to the First Bay Tradition and Arts and Crafts movements. 

Improvements to the building, which is now a four-unit condo, include exterior and interior renovations over a 10-year period and will cost $106,800. 

Built in 1929, the William Weeks-designed Durant Hotel embraces Spanish-Colonial revival architecture and is owned by San Francisco-based Durant Investors. The $3,338,000 improvement includes bathroom and kitchen upgrades and will take place over a 10-year period as well. 

Terry Blount, Landmarks Preservation Commission secretary, said city officials were planning to host a Mills Act workshop early next year to promote the program to historic property owners and local real estate agents. 

“The Mills Act Program is important because it is a readily available program that helps offset the additional costs often associated with historic property ownership,” Blount told the Planet. “Any person who owns a designated historic property in the city is eligible.” 

The City of Berkeley has entered into 16 contracts with historic property owners since it adopted the Mills Act program in 1998, he said. The two approved last week still have to be passed by the City Council. 

“The Mills Act is very important as a tangible and often substantial benefit for an owner of a historic resource,” said Landmarks commissioner Carrie Olson. 

“We have not had an advocate for it in the past in the Planning Department, but Terry Blount has changed that. He has put together several since coming to the city.” 


Copra Warehouse Demolition 

Wareham, the San Raphael-based commercial property developer with tenants like Fantasy Records and the federally funded Joint BioEnergy Institute, plans to ask Berkeley’s Zoning Adjustments Board in November to approve a new life sciences institute at 740 Heinz St. 

Randall Dowler, president of DGA—the Mountain View-based architecture firm hired to design the project—presented a new design to the Landmarks Preservation Commission Thursday after some members of the zoning board criticized the project in July. 

Dowler said Wareham had filed a formal application to the Planning Department a week ago and would be returning to the landmarks commission and the zoning board for an official permit in the following weeks. 

Wareham will also be asking the zoning board for a variance since the building’s proposed height, 72 feet, is currently not allowed in the neighborhood. 

The overwhelming majority of the landmarks commission and zoning board members and a group of West Berkeley neighbors complained at earlier meetings that Wareham’s earlier proposals were out of scale with West Berkeley and asked the developers to reduce its height and size. 

Some landmarks commissioners said they were disappointed that Wareham was demolishing a historic structure, but the developers argued that it was not economically feasible to rehabilitate the building. 

Chris Barlow, a partner at Wareham, pointed out at an earlier meeting that biotechnology companies were choosing Emeryville over Berkeley because the latter lacked spacious laboratory research space. 

Wareham’s four-story 245,000-square-foot EmeryStation East building in Emeryville is home to the Joint BioEnergy Institute and Bayer Health Care Pharmaceutical among others. 

The new building on Heinz Street would replace the landmarked Copra Warehouse—a red brick building built in 1916—which Wareham leases from Garr Land Resources and Management Company. 

Dowler said Wareham’s latest proposal retains the north and south brick facades of the Copra Warehouse and keeps the height at 72 feet, a decrease of almost 20 feet from the earlier design. 

“The zoning board told us that they didn’t like all the glass in our previous design,” he told the Planet after the meeting. “They said it was too contemporary. Laboratory buildings are traditionally more glass and less brick but now we have more brick. We followed the design pattern of the early 1900s brick industrial building. I think the new design fits in well with the neighborhood. Wareham has spent a lot of time and money to accommodate everyone’s concerns ... They have kind of gone to the end of the line.” 

The four-story building will have windows punched into the brick, a feature the project’s architects said was important. 

Some landmarks commissioners said that the new design showed more promise than the earlier ones. 

“I kind of like the use of brick,” said commissioner Bob Johnson. 

“It makes it feel like an old industrial building and fits in with the neighborhood rather than the ‘glass box’ look. I am sure the neighbors won’t be happy with anything taller than their structures but this one kind of steps down a bit. I think it’s an improvement.” 

The scale of the building, Dowler said, was reduced from 100,000 square feet to 88,000 square feet, a number which at least a couple of landmarks commissioners still had a problem with. 

A balcony on the third floor would provide employees with space to relax and solar panels would help make the structure energy-independent, proponents said. 

Parts of the old parking lot on the east side would be replaced by landscaping and a plaza would separate the new building from the landmarked artists’ lofts at 800 Heinz St. 

“We will have a kiosk there to remind people about the history of the Copra Warehouse,” Dowler said.