Public Comment

‘Save Berkeley Iceland’ Soldiers On

By Richard Fabry
Thursday January 28, 2010 - 08:40:00 AM

It was heartening to see the response of the community during the Jan. 19 Berkeley City Council meeting, particularly the sense of outrage many citizens expressed towards the council’s mostly cavalier attitude toward Berkeley Iceland’s future. Instead of embracing the efforts of a determined and able group, Save Berkeley Iceland (SBI), the council attempted to subvert the law and threaten Iceland’s landmark status.  

The public comments were particularly telling: a busy housewife who had never been to a City Council meeting expressing her exasperation and incredulity that city officials were not wholeheartedly supportive of Berkeley Iceland’s rebirth and were even tossing roadblocks in its way. She was followed by enthusiastic young skaters rhapsodizing about the many hours spent dancing on ice and expressing the great need to continue such creative recreational and social opportunities. 

On other end of the spectrum were hard-boiled political veterans who have witnessed similar City Council backroom maneuvers. They were indignant, vented their spleen, and threatened the city with a lawsuit if they revoked Iceland’s hard-earned landmark designation. 

As Becky O’Malley stated in her Jan. 21 Daily Planet editorial, “Berkeley’s longstanding Landmarks Preservation Ordinance doesn’t allow ‘de-landmarking’ a historic resource just because the owner thinks he might not be able to extract maximum profit from selling the property . . .” 

A couple of years ago I eyewitnessed the City Council when Berkeley Iceland’s landmark status was granted by the thinnest of margins. I’ll never forget Mayor Tom Bates, just before casting his “no” vote, stating there could be a plaque erected commemorating where Berkeley Iceland once stood as a “tribute.”  

After observing the lackluster attitude of the majority of councilmembers, many of their disenchanted constituents would rather view an alternative plaque when the stunning new 21st-century Iceland finally reopens proclaiming: 

“Here resides a state-of-the-art community skating rink and recreational facility joyfully revitalized with the latest green technology, to serve future generations with happy, healthy, and creative outlets for their abundant energies. 

“This building is a living testament to what can be achieved by two visionary, determined, passionate, and civic-minded groups, one launched in 1938 and the other in 2007, that were dedicated to the well- being of the community. The first group succeeded with the blessing of the local business and political establishment. Unfortunately, the latter group’s local political support was conditional, and backroom deals were attempted to subvert citizens’ efforts. However, the will of Iceland’s enthusiasts ultimately prevailed.”  

Accompanying the plaque will be an exhibition of assorted laminated newspaper articles and video loops chronicling and highlighting the political subterfuge and bloops and blunders of the Berkeley City Council. 

Make no mistake about it: Berkeley Iceland will once again become reborn. I’ve been to SBI’s meetings and have been impressed by the members’ steadfast level of passion, astuteness, and energy. Like other generous, civic-minded philanthropic citizens, they are very nice, genteel, and can appear laid-back on the surface. But do not equate their low-key personas with naivete or lack of will. They will not stop until their vision of a reborn Iceland becomes reality. 

I state this because the City Council doesn’t understand the true grit of SBI and hasn’t accurately gauged the broad support this remarkable landmark recreational facility mobilizes. Sad to say, but on this issue many on the City Council lack imagination, goodwill, and vision. 

Visualize the updated facility with its new green technologies: the rejuvenated 21st-century edition of Berkeley Iceland will inspire future generations, not just rest on its considerable past laurels. In addition to its ice-skating rink, the building will also be designed to accommodate other sports, events, and community groups in its massive size. You’d think the last thing the City Council would want is to appear as the “bad guy” thwarting a great regional recreational enterprise’s renaissance. 

During the Jan. 19 City Council meeting, with the preapproval of the owners of Iceland, the council granted a four-month stay toward a public hearing of the landmarking permit revocation process. This provides a small window of time for brokering a sale between SBI and Iceland. While a positive outcome is possible, it shows the council’s continuing disregard toward Iceland to forge ahead with public hearings if no sale is negotiated. 

Raising large sums to renew and update a historic building frequently requires in part relying on grants. Grants can take their time going through the labyrinthine-approval process. Example: In nearby Point Richmond, the beloved historic Plunge (1926), the largest surviving indoor swimming facility in California, is scheduled to reopen this year with wondrous state-of-the-art green technology. This happened only after years of exerted effort by a similar civic-minded core group of citizens who were unencumbered by an impatient city government breathing down their necks.  

But who knows? Strangely enough, the pressure brought on by the City Council’s political machinations and a declining economy could stir both sides to an agreement. Personally, the longer the owners of Berkeley Iceland wait to sell their property, the less it will become worth. 

It’s no accident that both local citizen groups who envisioned and built (1938-40) or will restore and update Iceland (2007–) were launched during precarious times—times in which people especially need to engage in activities to buoy their spirits. During times of uncertainty, recreational outlets (such as ice skating), entertainment (such as movie attendance), etc. spike, whereas commercial developments plummet. 

The following worst-case scenario would be tragic and such a waste: SBI’s negotiations to purchase Berkeley Iceland fail; Iceland’s landmark status becomes revoked after that aforementioned four-month window expires; The owners quickly reduce Iceland to rubble; The land remains vacant because commercial development during economic doldrums isn’t feasible; A large grant or two comes through for SBI; Since Iceland has already been demolished, weeds continue to grow on its vacated lot.  

Fortunately, the following scenario will become the likely outcome: SBI sooner or later purchase Berkeley Iceland; Even if the purchase occurs after the four-month window, SBI will sue the city if they don’t drop proceedings to revoke Iceland’s landmark; SBI will win in court.  

The momentum for fundraising will accelerate since contributors know for certain that their money will go for a project which will definitely happen since SBI now actually owns Iceland.  

No longer will wavering potential contributors need be concerned about political games the city council could play to undermine SBI’s goals: the Berkeley City Council is now SBI’s fair-weather friend.  

Fundraising events held at Berkeley Iceland will do much to inspire a cascading crescendo of contributions of all sizes.  

SBI is now racing towards their dreams.  


Richard Fabry is a Point Richmond resident.