Public Comment

Demolition of Branch Libraries – Not What the Voters Approved

By Gale Garcia
Tuesday February 15, 2011 - 05:46:00 PM
The stone medallion which decorates the front of the West Berkeley branch library.
Gail Garcia
The stone medallion which decorates the front of the West Berkeley branch library.

I grew up loving Berkeley’s historic architecture. Until age nine, I lived about seven blocks from the West Berkeley Branch Library. I viewed this Classical Revival structure fondly every time I went down University Avenue. Its stone medallions, representing the curved pages of an open book, seemed to invite one into the joy of reading and the magic of books. How appropriate for a library! 

Some time during the 1970s the West Berkeley Branch Library was desecrated with blocky additions. When I first saw the renovation, I couldn’t believe that anyone could do such insensitive alterations to a stately and classical structure. 

In 2004, there was a plan to restore the historic 1923 portion of the building, move it forward on the lot and enlarge the back. But the proposal was not funded and the plan was dropped. 

Now, in 2011, funding is available for just this sort of project, because voters approved Measure FF in 2008, providing $26 million to “renovate, expand, and make seismic and access improvements” at Berkeley’s four branch libraries.  

Despite the clear and simple mandate from Measure FF, the Board of Library Trustees’ plan is to use the Measure FF money for a brand new modern library to be built after the historic structure is expunged from the site. The South Berkeley Branch Library is slated for a similar fate. 

A matter of social justice 

I participated in two petition drives to preserve Berkeley’s Landmarks Preservation Ordinance. I gathered hundreds of signatures over several weeks out on the street, and talked to over a thousand people during the process. 

Two of my favorite spots to gather signatures were near the Ashby BART station and near University Avenue in West Berkeley. I do not recall ever hearing a resident in these areas say that they wanted Berkeley’s old buildings knocked down for modern new buildings, while claims to this effect were not uncommon in wealthier areas. Dozens of African American residents told me that they felt that their neighborhoods were regarded as targets for demolition. 

Is it therefore disheartening that the Trustees’ plan is to demolish the South and West Branch libraries, while simply renovating, expanding and making seismic and access improvements – exactly what the voters approved in 2008 – to the North Branch and Claremont libraries. What is wrong with this picture? 

Berkeley’s “public process” is a sham 

The vast majority of residents never attend city meetings. Those of us who do, but aren’t part of Berkeley’s in-crowd know that the decisions have generally been made in advance, and the subsequent process is a sham conducted so that insiders can claim that there was a lengthy public process involving many public meetings. 

The process for the plan to demolish the South and West Branch Libraries is the poster child for this phenomenon. 

In 2007 there was a top-down plan to move the South Branch Library into the Ed Roberts complex on Adeline Street. Neighbors formed a group called Save Our Library (SOL) to advocate for the preservation and improvement of the South Berkeley Branch Library. 

The Library Board of Trustees hired a firm, Hatcheul Tabernik & Associates (HTA), to survey the community’s needs. It determined that there would be a favorable response to the move. How it came to this decision is completely unknown. 

SOL members therefore did their own survey. They stood outside the South Branch Library for many days and asked people how they felt about the potential move, only to learn that very few people had even heard about it. SOL members found only one person who had actually been interviewed by HTA. They ultimately gathered over 600 signatures asking to keep the library (and historic building) on Russell Street. 

The Board of Library Trustees completely ignored this grassroots effort to save the South Branch Library. Just two years later, a “public process” was conducted to “show” that a majority of residents wanted a new library. Those who disagreed were simply ignored (see Steve Finacom’s commentary, “Measure FF and Branch Library Demolitions” in the December 15, 2010 issue of the Planet). 

The planned demolition of the West Berkeley Branch library is even more outrageous. The West Branch is a designated a City of Berkeley Structure of Merit. Furthermore, the 2008 Berkeley Public Library Branch Libraries Facilities Master Plan (FMP) recommended “restor[ing] the original 1923 branch façade and the lovely interior historic details”. The Berkeley City Council decided to put Measure FF on the ballot – based upon the findings of the FMP! Why is demolition even being considered? 

It’s not nice to fool the electorate 

The voters certainly were not informed in 2008 that demolition was part of the Trustees’ plan. The text of Measure FF did not reveal it. The City Attorney’s Impartial Analysis of Measure FF said “Current plans for renovation include restoration and refurbishment of historic features at the branch libraries as part of any renovation”, while saying nothing about demolition.  

An attendee of the October 14, 2009 Library Board of Trustees meeting told me that one of the trustees stated that they had always planned to demolish the buildings; they just didn’t put it in the bond. The official recording of this meeting mysteriously trails off before this statement was made. 

Why was the critical piece of information about the planned demolitions left out of the bond language? It seems obvious to me that the bond measure would very likely have failed if the truth were told. Then $26 million would not beavailable – no millions would be available – to renovate any of the branch libraries.  

The citizens of Berkeley voted to support funding to“renovate, expand, and make seismic and access improvements” at the four branch libraries. And that is exactly what should be done.