Public Comment

Facts and Figures Prove No New Landmark Rules Needed in Downtown Plan

By Steven Finacom
Monday July 19, 2010 - 08:10:00 PM

A major and pernicious element of the Mayor’s new, proposed, “Downtown Plan” involves sweeping away the existing, established, process governing the designation of historic structures and creating a special, abbreviated, procedure for reviewing potential historic resources in Downtown Berkeley only.

The Mayor and a majority of the City Council have essentially argued that this is necessary because developers and property owners are quaking in their boots, unwilling and/or unable to develop Downtown because they fear that historic regulation and all-powerful preservationists may stop them.


I took a look at the actual—not the anecdotal—evidence of Downtown development and its relationship to potential historic sites over the past generation. Here’s what I found. 

Over the past thirty years about 49 new construction buildings or building complexes have been built or fully approved in the area defined as the Downtown by the Mayor’s plan. 

I am not talking about renovations, remodels, or small additions to existing buildings—there have been dozens of those, as well. I’m describing new construction structures or major new construction additions that made existing structures double or more in size. 

Several of those projects affected historic buildings generally by demolishing them, but occasionally by moving them to other sites.  

And how many times was Berkeley’s existing landmarks law put into effect with the result of seriously delaying one of those projects? 

Once—perhaps twice—out of 49 occasions. 

In other words, if you did a successful new construction development in the Downtown in the past three decades, you had maybe a two to five percent chance—one or two out of 49—that the existing Landmark Preservation Ordinance might prove a serious impediment or delay to your proposed project. 

And, as we shall see, you also had essentially a zero percent chance that the Landmarks Ordinance would actually stop, significantly alter, or seriously delay your project. 

Both City officials and private developers anxious to reduce regulation and increase the size of Downtown development have used the Landmarks Ordinance as a great bogeyman. But the facts tell a different story. 

Let’s look at the evidence. 

The 49 new construction developments in the Downtown are identified in the attached pdf.  

(If you like, you can consult City records to see exactly when they were approved and built. I do not believe you will find any of them that weren’t under construction sometime between the beginning of 1980 and the present year, 2010. I watched most of these buildings under construction. 

If you do find an error in this list, please let me know. I will be happy to adjust the list accordingly. However, unless you can find several big errors in it out of 49 projects, my basic arguments still stand. One or two buildings added or subtracted won’t affect the statistics or this analysis in a major way.) 

Those 49 projects divide up as follows: 

Sixteen were multi-story housing developments, either apartments or condominiums.  

Thirteen of these are private developments, ranging from two to nine stories tall—most of them are around four or five stories, often above ground floor retail. One is a University-owned apartment complex; two are non-profit, affordable housing developments. 

22 were private sector office, commercial, or mixed-use buildings not containing housing. Two of these are one story commercial on small lots, but the majority are large structures, with up to four or five stories of offices and covering as much as a square block. All were for-profit developments, with the exception of the David Brower Center office building. 

That totals 38 buildings, 34 of them for-profit, private sector developments—exactly the sorts of projects the Mayor tells us that developers are afraid to try to build in Downtown because of our Landmark Ordinance.  

Developers apparently haven’t gotten that dismal message; for decades they’ve been successfully building at an average of more than one big new construction project a year in Berkeley’s relatively small and compact Downtown. 

Then add six new, private or non-profit sector, institutional buildings built Downtown in the same period, including two theaters (Berkeley Rep’s Roda stage, and Freight & Salvage), the KPFA headquarters, a major new construction addition to the Downtown YMCA, the new, freestanding, YMCA Youth Center at Center and MLK, Jr. Way, and the Institute of Buddhist Studies on Durant Avenue. 

This brings us to 44 new construction building projects, total. 

Finally add three major public sector new construction projects; Berkeley City College, the major addition to the Central Berkeley Public Library, and a two-block long complex of new buildings at Berkeley High School. 

47 building projects, total, forty of them built by the for-profit private sector or private non-profit organizations. 

Finally, there are two buildings that have gone through the public review process, received approvals, and await construction. One is the University’s Helios building at Hearst and Oxford, where demolition of the old State Department of Health building is finishing up; the other is private sector infill housing adjacent to the old Fidelity Bank on Shattuck, south of Dwight, where demolition has occurred but the new construction has not yet started. 

That gives us 47 buildings or building complexes that were constructed in the Mayor’s proposed Downtown zone between 1980 and 2010, and two others approved and awaiting construction—49 projects, total. 

Now let’s look at the landmarks issue in relation to these developments.  

Here, we’ll make a distinction between a possible “historic resource”—a building or site that may prove historic, but has not been fully researched or officially designated—and an official City of Berkeley Landmark. 

How many of the 49 new construction projects involved officially designated historic resources? Five, by my count. 

§ University Walk (1942 University) involved the construction of a major addition running from the back of a historic building—the landmarked Bonita Apartments—through the block to Addison Street. 

