Berkeley Iceland is a landmark, a fact known to almost anyone who has lived in Berkeley or experienced Berkeley Iceland since the doors opened in 1940—a fact made official in the designation by the Berkeley Landmark Preservation Commission (LPC) in May 2007 and, at one time, affirmed by the Berkeley City Council. The community worked hard to gain the landmark designation through a process that gave ample opportunity for the current owners to make their case. In the end, a Berkeley gem was deemed worthy of the formal title of “Berkeley Landmark.” As part of a settlement to a lawsuit initiated by the current owners of Berkeley Iceland, the Berkeley City Council will revisit its decision to uphold the LPC’s designation. A public hearing is currently scheduled for the Jan. 19 City Council meeting—a meeting supporters of Berkeley Iceland need to attend.
In officially designating it a Berkeley Landmark, the Landmark Preservation Commission found that Berkeley Iceland qualified under at least three of the requirements in the Landmark Preservation Ordinance:
Historic: The home of the first U.S. Figure Skating Championship West of the Mississippi River in 1947, the first of three Championships held there, and the training ground of such Olympic figure skating stars as Kristi Yamaguchi and Brian Boitano, Berkeley Iceland was a significant factor in the growth of figure skating on the West Coast.
Architectural: Testimony by architectural historians and experts in Art Deco buildings showed Berkeley Iceland to be a rare surviving example of an enclosed recreational facility in the Art Deco Streamline Moderne style.
Cultural: Founded by a who’s-who of Berkeley residents in the late 1930s, including Robert Gordon Sproul, Duncan McDuffie, and K.K. Bechtel, Berkeley Iceland was seen as a major cultural asset from the time it was opened. Skating shows and competitions contributed to the culture of the region. It was a place where hundreds of thousands from the community went to enjoy recreational skating.
In their thorough review of the LPC’s designation during the July 2007 appeal, the staff of the City Planning Department found “The record shows facts about Berkeley Iceland that justify the LPC’s findings that the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance landmark designation criteria have been met.”
East Bay Iceland (EBI), the current owners, consider the decision that lead to the landmark designation as unjustified. They contend that the hours of testimony by community members and recognized experts—including one of the preeminent authorities on Art Deco buildings in California—heard by the LPC should not have been given any value. Even though all their procedural requests were granted, including a rare LPC subcommittee hearing and a special hearing by the full City Council, EBI contends that they did not get a “fair trial.” EBI believes that the landmark designation was a “taking of all beneficial use of the property,” a sweeping assertion that is difficult to justify in light of proposed uses that might not be as economically attractive but very beneficial to the Berkeley community.
Save Berkeley Iceland (SBI) developed plans for such a project that would bring back the ice rink and use it as the basis for other needed community resources. SBI believes in this project enough to have entered into an option agreement to purchase the property from EBI—an agreement which was backed with a substantial deposit. While timing and the economic downturn has made it difficult to raise the funds for such an ambitious project, SBI gained enough access to the building for our architects and engineers to develop the plans and cost estimates needed for our fundraising efforts. Unfortunately, at the end of the nine month initial period we could not renew our option when our donors balked at the terms of the agreement. When we notified the owners that we could not renew under the existing terms, SBI requested a meeting to renegotiate the contract. Our request went unanswered and still remains open.
SBI continues our efforts to raise the funds to restore a revitalized Berkeley Iceland to the community. In the best of times, raising the money for a project of this size takes time. Even though economic conditions have slowed our efforts, encouraging talks with major donors and foundations continue. SBI is working on a State of California grant of up to $5 million to provide recreation opportunities in areas of need such as the South Berkeley area around Berkeley Iceland. The grant will be awarded in 2010. This grant, with city support, can be the catalyst that will lead to private donors and foundations joining the efforts to bring back a beloved and needed community center. Support for the project is there but needs time and continued effort to secure the financing.
When Berkeley Iceland closed, a much needed resource was lost—not just for the skating community but for all of Berkeley. Berkeley Iceland provided a recreational opportunity in a part of the City sorely lacking in such facilities. Where else can hundreds of people—especially the youth of Berkeley—gather together year round, rain or shine, in a safe and healthy environment? Adult skaters mixed with kids just starting out. Parents felt comfortable letting their daughters and sons hang out at the rink. Where is there such a place in Berkeley today?
Berkeley Iceland also provided employment opportunities for scores of teens and young adults, many from the neighborhood. Ice monitors, cashiers, skate rental clerks, junior coaches and more were mostly kids who grew up in and around the rink representing a cross section of our community. They learned valuable work skills while earning a bit of money. These jobs were lost when the rink was closed.
Imagine the “beneficial use” of a restored and reinvigorated Berkeley Iceland. Just the return of a uniquely Berkeley community commons would be a major benefit. From its beginning, Save Berkeley Iceland provided a vision for much more than just an ice rink through the development of spaces within the existing building for activities needed by our community. Use for the additional space envisioned in the project include a child development center, the capacity to conduct training programs for youth and teens, and additional recreation and playground facilities. Working with the city, Berkeley Unified School District, and other community groups, a plan for a fully rounded community recreation center will be developed and implemented for the benefit of all Berkeley residents.
Berkeley Iceland is a landmark, one that benefited the current owners and the community for many years. Our community leaders need to determine which is a more “beneficial use”—another block of condos that do not fit in the neighborhood or a restored gem serving the real needs of a community lacking in recreation space and youth opportunities. Make your voice heard by the mayor and mouncilmembers and let them know that Berkeley Iceland needs their help to be preserved. Join us at the Jan. 19, City Council meeting to voice your support for Berkeley Iceland.
Communities don’t often have the opportunity to save someplace as special as this. Help us make sure Berkeley doesn’t lose this chance.
Tom Killilea is president of Save Berkeley Iceland. www.SaveBerkeleyIceland.org