Public Comment

Incompetence, Corruption or Both?

By Peter Schorer
Tuesday April 19, 2011 - 09:50:00 AM

On the evening of Thursday, April 14, I witnessed yet another example of the outrageous incompetence and/or corruption of some of our City agencies, in this case, the Zoning Adjustment Board (ZAB) and the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC).

The occasion of the meeting was the potential approval of the proposed demolition of the South and West Branch Libraries so that new Libraries could be constructed, and the potential approval of the Use Permits for said construction. What’s wrong with that, you ask? What’s wrong is that Measure FF, which was passed in 2008 and provides the funding for alterations to the libraries, mandated the RENOVATION of the existing Library structures – not demolition. The exact wording of the Measure was:

“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?

There was not a word in the Measure about demolition, and yet somehow, the members of the Board of Library Trustees (BOLT) took it upon themselves to ignore the wording of the Measure and the members of the public who pointed out the wording of the Measure ­– and instead to do what they damn well pleased, which was to renovate the North Branch and Claremont libraries, while demolishing the two flatland libraries. It is hard to believe that this is legal. 

(I should mention here that a group called Concerned Library Users has sued over the legality of this use of the funds. They also hired a preservation architect, Todd Jersey, to draw alternate plans for the libraries which are far more inspiring than the BOLT plans, and in the case of the South Branch, are likely to be much less expensive). 

But let us try to figure out what is going on. And let us, out of fairness, attempt to give the proponents of demolition the benefit of the doubt, and not mention the “C” word (see title of this article). Let us assume, then, that they are just not paying attention to Measure FF, because I find it hard to believe that if they actually read it, they would be unable to understand such a clearly written Measure. One of the proponents, Linda Schacht, Capital Chair of the Berkeley Public Library Foundation, is a former journalist and a very accomplished woman. (Just enter her name in Google and prepare to be impressed.) 

Let’s take a look at some of the things the demolition proponents said at Thursday’s meeting. 

Several of them got up and gave tear-jerking accounts of how their kids use the current Branches several times a week, but now, if the Branches are renovated, their poor kids will have to go without their books and hence be unable to continue their success at school. I ask you to contemplate the bizarre absurdity of this argument, because whether the Branches are demolished and rebuilt or renovated, the kids are going to be without the use of the Branches for however long it takes to complete the construction! I would bet that it would take just as long, or possibly longer, to demolish and rebuild, as it would to renovate. 

One speaker said that, because the West and South Branch Library buildings are currently in bad shape, that proves they cannot be renovated, and therefore should be demolished. In other words, only buildings that do not need renovation should be renovated! 

A member of the LPC (remember, that’s the Landmarks Preservation Commission) said that personally he couldn’t see why all these old buildings should be preserved. This elicited an understandable outburst from one member of the audience, who shouted, “Then get the hell off the Commission!” 

And then there was the packet that contained copies of communications that residents sent to the two commissions. These packets were distributed at the meeting. I personally wrote an email strongly opposing demolition. Yet it appears that neither my email, nor any other emails opposing demolition were included in the packet! Hmmm. 

Let me say that there were speakers who argued against the demolition, including two on the LPC. Some were very eloquent. They asked if it was really proper to consider demolition when Measure FF specifically mandated renovation. 

The votes for demolition and approval of the Use Permits for the West Branch went through with only two nays on the LPC, and two abstentions on ZAB. By the time I left the meeting shortly after that vote, I could not believe that college-educated people in Berkeley, California, including officials on two important commissions and members of various Library organizations could totally ignore the language of a Measure passed by the voters of Berkeley. 

So what is the explanation? Before attempting to answer that question, let me point out that bond measures have become a very shady business in Berkeley. The School Board’s Measures H and I, which were approved last November, asked the voters for over $250 million to fund various “education” projects. Measure H was for vaguely specified “maintenance” projects, and Measure I was for vaguely specified construction projects, most of which seemed to be sports related. One of these projects involves the unnecessary demolition of the Berkeley High Gym, which noted architects have said could have been preserved. 

The School Board, too, has a record of ignoring voters’ wishes. In 2000, Berkeley voters passed a bond issue (Measure AA) for $116.5 million which promised new classrooms at Berkeley High School. That money was spent for a variety of purposes, but no new classrooms were built. And like BOLT, the School Board suppressed dissenting opinions. At its final meeting before approving the plan for one of the projects, namely, a hardball field in South Berkeley that neighbors had been fighting for nearly 20 years, the Board prevented speakers who opposed the field from being allowed to speak. This was almost certainly in violation of the Brown Act. 

Now it is easy to see what drove the School Board. Measure I promised a feeding frenzy for local construction interests. Architects, engineers and contractors contributed well over $100,000 to the campaigns for H and I. 

There is a Pulitzer Prize waiting for the journalist who is able to blow the lid off the Machine that is Berkeley politics. Until then, we can only speculate. The key question for you, the reader, is: what made two city commissions and various important persons connected with the Libraries so willing to violate the language and the intent of a voter-approved measure? Were there cash payouts? Were jobs offered to those who went along? Was it purely a matter of a willingness to do whatever the Machine demanded? But why was the Machine so determined to demolish the Branches? 

The answer may lie in the identity of the supreme leader of the Machine, Mayor Tom Bates. I have often heard it said that if a building already exists in Berkeley, he would like it demolished and replaced with something much larger, preferably a big box. Whatever doubts I might have had about the veracity of those words were dispelled when I learned that the mayor announced at a Livable Berkeley party on April 14th, "If I had it my way, downtown Berkeley would look like Loni Hancock 's hometown, Manhattan!" 

Peter Schorer is a resident of South Berkeley near Downtown.