Learning From the UC Theater Success

By Becky O'Malley
Thursday September 03, 2009 - 11:17:00 AM

The Zoning Adjustment Board’s recent approval of plans by a new company in which Berkeley and San Francisco entrepreneurs have combined to revive the old UC Theater as a music venue has been universally applauded. In this very space last February we suggested that someone around here should learn from the example of Oakland’s recently reopened Fox, and lo-and-behold, it seems to be happening. That stretch of University Avenue is an ideal location for a music club—some of us old-timers remember hearing Jerry Garcia, on his nights off from the Grateful Dead, playing Keystone Berkeley across the street where yet another boring condo-to-be now rises.  

Michael Kaplan, one of the few people in Berkeley’s city bureaucracy with any imagination, deserves credit for bringing the deal together. So does commercial broker John Gordon, who’s got a good track record for spearheading creative re-use of old buildings, even though he occasionally steps on some toes in his zeal for some of his projects. And while we’re handing out kudos, a special award should go to John English, retired planner extraordinaire who serves downtown Berkeley’s shadow cabinet, the relatively few local citizens who see the area as more than just a building site for soul-less warehouse apartments.  

The only reason that there’s still a UC Theater to revive is Berkeley’s long-time Landmarks Preservation Ordinance, the very same one that Mayor Bates and his gang of seven wanted to torpedo a couple of years ago. They tried to replace it with a toothless substitute that undercut citizens’ power to trigger landmarking of a beloved building, but after a protracted ballot battle the ordinance was saved.  

The LPO allows 50 citizens to petition the Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate a threatened building as a historic resource which can’t be torn down without reviewing the environmental consequences of demolition. In 2002 some building industry speculators had the bright idea of building a heap o’ condos where the UC now stands. A local agitator named Howie Muir collected the 50 citizen signatures and recruited John English to write it up for LPC consideration, with special attention paid to the still-usable auditorium space. The city’s planning department, as usual, sided with the developers’ tear-it-down plan, but the citizens prevailed after a long struggle. (I was on the LPC at the time, pre-Planet, when I still had time for public service activities like that.)  

Berkeley is probably the world leader in the green-washing industry, the effort to make anything anyone wants to do to make money look good by cloaking it in environmental rhetoric. The most recent demonstration of that technique was the council’s effort to undercut the Downtown Area Plan drafted by the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Commission. (One more time, with feeling: The greenest building is the one that’s already built.) But for the prompt response of 9,000 referendum petition signers, the weak council version would be law today, complete with weasel words that allow all the good provisions of the plan to be overridden if the developer can claim that he or she can’t make enough profit on a proposed venture.  

In the next couple of weeks council members will have the opportunity to decide what to do about the referendum. What are their options? The legalities are murky, but they could rescind the new plan, which would leave the existing pre-DAPAC downtown plan in effect. If they did nothing, the latest plan would be on the ballot at the next regular election to be voted up or down.  

It’s likely that someone will suggest that council members try to mollify voters by making a few changes, such as lowering some of the height limits, and thereby avoid the election. But according to some activists’ reading of state law any new version passed within one year must be substantially different from the last one to take effect, so cosmetic alterations probably won’t work.  

A sensible-seeming course of action might be to adopt the original DAPAC plan as a substitute. Even that one, however, could encounter resistance, since it embodies a number of compromises that some referendum activists might now oppose as too generous.  

Some unresolved issues bother many progressives about both the council plan and the DAPAC plan. New buildings in Berkeley inevitably add to our greenhouse gas emissions, contrary to voter-passed Measure G’s requirements, so mitigations should be built into any plan that calls for new construction. Even LEED-gold buildings create more gases than older buildings that they replace, and the council plan has been accused of not requiring LEED-gold for buildings under 85 feet anyway. Labor unions that represent service workers want fair labor standards to be required in return for height bonuses for hotels. Building heights and creeks provide more controversy.  

The Berkeley City Council had the opportunity to hear about all these gripes before they passed their plan, but they chose not to listen. Regrettably, the Council as it’s presently constituted seems unable to learn from experience.  

The LPO and DAPAC debacles evidently weren’t enough grief. Now the Planning Commission, which the council has packed with shills for the building industry, might be hareing off on a plan to gut the existing West Berkeley Plan. That plan was carefully balanced by its citizen-authors to preserve opportunities for small businesses, artists and residents to co-exist in harmony, but some proposed changes would unbalance it in favor of big-parcel developers. However there’s still time for commission and council to avoid new mistakes in West Berkeley, accepting citizen input in order to avoid a ballot confrontation.  

Will the council be able to come up with a sensible plan for downtown this time which could pass public scrutiny? A good start might be to hold a new round of public hearings in which citizen testimony is given proper respect by the Mayor. If he still can’t manage to be civil to members of the public who’d like to bring forward good ideas for solving our downtown problems, perhaps another council member would be willing to preside for an evening or two.  


P.S.: One last request, for the adventurous producers who will run the UC Theater as the newly constituted Berkeley Music Group LLC. During the long time the theater was vacant, there was a lot of discussion about the need for a performance space that could support occasional classical music audiences of about 600–1,000. The Berkeley Symphony in particular (full disclosure: I’m on its advisory council) could really use an affordable venue for three or four concerts a year, though it couldn’t pay the cost of rehabbing the theater. Zellerbach Auditiorium is big, expensive and hard to book. It would be a nice gesture on the part of the new management to make the UC Theater available occasionally for other kinds of performances, if it’s able to operate profitably most of the time with concerts for its core pop audience.