In an early morning extension of their April 26 meeting the Berkeley Council moved forward with controversial plans to demolish and rebuild the South and West Berkeley branch libraries.
However, in somewhat of a surprise turn, at the suggestion of Councilmember Kriss Worthington, the Council stripped at least one controversial element from the proposals.
Some Council members also verbally clashed with members of the audience who had waited for up to five hours for the item to come up, with debate during the public testimony period erupting between at least two Council members and public speakers.
Four of the Council members—Anderson, Capitelli, Maio and Moore—had earlier gone down to the front steps of old City Hall to participate in a pep rally by library demolition / rebuild supporters. The first three spoke, essentially telling the small crowd of demolition supporters that they agreed with the goals of the rally.
Then they returned upstairs to participate in the meeting that had the “quasi-judicial” function of reviewing the zoning amendments and use permit proposals pertaining to the South and West branch libraries.
While it finally approved the zoning amendment that would make it easier to build the proposed new branch library structures, the Council added, on Worthington’s motion with Wengraf’s second, a qualification that "This ordinance shall apply only to the four neighborhood branch library projects funded by Measure FF."
Previous language would have applied the standards to all five Berkeley Public Library sites and continued the relaxed zoning standards into perpetuity. The wording change limits the zoning alterations to only the four projects the City proposes to fund with bond money from the voter approved Measure FF in 2008.
Two concerns which the amendment apparently addressed were that the zoning changes as originally proposed would apply to the library sites in perpetuity, beyond the currently planned renovations, and would also loosen the development review procedures not only for the four branch library sites but also the historic Central Library, in the Downtown area where a majority of the Council has promoted intense new development and tall buildings.
Under the wording of Worthington’s motion the relaxed zoning standards would “sunset” after the currently proposed branch renovations or rebuilds are done. No major projects are currently proposed for the Central Library.
On the other two library items on the agenda, however, the Council majority apparently stuck with the plan to proceed with demolition of the South and West branches by setting public hearings on the Zoning Adjustments Board and Landmarks Preservation Commission actions, rather than remanding the agenda items back to the two Commissions.
Worthingtonmade a motion to hold new public hearings on the two items to “wipe out any mistakes or any illegal things that were done…and then the City can address this and follow all the procedures as scrupulously as humanly possible.” The motion failed for lack of a second.
However the Council then voted to set public hearings on the demolition of the South and West branch libraries.
Before the vote, Councilmember Maio commented, “I don't understand where people who are opposing moving ahead on these libraries think we're going to go…It's time to look to the future. If there were mistakes made or there was somehow people felt that they were misled, is that a reason to have no libraries of modern construction for the children, seniors, disabled, people in West Berkeley? I don't think so.”
“And I really have to say I don't understand the continued opposition to our libraries, which are our treasures. I simply don't get it.”
Judith Epstein from Concerned Library Users, which has sued the City over the use of Measure FF funds and the zoning amendment, came to the podium during the public comment session following the vote to speak to Maio’s remarks.
“Councilmember Maio, you mischaracterized what the opposition to the use of Measure FF money for demolitions is”, Epstein said. “If it is something that as you say you truly do not understand, I would be more than happy to discuss it with you.”
“I have seen your writings. I understand what you are saying. I don't understand the motive,” Maio retorted.
As Epstein started to answer, Councilmember Wozniak interrupted with a motion to adjourn the meeting in the middle of her public comment time.
“Could we please have courtesy for everyone?” said Worthington.
“The motives are that the voters passed Measure FF based on the language of renovation,” Epstein said. “Measure FF passed by 750 votes and it may not have passed at all had you used the language of demolition. The voters have the right to be informed about what their money is being used for and what projects to support.”
“In the same election, Measure LL failed; 56% of the voters voted against Measure LL which would have weakened our landmarks ordinance. These are precisely the voters that would have voted against Measure FF had it specified demolitions. And I do remain open to talking to you,” Epstein concluded.
Before the vote and this exchange, the Council heard public testimony from several individuals who spoke to concerns about the zoning amendment and the proposed branch library demolitions. The Council limited public comment on all three items under consideration to three minutes, total, per audience member.
“It’s a late hour,” said Mayor Bates, explaining the testimony restrictions.
“You were the one who scheduled it late,” someone in the audience said.
It was about midnight when the Council decided to take the public testimony on three agenda items together: the zoning amendment that would change the zoning for Berkeley’s five public library sites to enable development there to proceed with a use permit, not variances; the decision of the Zoning Adjustments Board to grant use permits for the South and West branch demolitions and rebuilds; the decisions of the Landmarks Preservation Commission not to suspend the demolition permit for the West Branch (a City of Berkeley Structure of Merit) or initiate the South Branch (a landmark eligible historic structure) for landmark consideration.
