New: Berkeley's Landmarks Commission Considers Proposed Library Demolition,
Pelican Building on UC Berkeley Campus
Berkeley’s Landmarks Preservation Commission opened a public hearing on one new proposed landmark and mulled over issues related to an environmental impact report on the branch Berkeley library renovations and demolitions at its first regular meeting of the new year on January 6, 2011.
A landmark application for the Pelican Building on the UC Berkeley campus was submitted in December to the Commission by two LPC members, Gary Parsons and Robert Johnson. The one-story, pavilion-like structure on the banks of Strawberry Creek north of Barrows Hall was constructed in 1956 to the design of Joseph Esherick who had consulted with Bernard Maybeck in the early stages of the design process.
When completed, the building housed the “California Pelican”, the student humor magazine that had been founded by the donor of the building, Earle C. Anthony, at the beginning of the 20th century. In more recent decades, after the demise of the “Pelican”, it has been reassigned as the headquarters of the Graduate Assembly, the graduate student wing of the Associated Students (ASUC).
The Commission opened a public hearing on the nomination and heard from one speaker, Beth Piatnitza. Piatnitza, Assistant Director of Physical and Environmental Planning at UC Berkeley told the Commission “for the University it’s a non-controversial issue. We have always considered that building to be a historic resource.”
She said the building “does have a seismic issue, and some ADA (Americans with Disability Act) issues”, and the campus is contemplating renovations. “We’ll be working with the guidance of a preservation consultant.” She added that the University is preparing a Historic Structures Report on the building.
There were no other speakers who asked to address the Commission about the Pelican Building, but at the suggestion of Parsons and Johnson the Commission voted to hold the public hearing open until the February meeting.
Parsons said, “some people at Esherick’s office would like an opportunity to comment”, and couldn’t attend in January. Esherick, who died in 1998, founded the design practice now known as EHDD, based in San Francisco. Several of his early colleagues there—George Homsey, Peter Dodge, and Chuck Davis—are still connected with the firm. Last year the LPC designated another Esherick-designed building in Berkeley, the YWCA at Bancroft and Bowditch, as a City Landmark.
Parsons noted that in his research on the Pelican Building he realized “we’re moving to different kind of documentation. Every piece of communication was on file in the (Environmental Design) Archives” at the University.” “The task becomes not digging up little bits that are rare, but winnowing through lots of stuff” to prepare a landmark application.
While the Pelican nomination was relatively brief and uncontroversial, a large part of the Commission’s time and attention at the meeting was taken up with the complex issues of Berkeley’s four branch libraries. Two of the libraries—the North Branch and the West Branch—are designated City of Berkeley landmarks. The other two—South and Claremont Branches—are generally regarded as historic resources, but do not have formal landmark status.
A contingent of Library and other staff, consultants, and both Library allies and critics offered comments to the Commission as they grappled with a thicket of policy considerations related to the branches.
The Library currently proposes to demolish and rebuild two of the branches—South and West—and renovate the other two, with a major rear addition on the North Branch and a very small external addition to the Claremont Branch.
A lawsuit by the Community Library Users group has challenged the demolition of the South and West branches and the use of funds from 2008’s Measure FF bond vote to build new branches, and the City and CLU are currently in settlement talks.
Meanwhile, the City has issued a draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) on the South and West Branch projects. As a result of a partial settlement in the lawsuit the enactment of zoning changes to all five Berkeley Public Library sites—the branches, as well as the Central Library—has been repealed and incorporated into the DEIR for study.
The Commission was being asked by City staff at this meeting to offer any comments it would like for consideration in the Final EIR. The item was listed on the agenda as “for commission review and comment” and an action item.
The discussion of the libraries divided into two parts during the meeting. First, several individuals testified during the open Public Comment period at the beginning of the meeting. Later in the meeting City staff interacted with the Commission about the DEIR in particular.
During the public comment period, Peter Warfield, representing the Library Users Association, said he was “here to talk about the Draft EIR and in general what’s happening with Berkeley’s libraries.” He argued that the voter approved Measure FF did not contemplate demolition of the branches.
