Berkeley Settles Library Fight 

The city council has agreed to a partial deal that will allow the remodel of two branch libraries. But it could still allow the demolition and rebuild of two others.

For months, Berkeley's four branch libraries have been at the center of a battle pitting preservationists against those who say seismic and accessibility upgrades can't be done without tearing down two of the library buildings and starting from scratch. But then last week, the Berkeley City Council approved a partial settlement of a lawsuit brought by a preservationist group known as the Concerned Library Users. The settlement allows remodeling of the Claremont and North Branch libraries to move forward, but puts on hold the demolition and rebuilding of the South and West branches.

"I think it's tragic that they're stopping community libraries in predominantly minority communities," said Councilmember Darryl Moore, who sits as a trustee on the library board. "I hope they reach [complete] agreement."

Judith Epstein, spokesperson for the preservationist group, says it's possible to both save historic features of the libraries and satisfy mandates to make the libraries completely accessible to disabled people and earthquake safe. "It doesn't have to be one or the other," she said.

The preservationists' lawsuit against the city, filed in September, challenges a law passed by the city council in July that makes it easier to demolish the South and West branch libraries by requiring a use permit rather than a more stringent one known as a "variance." The lawsuit argues that before the council passed the ordinance, the city should have conducted an environmental impact review of the law itself — not just of the library projects. The settlement between the preservationists and the city addresses this question and allows remodeling at the North and Claremont branch libraries to go forward, while requiring repeal of the law. The council rescinded the law last week.

Under the settlement agreement, an environmental impact report of the now withdrawn law will be conducted as part of the EIR on remodeling the Claremont and North branch libraries, neither of which require demolition. Then once the EIR is conducted, the council can reinstate the law that facilitates library demolition — if it chooses to do so. "Now citizens have a chance to participate," Epstein said, referring to the EIR process that requires citizen involvement.

But the piece of the lawsuit that remains unsettled is the question of whether funds for library demolition and rebuilding can come from Measure FF, approved by voters in November 2008. The lawsuit quotes from the measure, stating that the bonds can only "renovate, expand, and make seismic and access improvements" to the libraries. The suit argues that these funds cannot be used for demolition.

The city and the preservationist group continue in confidential discussions around the use of Measure FF funds for demolition — and the question of whether demolition and reconstruction is the best choice for renovating the South and West branch libraries.

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