At its May 6, 2010 regular monthly meeting the Berkeley Landmarks Preservation Commission grappled with landmark issues related to the new, proposed, Downtown Area Plan, continued review of renovation plans for the North Berkeley Public Library, roundly criticized the design of a proposed project adjacent to the historic Berkeley City Club, and made its first landmark designation of 2010.
All members of the Commission were in attendance. The meeting began several minutes after 7 pm and ended close to 11 pm. The public audience ranged from about 20 at the beginning of the meeting to two (including this writer) at the end.
In summary, the Commission:
• Voted unanimously to landmark the University YWCA building at Bancroft Way and Bowditch Street;
• Expressed strong concern about the design of a proposed new building adjacent to the Berkeley City Club on Durant Avenue;
• Discussed concerns about the new Downtown Area Plan with the City’s Planning Director;
• Signed off, after several meetings of discussion, on the proposed design for an addition to the landmark North Berkeley Branch Library.
At the beginning of the meeting Commissioners engaged in a lively discussion with Planning Director Marks who attended the meeting to discuss historic preservation issues in the proposed new Downtown Area Plan.
Marks said “the Downtown Area Plan that was previously proposed was rescinded by the City Council” after a voter referendum on the Plan gained enough signatures. A revised plan has been proposed by the Council and is now undergoing Planning Commission review.
It includes a “green pathway” provision under which developers, if they meet certain requirements, could have “essentially an as-right development” with “nothing but design review” by the City, Marks said.
Under the “green pathway,” developers would also get a “streamlined historic review process” which Marks said was similar to, but not the same as, the controversial Request for Determination (RFD) provision that was incorporated in a previous revision of the Landmarks Ordinance that was rejected by Berkeley voters in 2008.
Marks said the historic process under the “green pathway” would involve having developers “submit a landmark application for a city conducted analysis of the historic value” of a particular property. When the analysis was complete, it would be sent to the Landmarks Commission.
The Commission would be required to act in 90 days to determine if the building should be a landmark. Their decision would remain in effect while use permits for the proposed development were being reviewed.
“I want to emphasize this is not a staff recommendation,” Marks said. “It’s what Council directed.”
Marks said that if the new plan goes on the ballot, “this is plan level language. It doesn’t amend the LPO. But it does direct the staff to amend the LPO.” If the new Downtown Area Plan is approved by voters in November, “we will have to go back to amend the LPO to reflect this language,” Marks said.
Marks said that on May 12 the Planning Commission would consider the new Downtown Plan and the Council would return to it in June. The Council must decide in July whether to actually put it on the ballot in November. He said the Landmarks Commission would be welcome to provide input in June to the City Council.
Marks spoke to a concern raised during the Public Comment period by John English. The new Downtown Plan provisions would apply to properties throughout the Downtown Plan area, which now includes several low-rise residential areas north and south of the commercial Downtown core.
English had worried that older historic houses in those areas might be caught in a regulatory trap where they could not get permits for renovations or seismic upgrades without meeting all the intense “green” standards the Plan proposes for major new development in the Downtown.
“As we going to stick all of the requirements on a site to discourage historic preservation?” Marks said. “It’s a very good question. I certainly understand the unintended consequences of discouraging historic preservation.” He said specific zoning language could be developed addressing this issue.
“I find it in incredibly poor faith that this hasn’t been brought to us,” said Commissioner Carrie Olson. “I would be happy to come back” to the Commission and talk further, Marks said.
He added, “there has to be a CEQA (environmental review) process” on the Downtown Area Plan but did not have details to spell out for the Commission at this meeting.
He said in his opinion when a building goes through the green pathway process “if a historic resource survey doesn’t find it’s a historic resource and the Commission doesn’t act within that 90 days, the historic aspect of CEQA should be satisfied.”
“I’m concerned about this,” Commissioner Anne Wagley said. “I think it changes the Downtown Plan significantly from the DAPAC Plan,” which was developed last year by an advisory committee to the Council.
“I would argue for a full CEQA review of what you’re doing with ‘green pathways’…you may be getting yourselves in trouble by doing policies and not articulating the implementation.”
“The last time it was tried, it didn’t work,” Wagley said, referring to the rejection of the City Council’s revised Landmarks Ordinance by Berkeley voters in 2008. What happens, she asked, “when the voters have been sold something you can’t implement?”
In a moment of humor Marks replied, “Just for the record, the ‘you’ part of this is the City Council. I’m not promising anyone anything.”