“There was no mention of demolition in the measure or related materials.” “It appears that the public was not told, and certainly not before the election, that there would be demolition, with the exception of a small hint in one of the pieces of literature.”
Regarding the South Branch library, he said it had the “feeling of a really jam packed attic”, and that it was understandable from a Library staff perspective to want more space. But the crowding of equipment, furnishings, and materials in the building also “ruins many of the qualities the building has”. Skylights have been covered, and bookcases placed in front of windows, Warfield said, obscuring the original character of the structure.
“I would urge you to make the South Branch a landmark” he told the Commission and the City should “pay for the renovation people voted for.”
Judith Epstein, part of the Concerned Library Users group, followed Warfield. She noted that her group is distinct from the Library Users Association. “Somewhere along the line with the branch improvements there came the notion that historic elements couldn’t be saved”, she said. But the purpose of an EIR is to question such assumptions, she added.
She said that CLU has hired Berkeley architect Todd Jersey to “come up with options to preserve the historic elements” of the two demolition-threatened branches, and suggest ways to make expansions that would “echo the original design.”
“There is a better way, a greener way, to improve these libraries”, Epstein said. “I would urge you to ask questions as part of the DEIR process.” Regarding the zoning amendment that would make it easier to expand or make other alterations to all of Berkeley’s public libraries in the future, Epstein asked “what is the impact?” “What is the long term impact?” “How will it affect the neighborhoods around these libraries?”
Epstein said that the Concerned Library Users had presented some design concepts for renovation of branches to the City Attorney as part of the settlement process for their lawsuit. In response, Commission Chair Gary Parsons said “I would be really interested in seeing them.”
Epstein said that CLU would be happy to have Jersey come speak to the Commission at a later date about the renovation options.
Jersey also gave brief testimony during the Public Comment period. He said he had been asked by CLU to examine “whether it was feasible to save the original structures of the branch libraries.” He recalled “going to the South Branch library as a child” when he grew up in Berkeley. “I love that little building. I remember it particularly as a warm and friendly place.”
“The original buildings (South and West branches) are good examples of the time periods they were designed in”, he said. “On the South Branch it’s quite simple to save the two main rooms, tear out the 1970s (addition), and build from there.”
Jersey noted he was the design architect for the recently renovated and re-opened, and widely praised, historic Richmond Plunge. “I am a leading green architect, and a budding preservation architect”, he told the Commission. “I love old buildings and, in particular, some of the old buildings I grew up with in Berkeley.”
David Snyder was the next Public Comment speaker, identifying himself as the Executive Director of the Berkeley Public Library Foundation, a non-profit group closely allied with the Library administration that is raising funds to provide fixtures and furnishings for the renovated or rebuilt branches.
He read the text of Measure FF and said “in preparation for that (Measure FF), the City incorporated an evaluation of the sites and an evaluation of the costs”, and “one of the elements in particular that they tried to have was keeping the projects within budget.”
“If you go into the branches you can become acquainted with the unsafe conditions there.” The South and West branches, he added “have gone through deterioration to such an extent that it makes it infeasible except to go forward with demolition of these two branches.”
Synder said the current planning provided “new buildings at both South and West to accomplish the goals of the plan and provide what the residents of Berkeley voted for.” He said the alternative was “have no project, which is not what the citizens of Berkeley were looking for.”
Snyder was followed by Dave Fogerty, who identified himself to the Commission as a resident of Otis Street near the South Branch. He said “I also live with a librarian, recently retired” and “I attended the three public workshops” on the South branch.
“The architects considered the alternatives of renovating…and preservation alternatives,” he said. “It was the conclusion of most people who participated that it was more economic and of better value to the public” to build a new South Branch.
After Fogerty spoke, Commissioner Carrie Olson asked him who he worked for. Fogerty said he worked for the City of Berkeley’s Office of Economic Development, but he was speaking to the Commission as a private citizen.
Diane Davenport, a retired librarian from the Berkeley Public Library and current President of the Friends of the Library, spoke next saying in regard to the South Branch “the EIR says that the environmentally superior alternative is to do nothing” but “that poses significant life safety risks to the public.”
