A lengthy and involved meeting of the Berkeley Landmarks Preservation Commission on Thursday, July 7, included discussion of two projects proposed at landmark homes where neighbors have been at odds with owners, as well as the announcement that the level of staffing for the Commission will be reduced due to City budget cutbacks.
The two controversial projects involve three of Berkeley’s most important historic homes. One is the Volney Moody House on Le Roy Avenue, a clinker brick mansion that was praised and widely publicized at the height of Berkeley Arts and Crafts era for its design and sympathetic integration with the landscape. The building, shorn of its ornate upper floor exterior in a 1950s remodel, has been used since 1960 a private residence hall for the California Marching Band.
The other property includes two landmark 19th century Victorian houses built by the Bartlett family at 2201-2205 Blake Street, in the current Le Conte neighborhood. The houses, which until earlier this year had been owned by just two families for more than a century and a quarter, are regarded as among the most intact and impressive of Berkeley’s surviving Victorian-era residences.
The Commission continued a public hearing, and discussion, on a proposal to revamp the landscaping at 1755 Le Roy Avenue, now known as Tellefsen Hall and home to about 44 California Marching Band members.
Tellefsen Hall owners who were absent from the last Commission discussion attended this month and spoke to the Commission in support of the proposal. They were countered by immediate neighbors who were critical of some of the landscaping plans and the general upkeep and behavior at the residence hall, and by some Commissioners who were skeptical of aspects of the project.
Designers for the project, Masalo Kamelani and Yoonju Chang of MaYo Landscape Architects, returned to the Commission to discuss revised plans that had been vetted onsite by a subcommittee of the LPC.
Kamelani described the subcommittee visit as “a very positive and proactive meeting”. Neighbors objected, however, to the fact that they weren’t invited to attend as they had been promised. Commission staff and Commissioners said there had been in a mix-up in tracking who should notify the neighbors, and apologized.
Kamelani said that revised plans for the project, which is intended to re-landscape much of the creekside garden south of the main house, include removal of a proposed firepit and salvaging a rustic stone wall for reuse on the site or recycling to other construction projects.
“We’re going to try to reuse every rock we can salvage from the rock wall,” she said.
Three members of the Tellefsen Hall Board of Directors spoke. Ben Bachelder asked the LPC to “approve the design as it has been modified by the landscape architects.” Speaking to concerns expressed by neighbors that the new landscape will intensify outdoor noise and late night partying, he said “it’s kind of a pre-emptive assumption” that there will be “too much use by the students.”
He said the Board was willing to work with immediate neighbors on putting a fence between the two properties and wanted to make the garden area “a more useful space for the students.”
What will the students be able to do in the renovated garden that they don’t do there now, asked Commissioner Paul Schwartz. “It’s a basketball court that isn’t very functional,” Bachelder said. The project would also remove a small lawn that doesn’t grow well, and fix retaining walls.
“Will there be an intensification of use, specifically, and noise? That definitely seems a bone of contention with the neighborhood,” said Commission Chair Gary Parsons.
“It doesn’t seem to be a very neighborly thing to say, ‘I want your property to be so uninviting you won’t use it,” Bachelder replied. He said there would probably be more “day use” during the academic year of the revamped grounds.
Neighbor Clifford Block asked the Commission not to act that night, in order to allow time “to permit the consultations that were agreed to.” “Staff were tremendously overstressed and it got dropped,” said Parsons, regarding the botched meeting between the designers, the subcommittee and the neighbors. “It is probably fair we allow that to happen.”
Block said that the concerns of the neighbors “can very readily be dealt with by the landscape architect” with modifications to the proposed plans. He said removing a large stand of bamboo that grows along the property line would be “tremendously damaging”. Visual landscape screening “is very important when you’re living next to a boarding house with people that are always changing.”
He noted new seating proposed in the design “will be five yards from our bedroom windows. Already there’s a lot of talking at night…it will be a conflict.”
Neoma Lavalle from the Tellefsen Board said she had lived at the house as a student 15 years ago. The student residents are generally there “from mid-August to mid-June,” she said. There’s an on-site house manager, and a student house president who both interact with the Board. “We definitely understand the concern of the neighbors,” she said.
