A relatively short action agenda turned into a much longer meeting April 1, 2010, as the Landmarks Preservation Commission delved for the second month into the design details of a renovation and expansion of the North Berkeley branch library.
The Berkeley Public Library is planning to renovate the existing library, remove two extensions on the rear, and construct a new two-story rear addition, partially sunken into the ground, along Josephine Street.
Kathleen Malstrom from Architectural Resources Group made the formal presentation of the revised design and most of the discussion with the Commission, with architect Doug Tom from Tom Eliot Fisch occasionally adding a comment.
Malstrom reviewed a list of recommendations the design team felt the LPC had made at its last meeting, and noted changes made in response. In particular, the design team had eliminated a proposed asymmetrically angled portion of the new rear elevation, while leaving a small section of the new second floor uniformly cantilevered and extending about 18 inches beyond the lower level.
Roof heights of different elements had also been slightly adjusted on the rear elevation. The plans continue to show that the new addition would be visually connected to the existing building by two small glass curtain walls, one fronting a teen room on the south, the other a staff workspace on the north side of the new addition.
The exterior of the addition is proposed to be board form concrete up to the “water table” level of the old building. New windows will be clear, not tinted, glass. The elevator tower at the southwest corner of the new addition will have a trellis on it to support vines. “There’s some real tradition for vine covered walls”, said Malstrom.
“We spent an awful long time on the program and how the inside of the building would work”, she added. “We (the designers) fought madly to keep the elevator and the bathrooms away from the façade”, but the program dictated they go on the rear elevation of the new structure.
The result was a rear façade with two elements—an elevator and stair tower and bathroom walls on the right, as one faces the building from Josephine Street, and a new community room and other spaces on the left. “Any attempt to make this a symmetrical façade would not work—it would be more contrived”, said Malstrom.
Commission members were mixed in their reaction to the new plans.
Some Commissioners asked if the internal program of the Library could be arranged in a different way so the new rear exterior would look different. “We tried all kinds of arrangements”, Malstrom said. “We didn’t want to see the bathroom and the elevator on the street side.” “Yes, the program dictates a lot. It’s been a real challenge to make this work in the area we had.”
“I really don’t want to step on your toes, but what we’re interested in is what the building looks like. It looks like a building that is being pushed around by the program”, Parsons responded.
“We feel it’s an asymmetrical solution”, Malstrom said. “It could be rendered in a more symmetrical way on the outside but it would look a little dishonest. I don’t think we’re trying to put a wrapper around this building.”
Commissioner Steven Winkel agreed that the rear did not need to be symmetrical, and “I’m really troubled that we’re (the Commission) pushing the building towards being banal.” “I don’t mind the asymmetry, I think it’s actually to be desired…the asymmetry is the correct solution.”
Commissioner Carrie Olson said “I don’t have a problem with it being asymmetrical providing it (visually) recedes. And I don’t see anything that makes it recede.” She suggested that the proposed cantilever be eliminated on the rear façade, bringing the community room level out to the same plane as the second floor above.
“I think this has come a long way”, said Commissioner Austene Hall. But “I don’t quite understand the cantilever either. Now I’m not sure why it’s there.” She expressed concern about large windows projecting too much light at the surrounding residential neighborhood.
“One of the horrors all around Berkeley is the use of containers as building space”, said Commissioner Anne Wagley. “And to me that top space (on the rear façade) looks like a container stacked on the building.” She supported eliminating the cantilever.
“We could look at that”, Malstrom said.
“I love the (existing) building”, said Commissioner Antoinette Pietras. “When I look at the (proposed) addition, it’s whoa!” “I’m going to vote for a darker color”, she added.
“The whole cantilever thing is sort of an artifact at present”, Chair Parsons added. “I just don’t know if it’s serving any purpose. Now it looks like a box that’s hung over nothing. It conjures up a construction trailer. It conjures up a skybox.”
“Whatever happens to the building is going to live or die by the details”, Parsons added. “These things are going to be super important. This is a civic building”. He urged that the design team look at ways to make the addition walls appear thicker and detail the windows better.
“This is a building that people really love, that people really care about tremendously.”
Commissioner Christopher Linvill urged “balance” for the new addition. “I firmly believe there’s no reason for it to be unbalanced”, he said. “But I’m not suggesting we have to achieve symmetry.”