“You’re selling the voters a pink elephant that might not materialize because of the implementation process,” Wagley continued. “That’s entirely possible,” Marks replied.
Commissioner Robert Johnson quizzed Marks on the application of the 90-day review provision in the proposed streamlined historic process. When would the 90 days allowed the LPC to review the historic status of a building start?
Marks said the details would need to be worked out but that “90 days will be three (LPC) meetings at least…”
What if there’s a flood of “green pathway” applications all brought to the LPC, wondered Chair Gary Parsons and the Commission can’t deal with all of them at once? “I have a hard time believing there are going to be a lot of projects using the green pathway,” Marks replied.
In answer to a question from Commissioner Steve Winkel, Marks said, “if it’s a designated landmark (already) you can’t do a green pathway. It’s a different animal.”
Commissioner Austene Hall said that the historic component of the green pathways plan “sounds very much like the old RFD process.” She said that she had attended a recent meeting where the new proposed process was described as a way to circumvent the LPC and “the developers were really, really, happy.”
“As a voter I would be scared to vote on a lot of things ‘to be determined’,” she added.
Marks said, “I’m sure we’ll resurrect many of the ideas in that process,” referring to the Request for Determination (RFD) plan for landmarks in the 2008 ballot measure. He then noted, “None of this gets implemented until we go through a whole secondary process” developing zoning language and specific regulations.
Commissioner Antoinette Pietras asked if there was a way for the Commission to be involved. “If the LPO is modified, you’ll be the guys we’ll come to,” Marks replied.
The Commission continued, and then closed, a public hearing on a landmark nomination for 2600 Bancroft, the University Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) building designed by Joseph Esherick in 1958.
The Commission had originally opened the public hearing in late 2009, then deferred further consideration of the nomination several meetings into 2010 at the request of the YWCA. In the interval, a subcommittee and LPC staff met with YWCA representatives.
John English led off the public hearing testimony, saying, “Bowditch (Street) is an architectural showpiece. A fine complement of it is the YWCA building.” He urged that the building be landmarked.
The next three speakers were from the YWCA.
Executive Director Sharon Bettinelli said, “We have preserved the building, we love the building.” “We have no plans to make changes to anything that’s here.”
She did ask that one feature, diamond shaped signage on the Bancroft frontage, be removed from the list of features of significance since it was not original to the building. “We have no problem with the rest that’s here” on the significance list, she said.
Jennifer White, who identified herself as a Y Board member and a volunteer since 1963, said “We love the building. We’re actually quite thrilled you’re thinking of landmarking it.” She urged that the City allow “flexibility in building” in the future if the Y wishes to make changes.
Marilyn Cleveland, another Board member said “we also have a concern about the west terrace.” “It would be preferable to have that removed” from the list of significant features of the building, she said.
Another member of the YWCA Board also spoke, and three others turned in public comment cards but declined to speak when their cards were called, deferring to their colleagues.
This writer also spoke at public comment, urging the Commission to keep the west terraces in the significance list and also to include the magnolia tree on one of the terraces and the presence of foundation plantings around the base of the building as significant features.
I noted that this is one of three important buildings within a block of each other that were designed to have full-sized trees growing on elevated terraces. The others are Henry Gutterson’s Christian Science Organization at the University building down Bowditch Street from the Y, and the Maybeck / Morgan Hearst Gymnasium across the street from the Y, where several full sized live oak trees stand on west facing second floor terraces.
I also asked the Commission to specify that having different colors for the walls and wood trim elements of the exterior was an important element of the design.
During the ensuing Commission discussion Commissioner Olson noted, “on the issue of the terrace, I realize this is a prickly thing.” She said she had talked to her father who worked as an architect in the same era as Esherick and he confirmed for her that the indoor/outdoor character of buildings like this was an important, intended, design feature.
“To me the western terrace is really important, but I’m not going to be prescriptive about the tree,” she concluded.
After discussion, the Commission decided to add contrasting exterior colors (stucco walls verses wood trellises and trim elements) to the list of significant features—without making any statement on paint colors themselves—and to retain the western terraces on the significance list, but not include the foundation plantings.
“I think the women are good stewards of the building and understand how well those foundation plantings work,” Olson said.
The diamond-shaped building signage was also dropped from the significance list as the Y had requested.
Regarding the exterior colors, “we chose to paint it two years ago exactly as Esherick had,” Bettinelli reassured the Commission.
