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Berkeley's Branch Library Plans:
Two Demolitions Instead of Renovation,Book Cuts and Permanent Changes to Zoning Variance Requirements

By Peter Warfield (Partisan Position)
Monday June 21, 2010 - 09:08:00 AM

The promise of Library Measure FF (2008) to “renovate and expand” Berkeley Public Library’s four branch libraries, has instead turned into plans to demolish and replace two of the branches, cut shelving for books and materials, eliminate all reference desks in favor of roving reference librarians – and on June 29 the City Council is expected to vote on zoning legislation that would permanently exempt all existing library buildings from having to obtain variances for any future changes, or demolitions combined with new library construction on the same site. 

West Branch, despite being a city “structure of merit,” and South Branch, are both to be demolished and replaced with new buildings.A library-sponsored review of these facilities found that both have qualities that could make them worthy of landmarking, but 1970s renovations at West Branch and neglect over time at South Branch have damaged or hidden many of their landmark-worthy features. 

Claremont Branch is to get a small addition of 340 square feet while losing 913 linear feet of shelving for books and materials, out of the existing 4,027 – a 23% cut in space for books.Other branches are to receive floor space expansions of 50% or more, while book space is to increase by only 4%. 

The traditional adult and children’s reference desks – separate from each other and apart from busy and noisy circulation desks – are to be eliminated.The “Building Program,” authored by Page + Moris, dated January 2010, says that for South and West branches, “One service desk will serve the whole library.”The other branch building programs say the same thing in almost identical words.The reference librarians will be roving about, we are told in the “BuildingProgram” and the same thing was said at one of the Board of Library Trustees (BOLT) meetings I attended in May and June.The “Building Program” says, “Librarians will be encouraged circulate through the public areas when they are on ‘desk duty’ for proactive interaction with library users, rather than to remain at the [single] Service Desk at all times.” 

And another change in Berkeley’s branch libraries will be “Recognition Opportunities.”That means, in exchange for donations to the Berkeley Public Library Foundation, donor names and honorees are to be posted in locations such as library rooms, on or at the “North Branch Chandelier,” on equipment such as self-check stations, in Children/Teen/Adult Areas, on book shelves.Additionally publicity from the Foundation says, “A donor wall will be prominently located in each branch,” and those giving more than $2,500 will receive “temporary recognition” in the Central Library. 

Three current designs exceed lot coverage or setback requirements, some by substantial amounts.North Branch’s blockbuster two-story addition would add 77% to existing floor space – with only a 4% increase in shelving space for books.The addition would cause lot coverage to jump from 32% to 43% in a district zoned for a maximum of 40%.The park-like area to the west of the library, along Josephine Street, would have a two-story addition jutting out from the existing building, about 55 feet wide, and coming to as close as four feet from the property line, just 16 feet from the curb.The exact width and setback distance were unavailable as of June 10 because plans on file with the Planning Department did not show them, an error acknowledged by a Planning Department employee. 

South Branch plans provide for lot coverage to balloon from 38% to 61%, where the allowable is 50%. In addition, two of South Branch’s proposed setbacks conflict with what is permitted.The West setback is to range from three feet to 37 feet, where six feet is required.And the North setback is to range from 6 feet 6 inches to 16 feet, where 15 feet is the minimum required. 

Claremont Branch lot coverage increases from 60% to 63%, with a permitted coverage of 50%.A variance for the existing lot coverage was granted circa 1974, according to the Planning Department. 

The Planning Department on May 26 voted 7-2 to recommend City Council approval of proposed zoning legislation, paving the way for City Council action expected June 29.At a “preview” of North Branch and Claremont branch plans presented to the Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) meeting June 10, one of the commissioners ask whether such legislation for exemption from having to obtain variances has been provided for other agencies.The Planning Department representative said No. 

Bradley Wiedmaier, an architectural historian, said the proposed permanent zoning exemption represents “an assault on planning.”“North Branch’s new addition places an urban high-density addition, that is more suitable for a commercial district, into a residential, low-density neighborhood,” he said. 

John English, a Berkeley citizen and preservationist, said “The most outrageous thing is that the Board (of Library Trustees) plans demolitions.Measure FF does not authorize demolition – it authorized renovations.” 




Poor Maintenance Affects Library Branches 

Berkeley has not been kind to all of its branch libraries.A report that includes the condition and history of Berkeley’s libraries was prepared for the library by Noll and Tam Architects in July, 2008.North Branch is a city landmark in “good to excellent” condition, and Claremont Branch “appears eligible to [be listed] to the California Register under Criterion 3 (design) with an overall condition of “good to excellent. 

The Noll and Tam report said of South Branch:“It appears the property is eligible to [be listed on] the California Register for its association with architect John Hans Ostwald and potentially for its design characteristics.”But the report says the condition of the building is “fair to bad.”The report recommended “stabilization and repair” of “exterior portions of the original building [which] are among its most deteriorated features, though they appear very easy to restore.Additionally, they recommend “reversal of incompatible alterations….” And, they wrote, “Restoration of the original lighting would measurably increase the historical integrity of the building in a way likely to be readily understood by many visitors.The same is true of the skylights.A 1975 book about the architect, John Hans Ostwald, would make assessment of the significance of the building easier, according to the report. 

At West Branch, the report says 1970s changes have spoiled its “historical integrity.”“Most of the original exterior elevations are no longer visible, the ceiling in the reading room has been lowered, (adult reading room), and the original entry steps have been floored over.The 1970s additions are so divergent from the original in character, and alter and cover it so much on both interior and exterior, that they impair the historical integrity of the property.” 

The report also includes pictures of West Branch’s coved ceiling and “wood crown molding” currently not visible because they are above the “suspended acoustic ceiling system in adult reading room’s northwest corner.” 




Peter Warfield is Executive Director of Library Users Association. 

A previous article about library renovation plans was published in the Berkeley Daily Planet May 25, 2010, “Opposing Zoning Ordinance Changes Regarding Demolishing Libraries” .