Berkeley's Hysterical Landmarks 

Brought to you by the city's preservationists, who'll do anything to stop a bulldozer.

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Long, long ago, in a strange land far away, there was a magical wall. It didn't really look magical. It looked every day of its 97 years, which is to say dilapidated, with cracks scarring the aging concrete surface. But the crumbling wall served a heroic purpose: It kept the earth-soil from collapsing onto the sidewalk below. Sorcerers in the village's Public Works Department known as engineers called it a "retaining wall."

One day, a wicked "out-of-town developer" bought the property containing the wall from its owner, ninety-year-old Mrs. Ellen Bentley, who'd grown too old to live alone. The developer's evil plan was to fix up the neglected property and sell it. She didn't much care for the old wall. In fact, she wanted to destroy a twenty-foot stretch of it and build a two-carriage garage, which she arrogantly insisted was necessary on a crowded block just three blocks north of a university with thirty thousand students.

Once neighbors heard of the plan, they joined forces to save the magical retaining wall. They went to the wise village elders on the Landmarks Preservation Commission, who agreed with the angry villagers and declared the magical wall that could retain earth-soil a historic landmark. The elected village council, in turn, also chose to protect the wall, which its members agreed embodied "back-to-nature principles" of an earlier era. The wicked developer scoffed, asking how a man-made structure could embody back-to-nature principles.

The town's leaders stood their ground, and the wicked woman fled the strange land in defeat, vowing never to return. Of course, this fairy tale didn't really happen long, long ago. It happened six years ago. And it didn't take place far away -- at least not geographically -- though it was indeed a strange land: Berkeley. Oh, and the wicked "out-of-town developer" wasn't really wicked. Nor was she from out of town, or even a developer -- those were just things angry villagers called her at the time.

If anything, Realtor Mary Hanna wasn't the story's pariah, but its victim -- the victim of a city landmarking process that is completely out of control.

Hanna had lived in Berkeley for 37 years when she bought the house at 2683 Le Conte Avenue. She'd come here as a young graduate student to study English literature, and never left. One thing she loved about Berkeley was its beautiful old houses. She was a member of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, and served as a volunteer docent on the organization's walking tours. Before she bought the house on Le Conte, she knew plenty about the neighborhood. In fact, she had brokered the sale of the Julia Morgan-designed home next door a couple of years earlier.

When she bought the Bentley home it was a disaster, Hanna says. It required a new foundation. The dry rot was so bad that her foot sank into the floor in spots. Because of its condition, she labored to find a lender. Finally, she and her business partner settled on a $312,000 construction loan that required they build a garage. Without parking, Hanna says, she couldn't sell the house.

Yes, Hanna was engaging in real-estate speculation on a modest scale, but her garage proposal even had the backing of the elderly previous owner, who wrote the city saying she had struggled to get her groceries home. "My personal freedom to buy a house and remodel it the way I wanted was completely demolished by the city of Berkeley," she now says ruefully.

The Realtor's critics did have one legitimate argument, though it had nothing to do with preserving the neighborhood's character. The issue was traffic safety: The garage would have been located on a dangerous street curve where hundreds of drivers passed every day. Someone backing out might have caused an accident. This, in fact, was the top concern cited by most neighbors, but a city traffic engineer ultimately deemed the garage safe so long as Hanna followed proscribed precautions. Consequently, like so many disgruntled folks before them, the opponents of the project put their chips on the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

If patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, the Berkeley landmarks commission is the last refuge of anyone desperate to thwart a developer, or even a home renovation.

Berkeley is old by California standards. It was founded in 1866 by trustees of the College of California -- Cal's predecessor -- and incorporated in 1878. The town quickly expanded as the university grew into its current role as centerpiece of the state's higher education system. Point is, most of the city's homes, and to a lesser extent its commercial structures, have been around awhile.

Current city zoning law says that if you want to demolish any commercial structure older than forty years, you need approval from the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the nine-member, city council-appointed enforcement body created by Berkeley's 1974 Landmarks Preservation Ordinance. Because so many local structures are forty-plus, the commission has a say over the fate of an extraordinary number of commercial developments. And once it grants landmark status to any structure, commercial or residential, the slightest alteration requires the commission's stamp.

But that veto power -- the secret weapon Hanna's neighbors unleashed against her -- is all too often abused. In its 29-year existence, the LPC has shown an appalling readiness to grant historic status to the most questionable things.

The retaining wall is just one example. Consider the vacant lot in North Berkeley, the former site of the truly historic Byrne House. The house burned to the ground in the '80s, but no matter. In 1990 the commission reaffirmed the entire parcel's landmark status, a move commission critics considered a blatant attempt to delay or hinder future development. And that's precisely what Berkeley Temple Beth El encountered when it proposed building a synagogue on the site.

There have been landmarks created out of neighborly spite. One Berkeley Hills couple, for instance, convinced the LPC to landmark their own Julia Morgan home on Yosemite Road. This would have been justified had it not been motivated by the couple's desire to prevent a neighbor building an addition that would have affected their bay view. (Yes, landmark status puts restrictions on neighboring properties as well.)

As for the retaining wall, Hanna's neighbors found a sympathetic audience on the landmarks panel. They argued that the wall was a vital portion of an already-designated scenic tract in the north-of-campus area. As one neighbor put it, "We feel that a proliferation of driveways and garages could undermine much of the woodsy charm that was conceived in the pre-automobile era."

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