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BAHA Opposes Library Demolitions; Council Approves Zoning Waiver for Library

By Peter Warfield (Partisan Position)
Monday July 26, 2010 - 06:13:00 PM

Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA) has taken a formal position opposing demolition of Berkeley Public Library’s (BPL’s) South Branch Library, in a letter sent to the Planning Department earlier this month. 

Meantime, the City Council on July 6 approved the library’s permanent exemption from having to obtain variances for existing buildings that are to be renovated or demolished and replaced, and the Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) July 22 voted to approve use permits for Claremont and North Branch libraries, subject to the City Council’s exemption taking effect August 9. The use permits would allow the library to move forward with its renovation plans for the two libraries. 

The library’s plans for Claremont Branch included a cut of 913 linear feet of shelving for books and materials, which is 23% of the library’s figure for existing shelving of 4,098 linear feet. However, in a modest victory for critics of the cuts, the library’s director, Donna Corbeil, said at the July 14 meeting of the Board of Library Trustees that the the shelving cuts would be reduced. An attachment to the agenda showed a net shelving reduction of 574 linear feet, still a substantial number. The cuts would affect shelving for everything except Teen Magazines, Children “Programming,” and Holds (material from other library branches or library systems), which are to be increased by 34, 90, and 96 feet, respectively. The collection and media categories would be cut for all categories of users: adults, teens, and children. 

In addition to formal opposition on South Branch, expressed in comment on an upcoming Environmental Impact Report, BAHA’s president, Daniella Thompson, writes in the online BAHA News dated July 21, 2010, “We are dismayed to learn that the Library Board of Trustees is planning to demolish two branch libraries: West Berkeley and South Berkeley.” She adds, “The Library Bond Measure FF, which passed in the November 2008 election, promised an altogether different outcome.” 

Thompson goes on to say that “The West Berkeley Branch Library (William K. Bartges, 1923) was designated a Structure of Merit in 2003, and any application for a demolition permit should require CEQA review and a public hearing before the Landmarks Preservation Commission.” 

South Branch, Thompson writes, “designed by John Hans Ostwald in 1960, is one of Berkeley’s Mid-Century Modern gems.” 

Measure FF said the following: “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?” 

Measure FF made no mention of demolition. 

According to a Planning Department memo to the City Council, the City Attorney has since advised that Measure FF funds may not be used for demolition, but could be used to rebuild libraries if funding for demolitions came from another source. As noted in a previous Commentary, the Planning Department said that this advice had been given orally, not in writing.  

Numerous members of the public have spoken at public meetings and written letters opposing the library’s plans, particularly the demolitions. 

At the City Council’s July 6, 2010 meeting, Council Member Susan Wengraf asked Director of Library Services Donna Corbeil “why the recommendation has been made that the two branches be demolished rather than be restored.” Ms. Wengraf said, “it would be useful for [the public] to know.” 

Ms. Corbeil replied as follows, according to the city’s unofficial text file provided by Certified Realtime Reporter [Note: “sic” means we are quoting what was written, even though it may not appear to be quite right]: 


“I am Donna Corbeil, director of the library. I think to speak to them together doesn’t do either one of those projects together [sic]. But the South Berkeley branch, we had extensive discussions there about the library and the architect looked at many options of trying to make that a functional library, to have as much square footage as we possibly could, and as you know there are two libraries also there. And brought forward several different options to the community, including keeping a portion of the current building. We also met I think at least three times with a subcommittee of the landmarks preservation commission to discussion [sic] the projects and options under consideration and held community meetings. It became clear in order to maximize that space to have as much library as we could and to function as efficiently as possible that a one-story option was preferred and that we could make best use of that site for the tool library and the library both with an entirely new building versus trying to keep one small section of the original building. So a lot of thought went into that, and it took many, many months to get to that place where the library board discussed that opening, I think at more than one meeting before they made that recommendation.” Ms. Corbeil continued: “The West branch project is a little bit – is not quite to that stage yet. We have held community meetings discussing the options. Again, the community – at the community meetings we talked about repainting the oldest portion of the building. As you know, it was added on to later on, and unfortunately, a large portion of the original building was destroyed in that addition at that time. And that branch is unique in that it houses the Berkeley Reads program which is our adult literacy program. And so trying to again maximize our space for both the Berkeley Reads program and Berkeley desire [sic] is to have one library so it runs more efficiently. Not to go on about it. But I think the board felt that was the best option for that community, given the space, a well functioning library, and to accommodate the needs of the literacy program. So that project is still under discussion as well.” 

“S. Wengraf: Thank you very much.” 


Peter Warfield is Executive Director of Library Users Association. Email: 

Previous articles about Library plans by the same author have appeared in the Berkeley Daily Planet ’s issues of May 22, June 25, and July 6, 2010.