“The correct remedy is actually to remand these issues back to the original bodies,” said Judith Epstein, who was the first speaker. “I'll explain why.”
“The city attorney has consistently enforced a policy requiring the recusal of any member of a quasi-judicial body who expresses an opinion about a land use matter before voting on it. Carole Kennerly was required to recuse herself from her temporary appointment to LPC [Landmarks Preservation Commission] because on March 2nd she sent a letter to the Planning Commission saying, and these are her words, ‘I strongly support the demolition and renovation plans for the south and west branch libraries.’ These were exactly the issues she was to vote on.”
“That letter was referred to the city manager by Councilmember Anderson in your presence so you were all aware of it. You were all aware of the very strong opinion that she had expressed. The error to appoint Ms. Kennerly may have been unintentional but the process was tainted. Ms. Kennerly was an active participant in the LPC ZAB decision and she made some of the motions.”
(Kennerly was a one-meeting replacement appointee to the Landmarks Preservation Commission at the April 14 meeting when the LPC, in a marathon five-public hearing joint session with the Zoning Adjustments Board, acted on the Library demolition proposals.)
Lori Kossowsky spoke next. She told the council that that Max Anderson, her councilmember, had called her in what she described as an undisclosed ex-parte discussion on an issue that would later come before the Council.
Andersonwas “really yelling at me about the people who filed the lawsuit and he just went on and on and I am not part of the lawsuit. He was bullying me…”
“Bullying!” Anderson said from the dais.
“Yeah, when you don’t let me get a word in edgewise, that’s what it’s called,” Kossowsky retorted. “You’re not supposed to be interrupting me” during public testimony, she added.
Anderson, Kossowsky said, “would not stop” when he called her to complain about the lawsuit.
“I have trusted Max and have been proud to have him as my representative, but this was uncalled for…and not provoked. And it’s been clear that you have already made up your mind from the library projects because of this phone call.”
“I hope Max and the other people who show poor behavior will tell the truth about what is really happening regarding the libraries…Please, I am asking that all the lies and bullying from those who disagree with the lawsuit stop immediately.”
“Thank you, next please,” said Mayor Bates.
Christopher Lien, from the Le Conte neighborhood (one neighborhood east of the South Branch library) came to the podium to describe a neighborhood meeting at which “everyone who showed up spoke about the library issue.”
“It’s something that really resonated in our neighborhood and is something that is creating a lot of interest and a lot of concern. Our primary concern is that we feel that we were lied to. The language on the library bond, Measure FF, makes it very clear that it is for renovation.”
“The citizens in Le Conte, and other neighborhoods as well, expected that if they voted for this funding, this 26 million, that those libraries would be preserved as much as possible and that you would be preserving and protecting those historic features. Demolition of the south branch and the west branch are clearly outside the scope of this bond measure, and so the bond funds should not be used for demolition.”
“I remember when I lived on Julia Street” said the next speaker “and my son was ten years old, walking over to the south branch library many times.”
“And I am concerned about the demolition funds and where they come from because we know the general fund is very constrained as we heard many times tonight.”
(Councilmember Worthington had previously mentioned that the City Manager had found general fund money to pay for demolishing the two library buildings. This would allow the City to avoid spending Measure FF funds on the actual demolition, but the bond monies would still be applied to constructing new buildings on the cleared sites).
“And I remember when we lined up here last June for things that were being cut, Willard Pool, and I am just very afraid that if a million dollars, or whatever it takes to demolition the south and the west branch, will come out of these restricted funds and we're all concerned for the kids of the city and the programs that wouldn't be there, and so we really need to be wise in our use of funds.”
“And certainly the refurbishing of both the south and the west branch is an option, and you doesn't have to be concerned with the money from the $26 million (Measure FF money). I'm sure there's plenty of funds there to do what needs to be done to have fine libraries for the children, and us adults, too, who love to read in the future.”
“Under the Zoning Adjustments Board decision, the treatment of the library branches will be separate but not equal,” with the South and West branches suffering, said Gene Bernardi, the next speaker. Her father was an architect with the famed Bay Area firm of Wurster, Bernardi, and Emmons.
She praised the Todd Jersey alternative plans submitted by Concerned Library Users for renovating the historic portions of the South and West branch libraries and constructing new additions, and criticized the overall character and “ticky tacky intrusions” in the City’s design for an all-new West Branch Library.
Peter Warfield, from the Library Users Association group, objected to the “greasing of the skids, essentially, for the demolition of two libraries…like some of the other speakers, I suggest you send the decision of ZAB and LPC back.”
(Disclosure: the author has written extensively on the library issues, including both news stories and opinion pieces, in the past year. He does not believe Measure FF allowed demolitions. He is not a member of Concerned Library Users.)