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Heated Battle Over Iceland’s Landmark Status

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday January 14, 2010 - 09:15:00 AM
Berkeley Iceland is again the focus of discussion as its owner attempts to reverse the city’s decision to give the 67-year-old ice-skating rink landmark status.
Michael Howerton
Berkeley Iceland is again the focus of discussion as its owner attempts to reverse the city’s decision to give the 67-year-old ice-skating rink landmark status.

A rare battle over whether a local historic structure can be stripped of its landmark status has pitted Berkeley’s Landmarks Preservation Commission against a City Council decision to settle a legal challenge from the building’s owner by starting the whole process over. 

At the center of the debate is Berkeley Iceland, a 67-year-old ice-skating rink which owners closed down in 2007, citing costly maintenance issues and dwindling sales. 

Recognizing significant cultural and architectural merit, the city’s landmarks commission voted to list the building on Berkeley’s historic register, an act that was promptly appealed by the rink’s owners to the Berkeley City Council, which upheld the designation. 

In the meantime, a group called Save Berkeley Iceland tried to buy the rink from its owners and turn it into a community resource once again, but fundraising attempts have so far fallen short. 

Tired of being stuck with an empty building for the past two years, East Bay Iceland Inc. filed a lawsuit against the city last fall, again challenging the landmark status, which they said is resulting in a financial drain on the company. 

The City Council voted in November to settle the lawsuit, which had asked the council to rescind the council’s earlier decision in support of Iceland’s landmark status and to start from scratch.  

The council is scheduled to hear testimony from the public at its Jan. 19 meeting, when it will make its decision based on fresh evidence. 

“They are kind of taking the rug from under us,” said Berkeley Landmarks Preservation Commission Vice Chair Carrie Olson at a landmarks meeting last week. “This is unprecedented in the history of the city’s landmarks ordinance—there’s nothing here about unmarking a landmark.” 

Although Berkeley City Attorney Zach Cowan admitted he couldn’t recall a similar incident, he stressed that the ordinance provided for the council to hold a hearing on an appeal. 

“The settlement says to rescind the resolution that affirmed the landmarking,” he said, adding that the council’s agreement with Iceland calls for a de novo hearing in which both parties would have to enter evidence to argue their case all over again. 

“I understand the landmarks commission doesn’t like that, but the council is the final decision-making body for the city,” Cowan said. 

Olson said that letting the council decide whether Iceland is worthy undermines the landmarks commission’s authority as the state-certified preservation experts for the city. 

“We have always had some city staff who see us as an impediment to progress,” Olson said. “Clearly, we are seeing the world through different lenses here—as developers and as preservationists.” 

Landmarks commission Chair Gary Parsons compared the process to “being thrown under the bus.” 

“There are some real factual problems with this,” he said. “We worked very hard to behave in the right way, and we have been practically slandered. It’s unfair—especially since the council agreed with us the first time.” 

The commissioners are sending a letter to the Berkeley City Council expressing their dismay about the settlement language.  

“It’s no wonder it’s not being sent back to us,” Olson said, “because I would throw up my hands and say I give up ... This was way over the top. I worry this will set a precedent, and I worry about what this means for the future. I don’t want us to look back five to 10 years from now and say this was a mistake.” 

Olson urged fellow commissioners to lobby their city councilmembers to uphold Iceland’s landmark status. 

Linda Maio, who was one of the five councilmembers who voted to affirm the landmarking, could not be reached for comment. Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who previously supported the landmarking, said he would keep an open mind during the hearing. Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates and councilmembers Max Anderson, Laurie Capitelli and Darryl Moore voted against the landmarking. 

Tom Killilea, president of the nonprofit Save Berkeley Iceland, said the settlement is essentially letting Iceland’s “owners decide what the city is going to do.” 

The lawsuit alleged that there was “no substantial evidence” to support the designation based on “historical architectural style” beyond the building’s eastern facade and that the rest of the building served primarily “utilitarian purposes.” 

“It’s already been appealed and decided; how can you redo it?” said a bewildered Bob Johnson, another commission member. “The landmarks commission is being thoroughly trashed.” 

The fight to keep Iceland from losing its landmark status has moved beyond the LPC, with preservationists and Berkeley residents doing their own bit for support. 

Former Oakland city planner John English wrote a lengthy documented application to put Iceland on the National Register of Historic Places, which was submitted by the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association Wednesday. 

English called Iceland, with its Olympic-size ice surface, natural light, high ceiling and “dramatically vaulting steelwork,” “a rare major survivor from a golden age of ice skating.” 

Legendary skaters such as Peggy Fleming and Maribel Vinson Owen have trained or coached at Iceland, and its huge arena has hosted events like the U.S. National Figure Skating Championship at least three times. 

Land-use attorney and University of California lecturer Antonio Rossmann called Iceland a community asset. 

“Delisting it because someone wants to tear it down is completely inappropriate and unprincipled,” Rossmann said. “The building is no less worthy as a historic resource today than when designated, and designation looks only to the building’s objective historic character. It is a separate proceeding that should inquire, notwithstanding the building’s historic merit, what use should be made of it; and it is that process that the owners should be engaging, not trying to undo the landmarking.” 

Calls to Berkeley Iceland’s manager, Jay Wescott, and its lawyers, Miller Starr and Regalia, for comment were not returned by press time. 

The Berkeley City Council will meet at 7 p.m., Tuesday, Jan. 19, at Old City Hall, 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way.