She said that while the landscape project is incremental, “we’re firmly committed to also improving” a corner parking lot on the property that has no landscaping. The first step, however, is to do the hardscape in the garden. “We’re not really in favor of getting rid of bamboo…we’d really like to put in a fence.”
“There will be more day use if we improve the design,” she said, adding there are 44 residents “who need a little more living room.” However, “we’re not foreseeing any changes in more gatherings or parties or band events.”
Neighbor Gladys Block said she was worried about “potential damage to the oak” in the corner of the property. “It’s important to us.” The plans, she said, move an adjacent retaining wall back, cutting into the root zone around the oak. Coast live oaks are protected in Berkeley, she noted, and “they’re proposing to cut off, I would say, about 15 feet of that root system…we’re really concerned that moving back that part of the retaining wall could seriously damage that oak.” She asked for external review of the tree and the design plans by an arborist.
“The house is a gorgeous residence hall but it’s surrounded by a very neglected landscape,” said Richard Powell who identified himself as a third Tellefsen Hall Board member.
The association did seismic work on the house, has accumulated more capital for renovations, and is ready “to start improving the land”.
“Right now there’s no place to go outside…we have a good plan in place to address that…we want to work with the LPC,” he said.
“It’s all the way it was before” in terms of future events, he said. “This is just going to be for daytime use,” an area for the student residents “just to have a relaxing break in the sun.”
He said the association wanted to have a gardening service, but the garden “really needed some fundamental work redone” before it could be properly maintained. After the new landscape is installed, “we’ll use that budget for landscaping services to maintain it.”
Torren Block, son of the neighbors, said that noise from Tellefsen Hall has “been a problem for 20 years. The neighbors are “regularly woken up. This is simply going to make it worse.”
Barry Brinkley, another neighbor said that once “you could walk by the north side of Strawberry Creek outside the UC campus and hear the voice of your grandfather,” apparently meaning the sound of the creek as it flows through the Tellefsen garden, adjacent to the street. “That voice has been altered over the years.”
“The reason you can’t (hear) is partially because of the management of that building,” he said. “The Blocks have been so disrespected in this process.” Tellefsen, he said, “has had cooks over the years that have been more considerate of the neighbors than the Board.”
Regarding the oak, “if we have one that is doing well, we should be damn well taking care of it.” He said “the bamboo is a filter” between the properties and is important. “We ask that the place stay green, that it say clean, and that we have harmony and balance,” he concluded. If not, “you have a community that is upset...it’s a big issue, and we just want time at the table.”
When the speakers were done, City Planning Manager Debbie Sanderson told the Commission from the staff table that only the LPC would be reviewing permits for this project. Some of the neighbor concerns, she said, could be addressed in conditions for approval but “the issue of the noise is not really your purview.”
“I would just warn you to be careful that your highest priority is historic preservation.” She suggested that some of the issues could be the subject of free mediation offered by the City. “It sounds like the issue with the neighbor…will take solutions that are not part of the landscaping.”
After hearing the public testimony the Commission entered into an extended discussion, debate, and dialogue with the landscape architects that grew testy at times.
Commissioner Paul Schwartz was adamant that the rustic rock wall in the garden be preserved, not removed. It’s “one of the highlights of the landscaping,” he said. Why remove “a thing of beauty?”
Commissioner Austene Hall added her concern that a new retaining wall in the garden could look “too modern and out of place.” “The rock should be reused as much as possible in that backyard.”
“The one craw in my bonnet is the rock wall,” Schwartz continued. He said it would be fine to replace other retaining walls on the property but the rock wall “is a historic part of the landscaping.” If you remove the rock wall you are disturbing the main historic feature of the yard…the rock wall looks to me like it’s in fine shape and it’s one of the most beautiful things in the yard.”
“I don’t know how ‘distinctly contemporary’ materials fit in to historic landscape,” he said. “It just boggles the mind.”
