A Voter’s Guide to Berkeley Measure LL

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday October 30, 2008 - 09:38:00 AM

Measure LL Landmarks Preservation Commission 

Shall ordinance No. 6,958-N.S., Repealing and Reenacting Berkeley Municipal Code (BMC) Chapter 3.24 (Landmarks Preservation), passed by City Council, granting the Landmarks Preservation Commission new authority to prohibit, instead of suspend, demolition of historic resources; eliminating property owners’ approval in establishing historic districts; and substantially revising procedures for designating historic resources (including limiting reconsideration of properties not designated) and regulating alteration or demolition of historic resources, subject to appeal to the Council, be adopted?  

Majority Approval Required 

One of the things that sets the city of Berkeley apart from its neighbors—aside from being the recognized national center for radicalism and progressive thought—is the preservation of its buildings. While the view of the hills and the long stretch looking down into the bay no longer have the frontier emptiness of a hundred years ago, many of Berkeley’s tree-lined neighborhoods have pointedly maintained the same look for decades, with houses and buildings intact that would have been familiar to our grandparents. Anyone unfamiliar with Berkeley will find this odd and seemingly contradictory—conservatives are thought to have cornered the market on preservation, after all. But most Berkeleyans sees preserving the city’s historic buildings as an integral part of its character and charm, whatever part of the political spectrum they’re in. 

Thus it is not surprising that changing Berkeley’s Landmarks Preservation Ordinance—the city law which has made that preservation possible—would draw one of the most heated and spirited political campaigns in recent memory in a city known for its spirited politics. 

The city’s original Landmarks Preservation Ordinance, among other things, established a Landmarks Preservation Commission with the authority to “designate landmarks, structures of merit, and historic districts” and to “regulate alterations to them,” according to the city attorney’s official analysis. 

In 2006, a divided Berkeley City Council passed modifications to the landmarks ordinance, sponsored by Mayor Tom Bates and Councilmember Laurie Capitelli, changes that supporters said preserved preservation while curing portions of the law that prevented needed development; opponents said the changes gutted important parts of the preservation ordinance and did away with needed barriers to demolishing historic buildings to make way for unnecessary development. 

Well, actually, it was more complicated than that. The council passed the Bates-Capitelli ordinance on first reading in July of 2006 on a 6-3 vote (Betty Olds, Kriss Worthington, Dona Spring no). But the council postponed a final vote after opponents of the landmarks modifications circulated petitions to put Measure J on the ballot. It was designed to enact the existing ordinance by vote of the people so that the council could never change it. In November 2006, 56.8 percent of Berkeley voters voted against Measure J, and so the City Council passed the Bates-Capitelli modifications on second reading. 

Measure LL is a second bite at the landmarks preservation modifications apple. This time it’s a referendum seeking to void the version of the ordinance as revised, in order to leave the original on the books. Just to make it more confusing, the support-opposition positions are reversed from two years ago. A yes vote on Measure LL means that the 2006 changes will go into effect. A no vote means that the original Berkeley Landmarks Preservation Ordinance will remain as it was before the council vote two years ago. 

Not surprisingly for Berkeley, both sides of Measure LL say they are in favor of preserving preservation. The ballot argument for the measure reads that “Measure LL supports legitimate historic preservation,” while opponents counter that the measure “destroys the protections of the Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance, violates the California Environmental Quality Act, and will cost the City thousands in lawsuits.”  

The two sides also battle over whether the modifications are even needed to put the landmarks ordinance in line with state law. Proponents say that without the modifications, Berkeley’s landmarks ordinance is out of compliance with state law and cannot be enforced. Opponents say that the existing ordinance is already in compliance, and no such modifications are needed. The California State Office of Historic Preservation has endorsed the current ordinance as being compliant. 

Another key battle embodied in the measure is whether the existing landmarks ordinance goes “too far” in allowing halts to demolition of buildings through the landmarking process.  

Proponents of Measure LL say that the existing landmarks ordinance has provisions that allowed it to be misused by development opponents, and the modifications are designed only to give developers and building owners a fair and timely notification—what’s called a “safe harbor”—that their buildings won’t be subject to landmark preservation, before they sink money into demolition or development plans.  

Opponents of Measure LL say that the pre-2006 landmarks ordinance had sufficient protections and warnings for owners and that there is no evidence that the original ordinance was misused. 

Which side should be believed in this argument? That will be up to the voters.