Public Comment

Berkeley City Council to Take Final Vote on Library Exemption from Zoning Variances

By Peter Warfield, Executive Director, Library Users' Association
Monday July 05, 2010 - 05:34:00 PM

Berkeley's City Council is scheduled to vote tonight, July 6, 2010, on a second, and presumably final, passage of legislation that would exempt the Berkeley Public Library (BPL) from having to obtain zoning Variances for any future renovations to, or demolitions with replacement of, existing buildings, including the downtown Central library.


At a contentious City Council meeting June 29, during which members of the public and then Council members raised questions about the legality and propriety of Measure FF (2008) being used to demolish two branch libraries, the Council nonetheless voted 10-0, with one abstention (Arreguin) to approve the legislation on first reading.


There were several problematic aspects to what happened, particularly regarding the accuracy of information provided to the City Council by the Planning Department and Board of Library Trustees (BOLT).


A Planning Department memo to the Mayor and City Council, dated June 29, 2010, asserted that the City Attorney gave advice about the legality of the library's planned demolition of South Branch and West Branch prior to planned replacement with new buildings.  But when we caught up with the author of the memo, we were told that the advice had been given orally -- not in writing.  We found this surprising, to say the least.


We are accustomed to seeing City Attorney opinions on significant matters made in writing.  These are typically carefully worded products of research and experience, often containing citations to legal cases.  The opinions usually state the question asked, and may extrapolate to questions not asked but still relevant to the matter at hand.


Additionally, we found an apparent serious error in the Planning Department memo's statement about the wording of Measure FF.  The memo says, "Measure FF expressly referred to 'construction,' and therefore its funds "may be used for construction of new libraries."  But we double-checked the wording and there is no mention of "construction" in the measure itself.  The word "construction" is only used in the "City Attorney's Impartial Analysis of Measure FF."


The Planning Department memo additionally says Measure FF "does not prohibit demolition," and that "the City Attorney has also advised that Measure FF funds should not be used for demolition...."  In somewhat tortured logic, the memo says, "current plans are to use other funds for demolition." 


Susan Kupfer, Chair of the Board of Library Trustees (BOLT), sent a letter to the City Council dated June 18, 2010, in which she makes some interesting statements.  One of them is this:  "While the existing buildings are grandfathered in place, and the planned renovations and/or new construction are not an expansion of library collections or services, the lots on which they are located are small and there is the need to provide upgraded and compliant facilities which might require variances of the current code."


But in fact, it is not the case that the new library facility designs "might" require variances -- all three designs for all three branches whose designs are at the Planning Department DO require variances under current code.  We noted this in a previous Daily Planet Article in the June 22, 2010 issue,  "Berkeley's Branch Library Plans: Two Demolitions Instead of Renovation, Book Cuts and Permanent Changes to Zoning Variance Requirements."        


North Branch's planned blockbuster two-story addition, which would extend close to Josephine Street, would add 77% to existing square footage, and would exceed the currently allowable 40% lot coverage.  The plans would increase lot coverage to 43%, from the current 32%.


South Branch, currently planned as a demolition and complete rebuild, would violate current zoning codes regarding both lot coverage and setbacks.  Allowable lot coverage now is 50%, while the existing building covers 38%.  The planned building's lot coverage would be 61%.  The planned building would also violate existing setback requirements on two of its sides. 


And Claremont Branch plans would also increase lot coverage beyond what was approved in the early 1970s as a variance allowing 60% coverage where 50% was and still is the maximum allowed.  The newly planned expansion would make the building cover 63% of the lot.


Here is the exact wording of the Planning Department's June 29, 2010 paragraph regarding Measure FF and the library's demolition plans:


"Regarding the concerns raised by community members as to whether the proposed projects are consistent with Measure FF, the City Attorney has confirmed that Measure FF does not require expansion or retention of book shelving, and does not prohibit demolition.  However, the City Attorney has also advised that Measure FF funds should not be used for demolition absent a validation action.  Thus, at present there are no plans to use Measure FF funds for demolition.  Rather, current plans are to use other funds for demolition.  Because Measure FF expressly referred to 'construction,' Measure FF funds may be used for construction of new libraries."


This is wording of "City of Berkeley Bond Measure FF":  "Shall the City of Berkeley issue general obligation bonds not exceeding $26,000,000 to renovate, expand, and make seismic and access improvements at four neighborhood branch libraries, but not the Central Library, with annual reporting by the Library Board to the City Council?"


And here is the second paragraph of the "City Attorney's Impartial Analysis of Measure FF": 


"This bond measure would authorize the issuance of $26 million of general obligation bonds.  The bond measure specifies that bond proceeds would be limited to renovation, construction, seismic, and disabled access improvements, and expansion of program areas at the City's four neighborhood branch libraries, but not the Central Library downtown.  Current plans for renovation include restoration and refurbishment of historic features at the branch libraries as part of any renovation."




Peter Warfield is Executive Director of Library Users Association.


 Recent articles about BPL's library renovation and construction plans include "Opposing Zoning Ordinance Changes Regarding Demolishing Libraries," May 25, 2010, and "Berkeley's Branch Library Plans: Two Demolitions Instead of Renovation, Book Cuts and Permanent Changes to Zoning Variance Requirements," June 22, 2010.