“We very much understand the value of these rocks,” said Kamelani. The designers had suggested reusing some of the stone in the parking area, and elsewhere. “It has no meaning out in the parking lot, it has meaning where it currently exists!” Schwartz protested.
“I think we can be creative about reusing the rock,” Kamelani said. “It is a historic landscape, and your plan is really to demolish it and build something new,” Schwartz replied.
Chair Gary Parsons said that he didn’t “consider the rock wall as a make or break historic resource. I could see voting for its removal.”
Commissioner Miriam Ng objected to lengthy discussion, arguing that the issue should go back to the subcommittee and discussion with the neighbors before being debated in detail at the Commission. Chair Parsons disagreed, saying that key parties were present at the meeting that night so it made sense to continue. Ng soon left the meeting.
Parsons told the designers that they shouldn’t repair an unused fireplace in a corner of the property. “If you repair it, it will be usable.” “They’re planning to clear it, but I don’t think they’re planning to use it,” said Kamelani.
Then take it out, said Parsons. “If I were a 22 year old kid that had some firewood and a match I’d put a fire in it.”
“The residents are really attached to the look of it,” Kamelani demurred. “Do something to it that can’t be used,” Parsons emphasized.
He also said “the circular inflammable bench (in the middle of the new patio area) looks like a firepit to me”. A fire pit had previously been proposed in that location. “It’s just a bench,” protested Kamelani.
Parsons then turned his criticism to a proposed glass railing overlooking Strawberry Creek. It’s “completely out of character,” he said, as other Commissioners nodded. “We need a good rail,” said Kamelani, and they didn’t want to “introduce any sort of steel bar tubing” for rails. Do a historic-looking metal railing instead, Parsons suggested.
“The vision of the landscape is something that needs to spread to other parts of the house,” Parsons continued, picking up on neighbor complaints that garbage cans line the sidewalk by Tellefsen Hall. They should be moved off the sidewalk, he said.
“We have a master plan for the entire area,” said Kamelani, but because of the limited budget, not everything can be done in the first phase. “It doesn’t cost any money to move garbage cans off the street,” Parsons said.
“You guys are designing not only for your clients but for the community around. That’s an important part I’d like to drive home,” Parsons added.
He criticized the relocation of the retaining wall near the oak tree and removal of the bamboo, saying “what you’re getting for that is a lot of ill will.” “Use your landscape abilities to think of ways to intensify that screen” between the garden and the neighbors.
The Commission finally decided to continue the public hearing until September, with the expectation that the subcommittee would meet with the designers and the neighbors in the meantime. The LPC voted 7-0 for the continuation.
2201-2205 Blake Street
Controversy over these two landmark houses—known as the Bartlett Houses, some of Berkeley’s best remaining 19th century Victorian homes at the corner of Blake and Fulton—surfaced publicly in a City meeting for the first time at the LPC as some neighbors appeared before the Commission to express concern about modifications to, and the future of, the buildings under a new owner.
The two buildings were ‘red tagged’ last month by the Building and Safety Division for work done without permits. Work was suspended.
The owner of the two buildings appeared at the meeting and spoke to the Commission, which had the topic listed on the agenda as an Action Item but no detailed written materials in its agenda packet.
Instead, Commission staff had included an explanatory line in the agenda saying the buildings had a “red tag for work without permit on 2201; redtag to stop work for portion of building torn down without permit & illegal work on 2205.”
A brief staff recommendation followed, suggesting the Commission “form a subcommittee to work with the property owners as soon as possible.”
Because the item was not scheduled for a public hearing, several individuals spoke instead during the general “Public Comment” period at the very start of the meeting, then several hours elapsed until the Commission took up the topic again when it reached the formal agenda item late at night. By that time many of the neighbors had left, along with half the owner contingent.
During the public hearing, Planning Commissioner Patti Dacey, who lives nearby, said she had been on the Landmarks Commission when the buildings were landmarked. “They are a beautiful addition, an anchor to the neighborhood,” she told the Commission, calling the two houses “an ambassador for historic resources.”
“The new owner has given us cause for great concern,” she said. “He blew through two ‘stop work’ orders” from the City. “We’re very worried about this jewel of historic resources.”
