Public Comment

Library Obstruction. If It’s Not Racism, What is It?

By Christopher Adams
Friday April 29, 2011 - 08:05:00 AM

There is always a risk in politics that arguments get personal and hurtful. But there is a difference between small town politics and national politics. Donald Trump can say false and abhorrent things about the President; nasty criticism is part of our national political tradition, and a thick skin is part of the job description for a national politician. At the small town level, not so much. The Planet editor is right to call to task those who made what to her ears were accusations of racism against opponents of the current plans for demolishing the South and West branch libraries and building new ones. And yet to someone who has followed the library’s plans for many years, it is hard not to wonder what can motivate the opponents other than something as irrational and emotional as racism. The closest national dispute that comes to mind is the opposition to building an Islamic Center near the site of the World Trade Center. 

In that case the opponents of the Islamic Center tried to use New York’s historic preservation laws to prevent demolition of a building on the site of the proposed center that was previously ignored. No one, including the NYC Landmarks Commission, was fooled, and the opponents have now become overt in their blatantly religious and ethnic prejudice. Here in Berkeley opponents of the replacement libraries for the South and West branches first clothed themselves in historic preservation, a particularly odd position in the case of the West Branch, whose “historic” façade has been hidden for almost 40 years. Failing to get more than two votes for their position before Berkeley’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, they now have started a lawsuit based on accusations that the Measure FF ballot language, which provided the bond money for the four branch libraries, was somehow deceptive. The only effect that this will have is to force a stop to the South and West branch projects while a court battle ensues, something that could keep South and West Berkeley without adequate libraries for years or perhaps forever. I don’t say it is racism, but I am at a loss to figure out what motivation these people have. 

Continuing this argument the Planet editor then suggests that “If there’s any history of racism to be uncovered in this discussion, historians might ask why the existing South and West branch buildings were allowed to deteriorate …That was the true racism…” 

This is a serious charge, and playing “historian” I will try to answer. 

The South Branch was opened in 1961and was the first new library building in Berkeley since the North Branch was built in 1936. Its modernist residential style was applauded at the time, but the building has not held up well. The concrete floor slabs with hidden heating pipes, much used in the 1960s, cannot be cut; the low wooden ceilings have no attic space above them. Thus there is simply no space for installing computer and electrical conduits to fit the library for current needs. The floor plan of the library is too crowded with additional bookshelves and equipment to meet the codes for disabled access which have been adopted since the 1960s. The concrete block walls, something of a 1960s cliché, turn out to be seismically dangerous. The aforementioned wooden ceilings are inadequately attached to these walls, adding more seismic danger. After the building was complete Berkeley received a grant to open a Tool Lending Library, which was site specific to South Berkeley. It is housed in temporary, trailer-like structures outside the main building which take up any expansion room on the branch’s small site. 

Within its limited resources for maintenance and capital improvements the library has tried to make the South Branch work. It is false to suggest that the library staff or its governing trustees allowed it to deteriorate, and it verges on libel to suggest that they were motivated by racism. If the Planet editor had attended any of the eight meetings held with the community to discuss plans for the new building, she would know that options which preserved all or parts of the existing building were very carefully examined and ultimately rejected. But neither she nor the lawsuit opponents to its replacement ever attended any meetings as far as I can tell. 

The history of West is very different. The West Branch was built in 1923 and expanded in 1973. In the process of expansion its façade was covered over with what everyone now agrees was a mistaken attempt at modernism. In 2003 the library staff and trustees commissioned a complete renovation of West, including a restoration of its original façade, in the hopes that it would be funded by a state bond issue. The plan was in many ways similar to the sketches now being presented by opponents of the library branch replacements, and it was estimated to cost over $14 million. The plan had to be shelved when the state money did not materialize. Based on cost estimation techniques used by UC and other public institutions I calculate that the 2003 estimate would be $19 million today, or almost three quarters of the entire amount of the Measure FF bonds. Because the architect who produced the sketches claims otherwise, it is worth examining some more history. In the case of the Richmond plunge, which the Planet editor cites, this architect apparently obtained the commission by alleging his plan would cost only $3 million, significantly less than other plans then being considered. The final cost to Richmond with his plan: $8 million. I don’t think the library staff and its trustees should be risking our bond money on this kind of a gamble. 

I regret that the Planet editor thinks the opponents of the South and West branch library replacements have been unjustly accused of racism. I am appalled that she then accuses the library staff and trustees of the same thing, without as far as I can tell having paid any attention to what has been going on for the last several years. I am totally sympathetic to the residents of South and West Berkeley, who have been paying attention and want their new branch libraries now. 


Christopher Adams is an architect and city planner and a former president of the Berkeley Public Library Foundation and Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association .