§ An approved infill housing development on Shattuck south of Bancroft would construct new housing adjacent to the old landmarked Fidelity Savings & Loan and renovate the later for commercial space. 

§ The Institute of Buddhist Studies project at Durant and Fulton involved the renovation and expansion of the landmark Howard Automobile showroom. 

§ The addition to the Central Berkeley Public Library. 

In each of these four cases the developer planned the retention and renovation of the historic building, with an adjacent, new construction, addition.  

§ A fifth site—the Gaia Building—involved demolition of a Structure of Merit. 

And how many of the 49 projects involved potential historic resources? 

By my count, about ten. 

§ The Fine Arts building (Haste / Shattuck) resulted in the demolition of the Fine Arts Theater. 

§ The Shattuck Senior Homes (2425 Shattuck Avenue) resulted in the demolition of the Berkeley Theater, one of Downtown’s early movie palaces. 

§ The Gaia Building removed the old Red Cross headquarters—once a private creamery—and part of a 19th century livery stable, behind. 

§ The Touriel Building (2004 University Avenue) resulted in the demolition of the 19th century home of one of Berkeley’s “Founding Fathers”. 

§ The Promenade Building (1936 University Avenue) demolished an old—late 19th or early 20th century—unresearched house. 

§ 1846-86 University resulted in the demolition of a commercial building that had been the first independent home of a Berkeley institution, Moe’s Books. 

§ The Golden Bear Building on University Avenue resulted in the relocation of an older house to another site in Berkeley and the Tipping Mar Building (1906 Shattuck) led to the move of a 19th century house from the site and out of Berkeley. 

§ 2001 Addison resulted in the demolition of the remains of Downtown Berkeley’s last remaining manufacturing building—the 19th century Pape Planing Mill. 

§ 2115 Milvia resulted in the demolition of the old Wheeler building, built for a homegrown business. 

§ The new three-story Downtown Berkeley Inn required the demolition of a Deco-style early 20th century one-story motel. 

So let’s consider these 10 buildings that were only “potential” historic structures when their removal (or moving) was proposed to make way for new development. 

Now here’s where the Mayor or his allies might say, “Aha! 10 ‘potential historic resources’ out of 49 projects. That means more than 20 percent of those projects were in the ambiguous zone where the developer didn’t know if they were dealing with a real historic landmark site.” 

“Proves our point! We need different landmark rules Downtown to give developers certainty.” 

It proves nothing of the kind. 

In fact, it proves the opposite. 

In several of those ten cases, voices—sometimes lone voices—were raised in opposition to the proposed demolition of a possible historic structure. 

In only two of the ten instances, however, did a significant struggle focused principally on historic resource issues result. 

At the Touriel Building site historic preservationists (myself included) argued that the old house on the property should be saved, or moved to a nearby site—a lot was actually offered where it could be relocated.  

Berkeley Architectural Heritage (BAHA) filed a lawsuit. But when the legal dust cleared, the house was torn down. It had not been landmarked, and it had not been saved. The development was built as proposed. 

At the Fine Arts Building site, some individuals proposed landmarking the old Fine Arts Theater. This was, I believe, the only instance, in these 49 developments, where a development dispute directly resulted in a formal landmark proposal that was reviewed by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.  

And what was the result?  

The Landmarks Preservation Commission itself voted to reject the landmark application! The building was demolished and the development proceeded. No need for the developer to appeal the designation to the City Council, or file a lawsuit, or abandon the project because of uncertainties or delays.  

So the City body officially charged with designating landmarks decided at the very first step of review that the building wasn’t officially historic. 

What can we construe from all this?  

Certainly not that our existing historic resource laws in Berkeley extensively block or hinder development in the Downtown, as the Mayor would have us believe.  

Berkeley’s development community is hardly dismayed—it has been briskly building, building, building to the tune of tens of millions of dollars, most likely millions of square feet, and hundreds of residential units in the Downtown for decades. 

During that still-unexhausted run of development our existing Landmarks Preservation Ordinance was routinely applied in five cases where there were already designated historic resources on proposed development sites, and was almost never formally brought into play for the other “potential historic” resources. 

To recap: 

Nearly fifty new-construction Downtown developments—most of them large—have been built in the past thirty years. Only about fifteen of them involved sites with designated or potential historic resources.  

Only a couple of those projects resulted in lawsuits or efforts to landmark a building. 

And in the one case where the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance was formally invoked, the Landmarks Commission killed the landmark designation at its first official stage, and the development proceeded. 

There is no need to have special new, watered down, rules for potential landmark designation in Downtown Berkeley. 

There is a need for the Mayor and his allies on this issue to respect the facts rather than reciting discredited shibboleths. 

See the actual buildings here. (Steven Finacom has periodically served on the Landmarks Preservation Commission and is a long-time Berkeley resident. This piece represents his personal views, not the position of any organization with which he is associated.)