Olson noted that this is the first Joseph Esherick-designed building in Berkeley proposed for landmark designation.
Commissioner Steve Winkel said, “I’m so delighted this has come to the point where everyone seems to be happy.” “We’re still talking,” said Bettinelli.
Olson moved the designation of the building as a Landmark, and the Commission voted unanimously in favor, and then spontaneously applauded, joined by some in the audience.
(Context: The first official City of Berkeley Landmarks was designated in 1975, 35 years ago. The 2600 Bancroft designation is #309. Thus, Berkeley has averaged a little fewer than 9 landmark designations a year since the ordinance was adopted and the rate has been dropping. In 2009, four new landmarks were designated; in 2008, two; in 2007, five. That totals 12 designations in the past 3 ½ years. No landmark nominations are currently pending.)
St. Mark’s Development
The Commission heard a presentation from the development firm of Hudson McDonald on a proposed infill project at the northeast corner of Ellsworth and Durant.
The site is currently occupied by the one-story above ground parking structure of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. On top of the parking structure there’s a courtyard, a two story building currently rented as a private school and a one story social hall for the church, designed by noted Bay Area Post-Modern architect David Baker in the 1980s.
The older St. Mark’s sanctuary and parish house are to the north of the site. To the east rises the Berkeley City Club.
Hudson McDonald has an arrangement with St. Mark’s, to demolish the parking structure, school structure, and social hall, and construct a new development there that would incorporate housing, parking, and additional social facilities for the church.
Chris Hudson gave the Commission a preview of the project that, he said, would incorporate “44 dorm style units” arranged as suites, generally with four single bedrooms each. About 160 beds would be developed, along with a common lounge and kitchen on each of five residential floors.
The new building would rise in an “L,” with a main façade along the Durant Avenue frontage and one level of parking underneath on the same footprint as the existing parking structure on the corner.
The building would stand immediately west of the landmark Berkeley City Club, designed by Julia Morgan. On top of the parking roof, along Ellsworth, it would also incorporate a freestanding single story structure and courtyards to be associated not with the housing but with the St. Mark’s church.
Hudson showed some photos of the current site and others with the proposed new building inserted, asserting “as you walk up and down Durant you’ll see there aren’t that many great views of the City Club.” He said the new building would rise to the height of the third floor windows of the City Club.
Commissioners who spoke were uniformly critical of the design.
“The last thing I want is a faux Julia Morgan (building)” said Miriam Ng. “That’s not what I’m talking about. I have a problem with the design of the building. It makes no acknowledgement of the two landmarks you have flanking the building.”
“It looks like the architect just took a building that looks like it was already designed in Emeryville and dumped it on this site.”
“It’s way too urban,” said Commissioner Austene Hall. “It could be on San Pablo, or University Avenue. Not here, though.” “It could be a far more creative design. Not so big, not this massive block. It doesn’t fit in that neighborhood at all.”
Commissioner Robert Johnson said that on the block “none of the other buildings goes up to the sidewalk.”
Hudson countered, “The front part of the (existing) garage is almost identical to what is there now.” Others noted, however, that the garage, while close to the sidewalk, is one story high while the new building would effectively rise six stories from the same setback.
“Deferentially set yourself back” from the street urged Commissioner Anne Wagley. “It’s going to look very extreme. The massing looks too much like a dormitory.”
“To acknowledge the City Club along the street is a pretty important gesture to make,” said Chair Gary Parsons in the same vein.
Parsons urged the design team to make the east end of the building along Durant, adjacent to the City Club, somewhat shorter. “We looked at that,” Hudson said.
Commissioner Steve Winkel asked that the stair towers projecting on top of the structure be less obvious. “We’ll look at that,” said Hudson.
Winkel also criticized the one story social hall structure in the design, calling it “suburban.” “Looking at the mass of that building…too small to hold its own against the (adjacent) church. It has a very suburban character. It doesn’t play well with either the church or the new building.”
He urged the design team to look at making it a taller element. “I think when we come back we can present some different design concepts,” Hudson said.
Commissioner Carrie Olson said of the presented design, “the building form and material palette is wild, it’s just like carnival time…metal panels will never fly.”
“That particular block has the best tower elements in all of Berkeley—Trinity, St. Mark’s, the City Club. So to try to do a tower on this building is going to be difficult,” she said, referring to the higher element in the design at the Durant / Ellsworth corner.