“This EIR says South and West branches pose risks.” “Let’s move ahead with the proposed projects and build safe branches.”
The final speaker, Bradley Weidemeier, talked about the South Branch, saying “it should be a landmark. There’s no question that it’s a very significant piece of architecture.” He also questioned the City’s proposal for a zoning amendment that would permanently alter the development restrictions on Berkeley’s five Library properties. “Why a variance in perpetuity?” he asked. “Why not one time, for the renovations? Our planning tools are important and should be utilized.” And “why the main branch?” he asked.
The Library has included the Central Library in the package of properties where zoning restrictions would be loosened, although the Central Library was renovated and expanded years ago and the Measure FF funding applies only to the branches.
Later in the meeting, at the beginning of the Commission discussion of the Library DEIR, Commissioner Olson excused herself from the room. Her architect father worked on the design of the South Berkeley Branch in the office of Hans Oswald, the architect of record.
“Since this (branch renovations, and the zoning amendment) was put on the agenda as one item, I’m going to have to leave for the whole item” she told the Commission. Before she left, however, she said to the room in general, including the contingent of Library staff and consultants present, “no one from the City contacted my father” when the South Berkeley branch was under study for renovation. “No one asked him for information about South Berkeley. No one asked him if it was earthquake safe. No one.”
City planner Aaron Sage took the podium next to make himself available for questions about the DEIR. He said that if the Commission provided comments, “they are comments that will have the same legal status as any other public comments received.” He added that the City Council would certify the Final EIR, and also make the final decision on any zoning amendments affecting the Library. But to the Landmarks Commission, he said, “you will make the final decision on the demolition.”
Commissioner Steve Winkel asked, “as far as what we’re doing tonight, this would have the same status of a public citizen” in terms of how comments are evaluated in the EIR. “That’s right”, answered Sage.
Commissioner Anne Wagley noted “we as the Landmarks Commission have been alerted that an architect (Jersey) has prepared preservation alternatives that have not been incorporated into the Draft EIR.” She said that the suggestions of Todd Jersey should be part of the EIR study. “I think that’s a great idea”, Chair Parsons added.
Commissioner Austene Hall focused on the zoning amendment changes. “You don’t change the zoning laws just because you want to build your backyard house on someone else’s fence”, she told Sage, and asked why the zoning amendment was part of the EIR study?
“The zoning ordinance amendment is proposed, and with CEQA and the lawsuit (by Concerned Library Users) it was determined that it should be subject to an EIR”, Sage replied. The City decided that it would be most sensible to combine all the CEQA issues related to the Library in one EIR, rather than doing separate studies.
“The (zoning) amendment is not about a building type—libraries—but about specific sites?” Parsons wanted to know. “It’s specifically written to apply only to the five libraries that existed as of last year”, Sage answered. Parsons asked why the amendment is needed.
“There’s a lot of different things about these sites and about these libraries that warranted treating them differently than any site in a residential district”, Sage replied. Some of the branches are located on sites with residential zoning. But, for example, he said that the residential zoning requirement that generally limits buildings to 40% lot coverage is “very limiting” for the libraries. The Claremont remodel and the South and West Branch rebuilds would occupy most of their sites.
So, Parsons said, the rationale is that “the neighborhoods these three libraries are in are residential neighborhoods and these aren’t residential buildings?” “Correct”, said Sage.
Parsons also asked if the City had undertaken any comparable zoning amendments for other buildings or projects. Sage said that the Public Safety Building on Martin Luther King, Jr. Way went through a similar process. “Caution is definitely due on things like this but the zoning ordinance is an involved document”, Parsons said. “It would be wrong to think such an ordinance wouldn’t change over time. (But) everyone here is concerned about it.”
“It’s a very slippery slope”, worried Commissioner Wagley. “I think we’re headed down that slope.” “We’re opening it up to ‘now they can building something and the (zoning) protections are less’.” She noted that the landscaping surrounding the North Berkeley Branch library is an important community amenity, but loosening the zoning rules might allow future expansions—beyond the one currently planned—to encroach into the landscape.
