Public Comment

The Branch Library Controversy

By Elmer R. Grossman, M.D.
Friday May 27, 2011 - 12:33:00 PM

In the last 50 years Berkeley city politics have richly earned a reputation for an extraordinary intensity, sometimes flavored with personal animosity and a touch of paranoia. The current inflammatory issue is whether two of our branch libraries should be rebuilt from the ground up or rebuilt in large measure but retaining some of the earlier structure because of historical architectural value. Those advocating partial rather than complete renewal argue that Berkeley citizens are the naive victims of a deliberate plot by city officials and staff to hide the fact that total rebuilding was envisioned for the West and South branches. They argue that if we had only known that demolition was a possibility we never would have voted for the bond issue financing the branch improvements. 

As part of their campaign against the proposed rebuild branches, this group hired an architect to make plans for partial rebuilding which can be studied in the 320 page Final Environmental Impact Report on the Berkeley City website. Close reading of the plans and the analysis of them reveals some interesting problems. 

For the West branch the partial rehabilitation proposal involves saving only the 1923 building which is one rather small part of the existing structures. In fact, since it is less than 50% of the total , this plan would be defined as “demolition” under city law. This appears to be in conflict with the preservationists objection to demolition. This 1923 structure, described as rotting, unsafe, and in the wrong place, would be lifted, moved to a somewhat different part of the site, the main entrance closed up, and the interior rebuilt. The extent and nature of the changes fail to match the federal criteria for rehabilitation of architecturally significant structures. The remaining part of the present library would be demolished and replaced by a new, two story addition. In sum, the preservationists plan would save part of the facade of one small part of the existing library, at considerable expense and involving the addition of a second story, a plan presented without advice or input from either library users or library staff. 

The South branch partial rehab proposal saves two large rooms of the present two buildings; less than half of the old structure would be demolished. The plan retains the appearance of some of the front of the building but major changes in the walls, roof and interior space would be required, and a second story would be added. As in the case of the West branch, many of these alterations would fail to meet federal standards for rehabilitation of historical structures. And as at the West branch, this proposal has not had the benefit of the user and staff opinions incorporated into the total rebuilding plans. 

So we have the situation of a group arguing that major rebuilding of two branch libraries should be held hostage to saving the (somewhat altered) appearance of a wall at West Berkeley which, by the way, has not been visible for decades, and part of an exterior wall and portions of interior walls at South Berkeley. Despite the reality that over half of one branch and just under half of the other would be demolished, the preservationists argue that their plan avoids “demolition.” 

Those of us who value and want to preserve old buildings can appreciate the enthusiasm of the preservationists, but some of us oppose efforts such as this which can save so little at such potential expense. The city council’s recent unanimous vote to continue with the planned complete replacement of these two library branches is welcome news.