She echoed the other Commissioners in saying that the site “is not a transit corridor, it’s not a hub” and should have a building that relates better to the freestanding institutional structures on the block.
“I get it,” said Hudson. But, he added, “I don’t know we can make everyone completely happy.”
Olson added that she felt additions to the historic Westminster House and First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley in the same neighborhood had been successful and “in both of those cases the program of the institution was to restore their old building.”
She noted that the developers had not mentioned in their presentation whether any restoration of the older St. Mark’s building or parish house on Bancroft would benefit from the new building project.
Hudson said that St. Mark’s had “asked to maintain the footprint of the parking structure and maintain 60 parking spaces” for the church use. There would be no on-site parking for the housing. He said the project is divided into residential tower and freestanding social hall because “we thought it made the most sense to keep those elements separate.”
“When we got involved with the project we were very cognizant of our neighbors,” Hudson said. He said St. Mark’s was “trying to figure out how to continue to operate and meet their religious mission. They provide housing for homeless teens, they provide a meal service for the homeless, they provide health services for the homeless.”
The proposed development would yield income for St. Mark’s. Hudson said that the program of housing came about “to generate the sort of income St. Mark’s needs to generate.” “How do you build something that makes economic sense?”
Hudson said, “We originally had a design from Kirk Peterson that we thought was competing with the other buildings” including St. Mark’s and the City Club. Erick Mikiten is currently their project architect. He was not at the LPC meeting.
“We’ll be very receptive to design comments,” Hudson said. “We’re hearing what everyone says.”
After listening to the Commissioner comments Hudson said “what we’ve spent a fair amount of time on is looking at different architectural treatments of additions to historic buildings.” But “I’m sort of hearing ‘have some of the traditional forms’” in the design, he added.
Since there was not a public hearing scheduled on this project, there were no comments from the public allowed when the item was discussed.
Several members of the public (including this writer) spoke about the project during the general Public Comment period at the beginning of the LPC meeting.
John English said, “one of the nice things about the City Club is that you can see it in the round…if this new building is built most of the west façade will be blocked. You won’t see it any more.”
“I don’t think that the proposed project should come any closer to Durant than the nearest wing of the City Club.” “This is not a commercially zoned avenue like San Pablo; this is a residential zone where buildings are supposed to have setbacks. This large building is being crowded into the south end of this property.”
This writer also criticized the massing of the design, urging that the building be more articulated and avoid having one long wing right along Durant Avenue. I argued that the program could be met by incorporating the one story social hall into the base of the larger building and breaking up the mass of the larger structure.
I said that the design proposed would be a decent building along a commercial corridor such as Shattuck or University Avenue, but was not appropriate for this special block which is occupied by extremely important institutional buildings, all of them free standing, with setbacks from the street and each other.
Celia McCarthy read a statement on behalf of the Landmark Heritage Foundation at the Berkeley City Club, saying that the Club was built “to provide a refuge” and “provide residents with an atmosphere of seclusion and quiet.” She noted that the City Club was not built with the assumption that another large structure would someday be created immediately next door to the west.
At the time the Club was constructed there were three large wooden houses on what is now the St. Mark’s parking garage site.
The Landmark Heritage Foundation letter asked that story poles be built on the site to “better assess the effects of the project on views from the BCC and shadows on the BCC.”
The Hudson McDonald project will next go to the City’s Design Review Committee for their review.
North Berkeley Library
Commission review of the proposed addition to the North Berkeley Public Library, as well as planned interior renovations, came to a quiet partial conclusion at this meeting as Cathleen Malmstrom from Architectural Resources Group presented revised plans for the addition.
The design team has dropped the more controversial elements of the design.
They “eliminated the overhang of the second floor of the addition” said Malstrom, and put the Josephine street wall of the addition in the same plane. “Now they (the two floors) align and everything is orthogonal to the design of the original building.”
Malmstrom said that bringing the new basement level out to the same plane as the new second floor allowed some further, positive, rearrangements of the interior spaces including moving the manager’s office to the rear of the building.
The elevator in the addition is now wrapped around by the stairs rather than against the exterior wall.
Commissioners responded favorably to the changes.
“I like the design much better, it’s simple I think it works” said Austene Hall. “Your interior design works really well.”
“Thank you, I’m very pleased,” said Commissioner Antoinette Pietras to Malmstrom. “I know it was a lot of work.”