Commissioner Christopher Linvill also asked about the zoning issues. “Variances are discouraged in the (zoning) code?” he said to Sage. “Certainly the spirit of what you’re saying is true”, Sage responded. “Generally ZAB (Zoning Adjustments Board) cannot recommend approval of a variance, particularly when you’re starting from a blank slate”, like constructing a new building. “It’s hard to make an argument that there’s anything unusual about a site that the conditions (of zoning) can’t be met.” Thus, the City has identified changing the zoning for the five library sites as a way to avoid having to pursue variances for the branch renovation plans. “We didn’t think through all the different ways you could do a variance because that wasn’t on the table.”
“We always work with the Zoning Board to make the findings very specifically tailored to the project so it doesn’t create a precedent”, Sage said.
Wagley criticized the City for releasing the Draft EIR on the verge of the winter holidays. “I think we should also have a moratorium on new draft EIR’s issued in the last two weeks of December”, she said. This EIR came out mid-month, right before the holiday season, with the public review and comment period ending in January.
“What sort of access did we provide?” Sage asked, in reply. “It was available electronically on our website and a hard copy was available at all five libraries.” He did not speak to the timing issue.
Commissioner Miriam Ng asked how the seismic condition of the branch libraries was determined. Sage said “the standard for that would be complying with the building code”, which has been updated over the decades since the libraries were built to reflect new understanding about seismic engineering.
“It was assumed all the alternatives (under study in the EIR) would meet current building code”, which would require seismic upgrades. “There was destructive testing” said a representative of the Field Paoli architecture firm, speaking from the audience. “They tested some of the (concrete) block” in the South Branch. “There is a structural report, that discusses the lack of sufficient horizontal ties per current code. It would have to be reinforced, seismically braced, in a renovation scheme.”
“There has been an immense shift in building code” since the buildings were constructed, Commissioner Winkel said. “I don’t think anyone would say the building was unsafe when it was built.” “You can strengthen existing buildings to make them more code compliant.”
“If this (seismic safety) were the issue, you would tear down every house in Berkeley” Commissioner Hall added. “You CAN make an existing building safer.” “They’re done many times in California, and across the country. It can be restored and added onto and made earthquake safe.”
Hall said she didn’t feel that renovation alternatives for the branches had been sufficiently studied. “It doesn’t sound like that was fully looked at.” She said she was “thinking about the bond measure and the expectations of citizens.”
Commissioner Antionette Conteh asked about “the expectation of having the libraries remodeled” in the bond measure and how much each branch project would cost.
Director of Library Services Donna Corbeil spoke from the audience in answer, saying “It’s 26 million dollars out of Measure FF.” She said she didn’t have a detailed breakdown of the projected expenditures per branch with her. “
The program for each of the four (branch) buildings was based on the facilities master plan which was done prior to the Measure” going on the ballot, Corbeil said. “After the bond passed we did use that (the facilities master plan) as a basis”, but “it was really many factors that went into the budget planning.”
“The bond measure did not talk about demolition”, Commissioner Hall observed. “It did give possible alternatives,” said Corbeil (perhaps confusing the brief Measure FF wording itself with the lengthy master plan she was citing).
“For the South Branch they did look at a new branch” in the master plan. “It was mentioned in the Master Plan.” “I think that would be a big debate”, Corbeil went on. “In my mind, we had a facilities master plan and our commitment was to have an extensive public process when the bond was passed.” “I do feel we have done that in the past two years.”
“I do feel the point was to look at what the needs were, then to engage the community once the bonds were passed”, Corbeil concluded.
“There have been situations where the City has made mistakes about buildings needing retrofitting”, Hall said. She pointed to the case of a church in North Berkeley where the City initially wanted to require an extensive and expensive seismic renovation; further study of the construction of the building showed it was sufficiently reinforced to merit a less costly upgrade.
As discussion continued, Winkel raised another issue about the EIR format. While “I understand aggregating the EIR” to include the building replacement issues and the zoning amendment, he questioned having one EIR address both the South and West Branch libraries. “They’re apples and oranges”, he said. “The public would be much better served if there were two separate documents.”
Parsons turned the discussion to the West Branch library. Since the building is a designated City of Berkeley landmark, he asked Sage, “from your conversations with the city attorney”, what would be the role of the Landmarks Commission in reviewing the design of a new building if the old is demolished?
