Berkeley LPC Follows Orders as Predicted

Becky O'Malley
Saturday April 04, 2015 - 09:40:00 AM

So, I went myself to Thursday night’s meeting of Berkeley’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, and not to unduly prolong the suspense, they voted to do the will of Berkeley’s corporate masters, as expected. That is to say, they declined to designate Campanile Way on the University of California campus as a historic resource worthy of preservation, neither the road itself which is on campus nor the view from the Campanile out to the Golden Gate, which encompasses a fraction of the middle of the city of Berkeley and sweeps out over the Bay.

This account is much too long, so unless you’re interested in gory details you could stop reading now. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

I went not as a news reporter, which most often I’m not at this phase of my life, but wearing another hat, as one of the several former LPC commissioners who were present to express their opinion. (That would be a metaphorical hat—the best physical hat in the room was the flowered bonnet worn by a designation opponent who identified him/herself as Alfred, and who wore a lovely ‘60s prairie dress to go with it.) 

What I found most surprising, as I told the commission, was how candidly the commissioners who voted against the designation announced their enthusiasm for downtown skyscrapers, specifically for the Mark Rhoades scheme which will demolish the home of the Shattuck Cinemas, aka 2211 Harold Way. When I was on the commission, back in the distant placid pre-Planet days, we were not supposed to make decisions based on our opinion of any projects proposed to replace the designated landmark. I gently chided Chair Austene Hall, a very nice lady and (disclosure) a friend of mine, for allowing proposed projects to dominate the discussion—the several curmudgeonly chairs who ruled the LPC with an iron hand in my day would never have tolerated this. 

Landmarks Commissioners are charged with impartially evaluating the merits of the building, landscape or view which has been brought before them. Designation is not destiny, a concept which some of the commissioners on Thursday pretended not to understand—unless they are actually ignorant of it, which is possible. 

All landmark designation does is add an extra level of scrutiny to the permitting process. If (just to pick a random example) the L.A. financier who’s targeted the Shattuck Cinema building were to ask for it, the Berkeley City Council would be able (and likely) to grant a permit for a building which would block a landmarked view simply by adopting a statement of overriding considerations in the Environmental Impact Report process. 

Thursday’s decision just pumps up the parcel owner’s profits another notch by making that step unnecessary. 

Nick Dominguez, the commissioner specially appointed by my new District 8 Councilmember Lori Droste for this meeting, admitted that he understands the concept. I suggested that he would get another bite of the apple even if he voted for designation, since he’s also Droste’s appointee to the Zoning Adjustment Board, which gets to rule on permits for 2211 Harold Way. When announcing his vote on Thursday he said that he thought downtown development, especially of housing, was more important than landmark preservation. He’s entitled to his opinion, but when he’s appointed to sit on the Landmark Preservation Commission it’s an odd place to express it. 

Presumably he reflects the opinion of his principal, Councilmember Droste. However when the commissioners were asked, several times, to reveal any “ex parte” discussions they might have had with others outside the meeting, including their appointersk, he didn’t say that he’d talked to her about this project. Maybe not, but it seems odd that she’d appoint him with no interview or anything. 

And it seems even odder that Mayor Tom Bates’ appointee, Kimberly Suczynski Smith, didn’t disclose any conversation with the Mayor or his staff, given that her predecessor Rose Marie Pietras was fired because she openly supported designating Campanile Way. Did the Bates people really appoint a successor without talking to her about this project? 

Of course it would have been possible to guess how she’d vote, given her employers. Suczynski Smith works for Oakland’s Pyatok architecture firm, which has designed at least one major dorm on the UC Campus (one of the nicer ones) and she also lectures in UC’s College of Environmental Design. It’s hard to imagine that she’d vote against what the University wants. 

And what the newly-privatized University of California at Berkeley wants to do with downtown Berkeley is not hard to figure out. If there’s any doubt, the embarrassing performance of Emily Marthinsen,
Assistant Vice Chancellor, Physical and Environmental Planning, would give you more than a clue. 

She testified in the public hearing on the designation by reading from a printed script. Her excuse was that she was so busy with family Passover preparations that she just didn’t have time to speak ex tempore, but hard to imagine, again, that U.C. honchos didn’t demand to vet her testimony beforehand. 

To get the full flavor of the performance, the first thing you should know is that she used to be Steve Finacom’s boss. Steve is a distinguished longtime Berkeley resident, past president of the Berkeley Historical Society, board member of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, regular local history columnist for the Bay Area News Group papers, occasional contributor to the Berkeley Daily Planet and Berkeleyside.com, past LPC commissioner and one of the authors of the Campanile Way Landmark application. 

Steve used to work for the U.C. office which used to be called Capital Projects, but is now called Real Estate Services. In that job, he was part of the team that wrote U.C. Berkeley’s Landscape Heritage Plan and Landscape Master Plan. Along with several one of his colleagues, Steve was recently laid off by Marthinson, just about the time that the name of the office was changed from Capital Projects to Real Estate Services. 

The name change reflects a new role: Now the remaining staff in the transmogrified department, headed by a new guy whose former job was as a developer, is busy “monetizing resources” in NewSpeak—or “giving private developers a piece of the action” in plain English. 

If there’s any question in your mind about what that’s going to mean for the U.C.B. campus, just take a look at the plug-ugly parking structure which has erupted on Gayley Road next to the deep-in-debt Memorial Stadium extravaganza and debacle. U.C.’s leased the land to a private corporation which built the garage and collects the revenue. One of Marthinson’s online descriptors is UC Berkeley’s “Campus Planner”—and if that’s still her job, she should be deeply ashamed of allowing that hideous building to be placed in such a sensitive spot. 