“This is a jewel, our neighborhood loves it, and we’re giving it to you to please take care of it.”
Neighbor Gale Garcia told the Commission that the houses were largely intact on the outside, preserving almost all of their 19th century character on a large, treed, lot. “The owners have…performed extensive remodeling of a variety that would appeal to fraternity boys rather than preservationists or families, before even applying for building permits” for the interior work, she said.
“This leads me to believe that the exteriors of these landmarked buildings are unlikely to be preserved unless there is strong oversight at every stage of the process.”
She expressed concern about the staff recommendation, saying “it would be improper for the Commission to take any action on this matter without having plans before it and without holding a properly-noticed public hearing about plans for this site.”
Charles Hadenfeldt, an immediate neighbor—“I live next door”—said that neighbors had initially been pleased to see foundation work beginning on the houses, but then they saw what appeared to be a fraternity moving in belongings and “this upset us greatly.”
He also noted that the houses have two Mills Act contracts applied to them—agreements between the previous owner and the City to undertake historically appropriate repairs in exchange for property tax reductions. He said the Commission should evaluate the status of the contracts to make sure they are being fulfilled.
“Things are kind of strange and I want you guys to be aware of it,” Hadenfeldt added. “I hope you don’t grant the owner special privileges because he has skewed the process.”
Nathan George, who had arrived at the meeting with his wife and baby during the other comments, came to the podium next, apologizing that he thought the meeting started at 7:30, not 7:00.
“I am the owner,” he told the Commission. “We pulled foundation permits on the building and started foundation work, then on one of the buildings we had started interior demo before we got the building permit in” for interior alterations.
“During this time some of the tenants which already had leases on the buildings, which they no longer do, started moving some material in. Some of them had some fraternity signs which kind of began the whole process of the neighborhood getting upset.”
“I’ve spent the last three weeks meeting with neighbors,” he told the Commission. “I’ve got letters and lots of support from people” but “there’s been continuous rumors and misinformation…we’ve even had people saying lies.”
“All we’re doing…we’re talking about the 2205 building which had a deteriorated corner, and when we removed the stairs as part of the foundation work the corner was rotting and was falling down.”
“We had full intentions of submitting the building permit to build the wall back up but we had pulled the foundation permit at the suggestion of the planning counter…” and deferred applying for the building permit for interior renovations until the full scope of the work was known, he said.
“All we’re trying to do is restore” the buildings, George said. He said he had met with Zoning staff that morning (Thursday July 7) and would be meeting with another staffer in the next week.
“All of our plans are just remodeling the interior of 2201,” finishing the foundation work, and rebuilding the back corner of 2205, he concluded. He said he had put on hold an idea previously described to neighbors of remodeling the carriage house on the rear of the property into another living unit.
“My wife and I are now moving into this house, it’s going to be our primary residence, because of the neighbors complaining about the proposed tenants we have decided to uproot our seven month old baby” and move into 2201 Blake, he said.
“We’re doing everything we can to please them,” he said of the neighbors, “and I get good favor from them in person. It’s really frustrating, when a lot of the neighbors are supportive and a few seem to, if you will, seem to stab me in the back afterwards. It’s been a very frustrating, very trying, time for my family and we just ask that we be able to move forward with your supervision to restore these buildings.”
George and his wife, Amanda, currently live a block north of the Blake Street properties in a new house they built behind another landmark structure in 2008. Previously they lived with housemates in the front residence on that property, which is a City of Berkeley landmark, the Kueffer House, designated in 2003.
In an e-mail interview in June, Nathan George told me that he closed a purchase on the property in March 2011. He said, “We wanted to preserve as much as possible but still modernize the electrical and plumbing” of the two houses. “We were therefore specifically advised to pull the foundation permit first…and then apply for the building permit later when we knew what would be done. Otherwise both permits would have been done at the same time.”
George and his wife left on a business and vacation trip in May, returning June 6 intending to file for the interior renovation permits, he told me. When I asked whether that tight a schedule would have worked for occupancy for the fall semester by student tenants, he said “filing upon my return and doing the work before August was very reasonable,” based on another project he recently completed on Channing Way in Berkeley.