“Your role would be limited to the review of the demolition and that (the) Design Review (Committee) would be in the driver’s seat” on reviewing new construction”, said Sage. “We have a lot of sites in Berkeley where the landmark was demolished years ago and the landmark address is still on the list”, Sage added.
“If we don’t have any role in design review formally, we can all show up as citizens at the Design Review Committee”, Parsons observed.
Winkel noted that in the DEIR there is discussion about a partial demolition / partial rebuild alternative for the South and West branches, but the document concludes that is infeasible because it would be more expensive than the project budget. While “the EIR is not an economic analysis”, Winkel said, “the decision to discard the alternative (in the EIR) was an economic decision.”
Commissioners discussed how to frame their comments for the DEIR process. Commission staff secretary Jay Claiborne said that staff had been noting comments by the Commission and would provide a draft to Commissioners to review, before submitting them to the EIR process. Commissioners seemed to think that would be suitable, rather than a formal motion from the Commission listing specific comments.
Sage added that “our past practice” is to take comments from Commissioners by name and review them in EIRs. In other business, the Commission discussed a proposal to set up a subcommittee to review the list of “pending demolitions” provided by the City, but decided to continue the informal practice of Commissioners reviewing the list on their own, then calling out individual projects of concern.
Pending demolitions of historic buildings has been a point of contention between Commission and City staff in recent years; on a number of occasions City staffers outside the Commission staff have not fully informed the Commission that a potentially historic building is proposed for demolition.
The Commission also discussed the process of reviewing compliance with Mills Act contracts. The State-mandated Mills Act allows owners of designated historic properties to divert some of their property taxes into renovations and repairs of their buildings. The owners must sign a contract with a local jurisdiction—in this case, the City—to qualify for the tax advantages.
Commission staff said that Mills Act contracts in Berkeley currently need review, but the inspections would take more time than there is staff time available. Mills Act contracts generally need to be evaluated every two years, to make sure that the property owner is making the repairs and upgrades specified and complying with the terms of the contract.
Staff suggested that Commissioners might take a role in conducting visits to / inspections of Berkeley Mills Act properties. While the suggestion intrigued the Commission, there were also concerns from Commissioners about the quasi-legal role of the inspections.
“Is the inspection something that acts as a screen(ing) for potential enforcement?” asked Commissioner Linvill. Yes, answered the staff. “I wouldn’t ever go alone” on an inspection Commissioner Olson said, since she is not trained as an architect or inspector. “Even if an architect were to go, they should go with another person”, Chair Parsons said. “I would say we should be going with a City staff person”, Commissioner Wagley added.
In other business, during the staff report period, Claiborne reported that it appeared the City would make the Landmarks staff secretary position permanent, and would do a search for a permanent staff member. Claiborne has been working on a temporary basis since the departure of the last permanent Commission secretary, Terry Blount, for a job in Contra Costa County.
The Commission also discussed a proposal by AT & T to install a new equipment box at The Circle on Marin Avenue. The traffic circle—including the central ornamental fountain, and the surrounding balustrades and steps down to Henry Street—is a City landmark.
Claiborne reported he was working with Public Works staff to explore how an equipment box could be most sensitively sited, particularly to avoid blocking the ornamental balustrades. He said the Public Works staff had been very cooperative and interactive with Landmarks staff, but that the box as proposed by AT & T could “create a terrible intrusion” on the Circle visual character.
He mentioned the possibility of trying to have the box shifted onto one of the side streets, so it would not be within the Circle visual perimeter. Olson suggested that instead of adding a new, second, box AT & T should be asked to consider consolidating old and new equipment in one box.
The LPC then continued with other business, including a presentation on energy efficiency for historic buildings. This correspondent left after the staff report, however.
(Disclosures. The author works for the University of California, Berkeley and is working on the Historic Structures Report for the Pelican Building. The author has also written commentary in earlier issues of the Planet on the dispute over Measure FF funding and the branch libraries. He is neither a party to the lawsuit or a member of any of the community groups related to the Library or the lawsuit.)