Susan Bailey, whose father designed the library while working in the office of James Plachek, said “I really think what has been done is so much better,” but also expressed concern about the appearance of the window frames in the new curtain walls that will connect the original building to the addition.
Malmstrom and the Commission discussed those windows at length and the Commission ultimately seemed pleased. Malmstrom noted that it is hard in drawings to show the exact appearance of window glass.
Commissioner Carrie Olson also asked Malmstrom to make sure that any replacement sidewalk in front of the building is tinted the proper color to match the historic sidewalks in the neighborhood. Malmstrom also noted that after consultation with City staff the design team had eliminated a proposed sidewalk on the Josephine Street side of the building.
On the motion of Commissioner Robert Johnson, the Commission unanimously endorsed the revised design. Some design details will be brought back to the Committee for later review.
Olson—who also sits on the City’s Design Review Committee—said that the LPC approval essentially completes preliminary design review for the building. Details such as exterior paint colors will still have to come back to the Commission for discussion and approval.
South Berkeley Library
The Commission briefly heard comments from Berkeley Public Library staff about plans for the South Berkeley Library. The 1960s building has problems with accessibility, ability to accommodate today’s program, and seismic strength, said a library staffer.
“For all these reasons the Board of Library Trustees voted we should proceed with an all new building on the site.”
She said that the Library would be undertaking a focused EIR on the development. In response to a question about whether the Library could demolish the building when the bond funds appropriated for the project referred to renovation, another library staffer said “we did talk to the City Attorney’s office and they did tell us we could build a new library with the bond funds.”
Commissioners asked that the Library work to salvage and reuse materials from the existing building in the new construction.
In terms of official action by the LPC, “I think what we do in this case is nothing,” said Chair Gary Parsons. Which is what they did.
Commissioner Carrie Olson temporarily left the meeting during this discussion.
2707 Rose Street
Commissioners briefly talked about the controversial new house approved for 2707 Rose Street in north Berkeley. Chair Gary Parsons said that the LPC’s letter to the City Council about flaws in the application review process for the project “not only fell on deaf ears, but was prevented from being heard. And we were reminded by the Mayor that it’s the Council that makes landmarks.”
There was a brief debate amongst Commissioners when Commissioner Miriam Ng said she felt the letter from the LPC to the Council on 2707 Rose did not reflect what the Commission had discussed. Commissioner Anne Wagley who drafted the letter strongly defended the wording, saying the letter included exact statements she read to the Commission, and was reviewed by the Chair and Commission Secretary before it was sent. “It was verbatim. We didn’t vote on it but we discussed it.”
Commissioner Carrie Olson said the City Council rejection of the LPC concerns was “an eye opening experience.” Parsons added, “The Mayor didn’t allow the letter to be read at the meeting.” “We have to watch for similar things happening in the future.”
In other business, the Commission briefly discussed storefront signage in one of the commercial spaces in the Shattuck Hotel building and gave approval to proposed signage, with some modifications.
Commission Secretary Jay Claiborne gave a staff report in which he noted that some Commissioners will be meeting with the Berkeley Historical Plaque Project in mid-May, and that the Berkeley City Club is turning 80 this year, and has a series of events.
Claiborne said that Commissioners and the public should understand that written correspondence to the Commission or the City Council becomes part of the public record, whether it’s a letter or an e-mail. He said there had been concerns about identity theft involving people who had put their addresses and contact information in their correspondence. “Once it’s there (submitted to the City), it can’t be removed.”
Claiborne also asked Commissioners to consider ways to cut costs. “We’re in a real cost sensitive mode,” at the City, he said. He said that distributing printed agenda packets to the Commission was expensive and “we’re trying to see if there are ways to reduce that cost.”
He asked that Commissioners individually consider whether they would be able to pick up their packets from the City, rather than having the City pay to have them hand-delivered, and whether any individuals on the Commission would be willing to receive electronic agenda packets rather than paper ones. Some were, others weren’t.
The Commission also briefly discussed ideas for future Commission training sessions. Training on how to write a historic district application or landmark application, and how the Mills Act works, were suggested.
Finally, the Commission deleted from future agendas outdated subcommittees for 2208-10 Shattuck, 2237 Shattuck, and 2130 Center Street.
Steven Finacom has written for the Planet on historic and feature topics. At the meeting discussed in this summary he made public comments on three of the items: the North Berkeley Library; the St. Mark’s development; the YWCA landmark proposal.