In 2008, Berkeley voters passed Measure FF “to renovate, expand, and make seismic and access improvements at four neighborhood branch libraries.” In his impartial analysis of the measure, the City Attorney wrote, “Current plans for renovation include restoration and refurbishment of historic features at the branch libraries as part of any renovation.”
Yet, sometime after the passage of Measure FF, plans to demolish and rebuild the South and West Branch Libraries surfaced. Both of these libraries have historic features, and their proposed demolitions triggered an Environmental Impact Report – a public process required under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
Few people would claim that the branch libraries aren’t in need of improvement, in particular, the South and West Branches, which have been historically neglected by the City of Berkeley. While the Claremont and North Branch Libraries have been carefully and beautifully maintained, the South and West Branches have not fared so well. Ironically, the City’s pattern of poor treatment of these libraries is being used as reason to demolish them. In an excellent commentary in the February 16, 2011 edition of the Berkeley Daily Planet, Gale Garcia questioned the social justice of neglecting buildings in less affluent neighborhoods, which leads to the idea that demolition is the only viable alternative. Sometimes it’s not.
In fact, CEQA includes a public process that provides for the submission of alternatives for projects having significant and unavoidable environmental impacts. Along with many citizens and organizations, Concerned Library Users (CLU) participated in this public process. CLU had already filed a lawsuit against the City for the misuse of Measure FF funds and a CEQA violation; the latter cause of action was settled. As part of the environmental review process, CLU submitted partial preservation alternatives for the South and West Branch projects, which would, unlike the City’s designs, satisfy Measure FF and lessen environmental impacts. CLU hired preservation architect Todd Jersey, who saved the Richmond Plunge, to create these two new designs. These designs save and renovate only the most historic portions of the South and West Branch libraries, while adding new construction to each for a Children’s Room, a Teen Room, and extra space for computers, patrons, and staff. These plans satisfy Universal Design practices for ADA accessibility and would meet all current seismic safety standards.
The West Branch Library
Mr. Jersey’s design for the West Branch would save only the 1923 adult reading room, which would be restored and moved closer to the sidewalk to make room for all new construction on the lot behind it. This design has some similarities to the City’s 2003 plan for the West Branch, which the City abandoned when funding fell through. The restored adult reading room would be about 80% larger than the one proposed in the City’s new plans. Like the City’s designs, there will new space for computers and a Teen Room. Perhaps the most enchanting element of Mr. Jersey’s design is the circular Children’s Room surrounded by a garden of redwoods, two of which would be destroyed if the City’s plans are implemented.
In all, Mr. Jersey’s design for the West Branch would be about 2000 square feet larger than the one proposed by the City, including a larger area for browsing. While both designs have second floors, the City’s would be only 700 square feet, and it would be not open to the public. One notable difference between the two plans is the location of the meeting room and the room for the Berkeley Reads program. In the City’s plans, these rooms would be on the first floor. They are not dedicated spaces and could be used by library patrons to accommodate overflow, when not otherwise in use. By contrast, Mr. Jersey’s designs place the meeting room and the Berkeley Reads program on the second floor, giving them permanent dedicated space. The extra space for patrons on the first floor can accommodate future growth, while the City’s plans only accommodate the current level of service.
The South Branch Library
Similarly, Mr. Jersey’s designs for the South Branch would save only a small portion of the original library and use the lot in a more efficient way, resulting in a larger structure, including an attached Tool Library. The current Adult and Children’s Reading Rooms would be saved and restored. The dropped ceilings in these rooms would be removed, and the circular skylights would again be the major design features. Circular lighting would accompany the skylights, and these design features would be extended into the new construction. Like the City’s design, Mr. Jersey’s design includes comparable new space for computers, a Children’s Room, a Teen Room, and a meeting room; the Tool Library would no longer be separate. However in Mr. Jersey’s design, there would be a second floor above the Tool Library for storage, a mechanical room, and a private staff lounge. The library as a whole would be 900 square feet larger than the one proposed by the City.
By saving some parts of the old structures, the partial preservations designed submitted by CLU in the CEQA public process are more environmentally responsible. Furthermore, the South Branch design would be considerably less expensive, and the cost of the West Branch design would not exceed that of the City’s plan. There is one major difference, however. Measure FF funds could pay for all of CLU’s projects. The City Attorney has publicly stated that Measure FF funds could not be used for the demolitions called for in the City’s designs. Donna Corbeil, the Director of Library Services, said that the General Fund would be tapped to pay for the demolitions. In these tough economic times, it’s reasonable to expect that other programs or services will have to be cut to pay for the demolitions. So the City’s plans are pricey indeed.
The City is currently in the process of preparing a final Environmental Impact Report, after which the City Council will decide the fate of the South and West Branch projects. Experienced Council watchers expect for a majority of the Council to reject the designs submitted by CLU.
Dr. Judith Epstein is a member of Concerned Library Users.