Unravelling the Library Tangle

By Becky O'Malley
Friday June 24, 2011 - 02:02:00 PM

Berkeley’s branch libraries are back in the spotlight. I imagine Planet readers are just about as tired of the topic as we are, but architect Todd Jersey’s recent apologia has brought the question to the fore once again.

Mr. Jersey is a very fine architect, but he’s not much of a lawyer, it seems. He made a completely appropriate professional decision to create a demonstration plan, more of a sketch really, of possible alternative plans for rebuilding the branches. Then in his recent letter he says “Obviously I failed to understand the amount of community investment in the work done by the other firms and furthermore, that in a lawsuit, there really is no opportunity for discourse.”

Well, no. Despite the bad press they seem to be getting lately, lawsuits exist to provide a structured opportunity for discourse when informal discourse has failed. They do a reasonably good job of cleaning up messes made by sloppy drafting of legal agreements of all kinds. What Mr. Jersey and others fail to understand is that the Concerned Library Users suit has little to do with architecture and everything to do with process, legal process. 

The suit has already made one significant contribution to orderly legal process without even going to court. The city of Berkeley conceded, pretty quickly, that it was a mistake to amend the city’s zoning law to allow alterations and demolitions to library properties with only a use permit, instead of with the civic supervision offered by requiring a variance as is currently the case. These are technical terms, undoubtedly irritating to the average architect, but very important in terms of ensuring public control over the maintenance of public treasures like libraries. Also, equally significant, the city agreed to include the proposed change in the environmental impact process as it should have been in the first place. 

All Todd Jersey’s sketchy plans added to the mix was a proof of concept, a demonstration that city staff’s contention that there were no reasonable alternatives to demolition was at best disingenuous, at worst deceptive. He didn’t need to apologize for that. 

The big legal issue is still on the table, and it has nothing to do with Jersey. That’s the claim that Measure FF was deliberately designed to conceal plans to demolish two of the four branch libraries under the guise of renovating them. 

The language seemed clear enough: "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 the rub is that Measure FF was on the city’s ballot at the same time as a measure intended to gut Berkeley’s Landmark Preservation Ordinance, which was soundly defeated. If those same voters had understood demolition was in the cards with FF, it would most likely have lost as well. 

What’s at stake is public confidence in the veracity of ballot measures, a topic which has become more important as budgets get tighter everywhere. Even in Berkeley. The sad fate of our public swimming pools might in part be a reflection of voter doubt engendered by what looks to many like a bait-and-switch deal in Measure FF. And now Warm Pool users are justifiably apprehensive that the Berkeley Unified School district plans to demolish the existing pool and never get around to building another one. Once public trust is lost, it’s hard to regain. 

This dispute is not about architecture, or about historic preservation, or about climate change. I’ve never taken a public position on the merits of the branches in question, but I do believe that it’s been demonstrated time and again that the greenest building is the one that already exists, if you factor in the energy embodied in old construction. My colleague Richard Brenneman did a great job of collecting the proof on his blog, so I don’t need to restate it all here. 

It looks to me—though I’m no expert—that the repeated assertions in these pages by my architect friend and library activist Chris Adams that the 1960s-era South Branch has deteriorated past redemption could be true. Many low-budget and even shoddy modernist constructs from that era used novel materials and methods that haven’t stood the test of time and they are now unsalvageable messes. On the other hand, buildings from the 1920s, when the West Branch was built, seem to have used better materials and better construction methods, so it’s conceivable that much of this one could be salvaged with environmental benefits. 

An unfortunate byproduct of the overly aggressive attempt by some library activists to discredit Concerned Library Users has been aspersions cast on Todd Jersey’s outstanding work helping Richmond save its historic municipal plunge. (See reader comments on this Berkeleyside article for an example.) 

A substantial portion of his apology is devoted to refuting these baseless charges, which should not be necessary. After I got wind of them, I made a point of checking extensively with Richmond sources, reading about the Plunge in other publications, and visiting it myself. 

It’s a triumph, a gorgeous unalloyed success. All of the historic beauty has been retained, and at the same time it’s super-green, and has been winning all kinds of awards. Critical claims of cost overruns fail to take into account design changes as the work progressed—change orders are always expensive. 

Berkeley critics pointed to a few harsh words between Jersey and Richmond Councilmember Tom Butt when they disagreed over a design feature. As much as I’m one of Tom’s fans, he would surely agree that he occasionally gets a bit….over-excited… in the course of a heated exchange of views. It’s time to put the canards against Todd Jersey to rest, and some apologies from others might even be in order. 

There’s a Solomonic compromise which could come out of pre-trial settlement efforts and make a trial unnecessary. The South Branch could be completely rebuilt after demolition, but the West Branch could be restored as promised in Measure FF, using a fully-specified version of Todd Jersey’s plans or others. 

One more suggestion for inclusion in a possible settlement: why do Berkeley’s branch libraries still have only geographic names? If money is an issue in a possible compromise, participants should be aware that opportunities for trading naming rights for financial support are being lost and could help the calculus. 

How about calling a restored West Branch the Power Bar West Branch Library (if PB is still in town)? The Fantasy West Branch would be an even better name. Or if those seem too commercial, how about the Saul Zaentz West Branch, or the John and Helen Meyer Library, after Berkeley business people who’ve had a substantial beneficial impact in West Berkeley and might want to contribute to this good cause? 

On the other hand, perhaps it’s better to follow the custom of naming public buildings after civic leaders. In that vein, and in honor of her 100th birthday, the South Branch could become the Maudelle Shirek Library—Maudelle has been a stalwart champion of public libraries throughout her career. Contributions to rebuilding the library would be a wonderful way for her many fans to honor her. Who would like to get the ball rolling on this one?\ 


P.S. For an excellent dissection of how bond issues can be misused, see this article by Ellen Cushing in this week's East Bay Express.