He said his plan had been to have tenants start living in part of 2201 Blake in June “at a 50% discount on rent until construction was done. So our plans were to have the foundation done and have at least one bath operable while we updated the others.”
George also spoke with immediate neighbors at a meeting I attended in June (at which I identified myself as writing an article for the Planet). At that meeting he had two men with him who introduced themselves as UC students who were going to live in 2201 Blake. One said he had a roommate, a Cal athlete, and they would be living in the rear upstairs of the property; the other said he was one of a group of six that would be living in the main part of the house.
The plan for the property, George said at that meeting, was to renovate the two houses to have two units, each, legally subdivide the property (it sits on one large land parcel), put a fifth unit in the carriage house at the rear of the property, and sell the units, probably in 2012, as condominiums.
George has subsequently said (as noted above in his remarks to the Commission) that the leases with the students are no longer in effect and he and his family will be moving into 2201 Blake instead.
When the Commission took up the item on 2201 -2205 Blake late in the meeting, only a few people remained in the audience for the item, including George and the Hadenfeldts.
Sanderson began the discussion from the staff table, saying that she needed to report a “correction to the staff recommendation.” She said the revised language of the recommendation would be that the Commission “form a subcommittee to assist staff as needed prior to LPC review of the structural permit.”
We “ask you to create a subcommittee to support Jay as he reviews the structural alteration permit,” she added. Jay Claiborne is the Commission staff secretary, but was not present at the meeting. Sanderson said her understanding was that the owners would probably need a structural alteration permit to rebuild the exterior portion of 2205 Blake that had been removed during the foundation work.
She referred to the removal of the rear corner of 2205 as a “collapse” several times during her comments.
“The issue here up to this moment was the repair of foundations which was applied in 2008 (by the previous owner)” Sanderson said. “That’s not related to the issues of working on the part of the building that has collapsed and working on the interior without permits.”
The Landmarks Commission does not have direct control over interior alterations to privately owned landmark structures, but does review permits for exterior changes.
Sanderson said staff level review was appropriate and “our view of the LPO is that (this) can be handled by staff.” “We would hope that you would continue in that vein.”
“Jay has asked a subcommittee be named to work with him,” she concluded. The buildings are red-tagged now, awaiting approval of the permits, she said. George, who had returned to the podium for the discussion, added “we got red tagged and then days later we submitted plans” for the interior alteration permits. Those applications are now pending with the City.
“I just want to make sure there is a public involvement,” neighbor Barbara Hadenfeldt called out from the audience.
(I asked Sanderson after the meeting if Commission review would extend to the two chimneys of the 2201 house that had already been removed. She said she wasn’t familiar enough with the project details to say.)
Commissioners briefly discussed the topic after Sanderson’s comments. The project “now will be very closely watched,” Commissioner Hall said. Commissioner Wagley moved to create a subcommittee, a suggestion that was approved.
When it came time to select the members, however, commissioners noted that none of them lived in that part of Berkeley. Eventually Wagley, Commissioner Christopher Linvill, and outgoing Commission Chair Gary Parsons were selected.
“I just want to apologize for some of my earlier comments,” George then told the Commission. He said some of what he had said was “not appropriate for the discussion,” apparently referring to some of the comments he made about the neighbors.
“I’m very proud of restoring things even when they’re not landmarks,” he added. “I just want to make them (these houses) fully restored and bring them back to their historic grandeur.” “We did another building which is my primary residence,” he added.
The July meeting was the last for Commission staff intern Amanda Bensel. The Commission’s regular secretary, Jay Claiborne, was not at the meeting and the City’s Planning Manager, Debbie Sanderson, sat in at the staff table.
She told the Commission that Bensel’s position won’t be replaced. “Right now the City Manager isn’t approving any (new) interns when they leave.”
“We’re into a service provision mode we haven’t experienced before,” she said, with budget and staff cutbacks. She said, “the permit counter input seems to be picking up (but) we lag about a year behind the rest of the economy.” The Planning Department derives much of its budget from permit and building fees.
