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Press Release: Citizens Create a Grant Fund for South and West Berkeley from Library Lawsuit Settlement

From Susan Brandt-Hawley and Dr. Judith Epstein
Monday September 12, 2011 - 11:04:00 AM

The Concerned Library Users group settled its lawsuit against the City of Berkeley over the demolitions of the South and West Berkeley Branch Libraries after the City Council agreed to CLU’s proposal to create a $100,000 grant fund benefiting South and West Berkeley neighborhoods.  

The fund is to be administered by the local office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and will be limited to “bricks and mortar” – actual physical improvements to historic resources. This can mean new roofs, utilities, paint, etc., to help residents, businesses, and non-profits maintain their community resources. The program is modeled on a successful $100,000 grant program administered by the Trust in southern California. 

CLU will request that the grant fund be named in memory of preservationist and neighborhood activist Laurie Bright, a longtime West Berkeley resident. “The Bright Grants will make a modest but very real difference to historic neighborhoods in South and West Berkeley,” said CLU spokesperson Dr. Judith Epstein. “If the program is successful, we hope to find other grantors to keep it funded, as has happened in the Los Angeles program.” 

The public interest group sued the City last summer regarding proposed demolitions of the South and West Branch Libraries using bond money specifically allocated only for the rehabilitation, improvement, and expansion of those historic buildings. The suit had two parts: an allegation that the City neglected to prepare an Environmental Impact Report before passing a broad Zoning Ordinance amendment to facilitate library demolitions and an allegation that Measure FF bond funds could not be used for the demolitions of the historic branch libraries. 

In December, 2010, the City agreed to rescind the amendment and to reconsider it only after preparing an EIR, just as requested by the lawsuit, essentially conceding its legal error. Then, while the bond challenge was still pending in court, CLU and the City agreed to put the case on hold while the EIR process proceeded. In the meantime, CLU members became aware of the Trust’s successful $100,000 program in southern California, issuing small grants in the range of $5,000 to $10,000 for local projects to preserve historic resources. The Trust agreed to set up a similar program in Berkeley, funded by the City and administered by their bay area office. 

Another reason the case settled was that in May the City certified an EIR considering alternatives to demolition of the South and West Branch Libraries and passed an improved zoning ordinance amendment. During that process, CLU engaged a Berkeley preservation architect to prepare alternate plans to rehabilitate the two branches and meet all program requirements. However, the City decreed the plans too expensive, and therefore infeasible. While CLU believed, and still believes, that the alternative plans are economically feasible, the City ultimately approved the demolition projects. CLU did not challenge those approvals under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), because the City’s discretion had been properly exercised. 

The case settlement also provides for payment to CLU of $15,000 for court fees and costs, most of which will reimburse CLU members for architectural fees. It also reflects the City’s agreement that no demolition of either the South or West library branches will occur until sufficient, verified funding for reconstruction is in hand.