Her script started out by claiming that the University would remain neutral on whether Campanile Way should be landmarked, but then it went on to slam Finacom’s application six ways from Sunday. The most transparently ridiculous aspect of her presentation was claiming that the application’s quotes from the Landscape Heritage Plan didn’t reflect what the Plan writers intended—but Finacom himself was one of them. Obviously, there’s been a paradigm shift along with a name change in the office where he used to work. 

And the Mayor’s Commissioner Kim Suczynski Smith didn’t say, I don’t think, a single word during the whole evening. When Steve asked if the new members had listened to the tapes from the previous hearings, she just nodded a bit. There was a kind of deer-in-the-headlights demeanor about her. From her resume, which mentions community planning, I’d guess that she knows better, but she voted the way U.C. wanted, though without apparent enthusiasm. 

The rest of the hearing testimony was lively. About 40 knowledgeable and articulate people spoke in favor of the designation, some of them tried and true preservationists, but with a sizeable contingent of born-again Save the Shattuck Cinema activists, who have collected at least 4,000 signatures from opponents of the Harold Way project. The University’s faculty and staff, current and retired, were well represented too, including among others Nad Permaul, a U.C. Political Science faculty member, a past president of the alumni association and a retired top U.C. Berkeley administrator, who spoke very movingly about the historic vision of the campus. Former Mayor Shirley Dean, for years an ally of some of the councilmembers who appointed the negative LPC commissioners, also made an eloquent presentation. 

There were just 8 or 9 speakers who opposed the designation. Among these, only a couple even mentioned whether Campanile Way and its bay view qualified under Berkeley’s Landmark Preservation law. That’s probably because most of them were from elsewhere, knew nothing about landmarks, and had simply come to tell the LPC that they really really did want better housing for themselves, hopefully in Berkeley. 

I recognized some as adherents of the tiny San Francisco BARF group (Bay Area Renters Federation), recently in the business press because founder and top dog Sonja Trauss was personally gifted with $10,000 by a Yelp founder just because, he claimed, he likes what she’s doing. She was there in person, a bundle of nervous energy, surrounded by her claque. 

To me they appeared more pathetic than threatening. They are pretty ordinary young people (now defined as under 40—most looked like 30-somethings). They seem to believe, mostly, that building the kind of luxury apartments now planned for downtown Berkeley and being erected in quantity in San Francisco will somehow result in older homeowners moving out and turning their houses over to the BARFies and their ilk. It’s a kind of sad cargo cult mentality. 

It seemed almost cruel to tell them that the folks who now live in nice (hugely over-valued) middle-class houses in Berkeley are just not about to sell out so they can move into fancy downtown condos, even the ones with bay views and marble counters in the kitchen. In Berkeley, Palo Alto and elsewhere, “ageing in place” is the new trend, and luxury developments will be primarily pieds-a-terre for the jet set of the 1%, just like they are all over the developed world. 

About those views, by the way. The worst performance on a generally depressing commission roster was by one Paul Schwartz, appointed by District 6 Councilmember Susan Wengraf. He went on and on, ad nauseam, about how the view from the Berkeley Rose Garden was much nicer than the view from the Campanile, and also it was nearer to his house, where the view was even nicer

I realized, belatedly, that a substantial portion of the Berkeley electorate, the people who voted for the councilmembers who appointed this bunch of commissioners, already live in houses with perfectly gorgeous views of the Bay and the Golden Gate, which makes a publically accessible view like that from the Campanile much less precious to them. They don’t have to care what happens downtown, because they never have to go there. An increasing number of them are Berkeley snowbirds, people who hold down good jobs on the East Coast or in the Midwest but can escape to view houses in our town when the weather Back East is annoying. Some of them even live here almost year-round, particularly some leftish journalistic types, though I’ll name no names. 

The vote Thursday was on the staff-written motion to deny the application, a draft remarkable for the total absence of factual findings to support its conclusion. (This might constitute grounds for appeal.) 

So who voted how? No surprises here. 

If you know who are the pro-corporate conservatives, the progressives and the chronic waffler on the Berkeley City Council, you can predict how their appointees voted: 

For denial: Mayor (Tom Bates) Kimberly Suczynski Smith; District 2( Darryl Moore) Mary Canavan; District 5 (Laurie Capitelli) Tom Beil; District 6 (Susan Wengraf) Paul Schwartz; District 8 (Lori Droste) Nicolas Dominguez 

Against denial: District 3(Max Anderson)Christopher Linvill; District 4(Jesse Arreguin) Austene Hall; District 7(Kriss Worthington) Anne Wagley 

Abstain: District 1(Linda Maio) Dmitri Belser . 

Looking at that lineup, it becomes apparent that those who actually run Berkeley behind the scenes, the hired staff, viewed the LPC’s public hearing, like all encounters with the public, as sound and fury signifying nothing. 

The remedy might be found in the 2016 election, when (surely!) Tom Bates will finally have retired. Betting is still on District 5 Councilmember Laurie Capitelli to get anointed and maybe appointed to the mayor’s seat before Bates leaves. Several lively progressives are being talked about for competition, as well as for open council seats, which will probably include those of Wengraf and Capitelli. But with the views in the hills still nirvana-like, it might be hard to achieve a progressive council majority. 

[And how about Berkeley’s real housing needs? Listen up, kiddies. No amount of luxury apartment construction will ever buy you homes in the hills. 

The same remedies are still needed to provide housing for moderate and low-income people: tough inclusionary zoning for developments, realistic in-lieu fees on development to fund building workforce housing, rent control, vacancy decontrol. And yes, a livable minimum wage, even for UCB service employees.]