Sanderson said staff support for the LPC “comes out of our General Fund, not permit fees” but the staff support for the Commission is affected by the overall cutbacks.
Claiborne, she said, would focus on “processing applications and plan checks and supporting the Committee,” while support for “larger issues” the LPC might want to pursue will need to wait. “We’ll have to put those on hold until the revenue picks up,” she said.
She said that Claiborne’s position has been funded as a half-time senior planner career position, and the City is processing applications for a permanent new hire for the post. About 30 applications were received, she said, and the City will probably start doing interviews in a couple of weeks.
“We just wanted to alert you to this,” Sanderson said. “We’ll do the best we can” with staff support, she added.
Bensel and Sanderson noted two immediate consequences of the staffing cutback.
First, Commission minutes will be abbreviated and probably cover actions only, rather than summarizing comments made by speakers or Commissioners.
Second, the practice of providing staff support for Commission subcommittees will largely end. “Due to the staffing being cut in half there will no longer be staffing at all unless it’s a highly contentious property,” Sanderson said. The LPC extensively uses subcommittees to visit project sites and review details of project plans, reporting back to the full Commission with recommendations.
Sanderson said that henceforth subcommittee chairs would be responsible for arranging meetings and taking notes at them. City staff will arrange some training in this, she added.
In addition, Sanderson said, “we are looking at whether we should place some limitations on the number of applications (for Mills Act contracts) we accept each year.” The Mills Act, a piece of State regulation, allows property owners of landmark buildings to apply to municipalities for partial property tax reductions in exchange for using the money they save for an agreed-to program of building repairs and renovations. The City needs to monitor the contracts to ensure that the proposed work is actually done.
“The Mills Act has saved many buildings in Berkeley,” emphasized Commissioner Anne Wagley. “For many people having the Mills Act enables them to take on a landmark and restore it.”
In other business:
o Commissioner Gary Parsons finished his last meeting as Chair. Commissioner Carrie Olson, the Vice Chair, was unanimously elected as the new Chair and Commissioner Austene Hall was unanimously elected as the new Vice Chair. Commissioner Antoinette Pietras was not at the meeting, and Commissioner Miriam Ng had left the meeting early, before the vote.
o Modifications to the Standard Tool and Die factory at 2701-21 Eighth Street got a sympathetic hearing and general support, although the Commission spent some time discussing details. Commissioners were concerned that newly proposed openable windows be properly designed to fit with the historic character of the building, and asked that a proposed widening of an entrance to the building be kept as minimal as possible.
o Commission staff reported that permits for 22 Roble Road, the landmark McDuffie estate, were final as of June 28th. In late 2010 and the first half of 2011 the Commission had devoted parts of several meetings to reviewing landmark applications for the property, then proposed renovation and alteration plans.
o The Commission briefly heard from Downtown planner Matt Taecker and one member of the public, John English, about the design guidelines for the Downtown area that Taecker is revising. English emphasized that there are still factual errors in the City’s mapping of Downtown historic resources that need to be corrected, and suggested that the guidelines should also reflect a premise in the Downtown Plan for historic subareas in the Downtown. Taecker said that the guidelines would be going to the Planning Commission in the Fall, and invited Commissioners to send him comments.
o The Commission also discussed, in an advisory capacity to City Design Review staff, a proposed design for replacing the façade of 2020 Shattuck Avenue, between University Avenue and Addison Street, with an entirely new, Modern, storefront of metal (Corten steel) and glass. Architect David Trachtenberg appeared at the meeting to present the design. There was a lengthy discussion of this topic by—and the author made comments about it to—the Commission. I’ll report on and discuss this involved and lengthy topic in a separate article.
(Disclosure. The author is the Vice-President of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA), and a participant in the Berkeley Historical Plaque Project, which works with property owners to put descriptive plaques on landmark and other historic structures. In the course of our e-mail interview, Nathan George asked me for information on contacting those two organizations to discuss the 2201-2205 Blake properties. I supplied him with contact information. BAHA and the Plaque Project have not held any discussions of the properties, as of the writing of this article.)