“There’s no point in doing anything if it doesn’t work for the program,” Commissioner Miriam Ng said.
Commissioners also discussed whether the rear stairwell should have windows. Some thought yes, others no, and various approaches were argued.
Discussion also involved proposed colors for the building exterior. Malstrom said the building was originally peach colored; “it was very light”. The design team is proposing that both the old and new portions of the building be repainted in a uniform light color, with lighter tones on the decorative details of the main façade.
“Having the light color is a horror to me”, said Commissioner Olson; she had previously advocated for keeping the dark Karl Kardel color design for the exterior.
“If there’s a consensus that what is there now is preferred, we are not wedded to making the building light”, Malstrom said.
Olson also criticized the Library and its consultants for providing meeting packet materials that did not match the designs presented at the meeting. “Getting a packet with a building that we’re not now looking at is really not OK”, she said. Chair Parsons told the consultants, “What we’re struggling with is that we don’t have the documentation of what you’re talking about.”
Consultants apologized, citing the tight schedule for the project. Malstrom also noted, in response to a comment by Olson that boards showing the actual materials proposed would be presented to the Commission at future meetings.
The Commission also heard a short presentation about the Claremont Branch Library. The building is a 1924 structure also designed by James Plachek, with a much later addition.
Consultants said that renovation plans would add very little to the exterior footprint of the building—which already occupies most of its site—but would remove the front entry steps and “infill the (front) porch, grabbing the porch for part of the building”. The extended enclosed porch would provide a reading nook. The bricks of the current steps would be used to build planters and a new, code compliant, handicapped entrance ramp would be constructed.
All the interior shelving would be refurbished, and the current plan is to repair and retain the existing windows. Shear walls for seismic reinforcement would be hidden within the existing walls, resulting in shelves about ½ inch shallower than the existing shelving.
Commissioners made few comments, and generally seemed supportive of the plans. However, “I think the loss of that existing entry looking like an entry is profound” said Commissioner Olson.
Commission Secretary Jay Claiborne said in reference to the City Council’s new Downtown Plan the LPC could raise issues and take the initiative to present them to the Council. He noted the Transportation Commission had done that.
He said that under the Mayor’s new “Green Pathway” imitative that is part of the proposed Downtown Plan, “the LPC may be asked to predetermine historic status of projects within a certain number of days.” This would be different than the process spelled out in the Landmarks Ordinance for considering the historic status of a building through landmark initiation.
That issue raised concern with some Commission members who compared it to the “Request for Determination” in the Mayor’s proposed revisions to the Landmarks Ordinance that had been defeated by Berkeley voters in 2008.
“A ‘request for determination’ is an alteration to the Landmarks Ordinance,” said Commissioner Wagley. “I very strongly think the details of this request for determination must be approved by the LPC.”
“It was presented to me as a way to get the LPC and the public out of the way”, said Commissioner Hall.
Wagley asked that the Commission write a letter asking the Council if it was amending the Landmark Preservation Ordinance and, if a new Downtown Plan covering historic resources is being created, would it require CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) review?
Commissioners also heard a number of subcommittee reports about issues discussed at the March meeting. Members felt they had been relatively successful working out the details of paint colors and signage for the exterior of the new “Burgermeister” corner storefront—opened last month at 2237 Shattuck Avenue—but expressed frustration about the Berkeley Bike Station at 2208-2210 Shattuck, which will occupy three commercial storefronts in the Shattuck Hotel building.
At the March LPC meeting some Commissioners were irritated at some of the signage proposals for the new Bikestation. Between meetings, however, their ire shifted somewhat to City signage regulations which some felt were unreasonably limiting the storefront signage displays for the new facility.
The Commission also did, at the request of the Secretary, some housekeeping, eliminating a number of obsolete subcommittees and properties listed on the agenda as “potential initiations” dating back as far as 1998.
Subcommittees are frequently set up by the Commission so three to four members can go look in detail at a particular project or issue in between the formal meetings, and report back to the larger body. Potential initiation listings are intended to give some informal public notice of historic properties in which Commissioners have interest, but which haven’t been formally nominated for landmark status.
The number of subcommittees was cut from 21 to 11. The number of “potential initiations” was reduced from 35 identified properties to about 18.
(Disclosure: the writer of this piece commented to the Commission on the North Berkeley Library design, expressing concern about the asymmetry and modern design character of the proposed addition.)