Berkeley's Hysterical Landmarks 

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

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The commission sided with the anticar neighbors and by doing so spoiled Hanna's chances of obtaining a permit from the city's zoning board, which refused to disturb the integrity of an existing landmark, even a crummy retaining wall. Hanna took the matter to court, where the judge ruled to let Berkeleyans decide for themselves what deserves landmark status, strange as their logic may have seemed.

In the end, Hanna defaulted on her construction loan. She figures she lost more than $100,000 in all. And while she wasn't left a pauper, she did flee town in favor of Oakland's Montclair district because the experience, she says, soured her on Berkeley forever. "A landmark should be a thing of beauty," she reasons. "It should be architecturally attractive, not a ninety-year-old wall that is dirty, full of cracks, and about to collapse."


By now, many readers probably think the lady has a point: It's an ugly old retaining wall, not a damn landmark. Right? Trouble is, the distinction is largely subjective. One woman's future two-car garage is another's historic streetscape. The courts typically let locals decide what's worthy of the "L" word. That, however, can be a perilous proposition in Berkeley, where the landmarks commission is dominated by zealous foes of development.

Berkeley's landmarks commission also has more power than its counterparts in other Bay Area cities. The commissions in Oakland, San Francisco, and San Jose, for example, are all advisory bodies answering to the planning commission or city council. In Berkeley, however, if the LPC deems something a landmark, it's a landmark. A builder can appeal the decision to the city council, but that entails further delays and expenses.

The practical result is that Berkeley has created more than 260 full-fledged landmarks, while neighboring Oakland, an older and much larger city with similar architecture, an active preservation community, and four times the population, has only 134 designated landmarks (not counting its seven historic districts). San Francisco had 231 individual landmarks as of 2002.

It wasn't supposed to happen this way. Berkeley's landmarks law was penned thirty years ago with noble intentions. In the years leading up to the law's passage, the historic character of the city had come under assault by real-estate speculators looking to make a quick buck. They were demolishing beautiful old Victorians in residential neighborhoods and replacing them with stucco- covered apartment buildings.

Yet ills of this nature can be controlled by a city's zoning laws. In 1973, Berkeley voters passed the Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance, which severely restricted demolitions in the city. Even without landmark protection, the new law made Berkeley one of the toughest cities in California for developers to do business.

The following year, the city council passed its Landmarks Preservation Ordinance. Local preservationists, led by a new nonprofit called the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, set out to identify which places in town qualified as historic treasures.

Mary Ann Beach Harrel and her late husband, John Beach, were among BAHA's earliest members. But Harrel says it didn't take long for the couple to become disillusioned with their fellow preservationists. In the late '70s, she recalls, her peers fought a proposal by world-renowned architect Louis Kahn to build a library for the Graduate Theological Union. As Harrel saw it, the association's leaders would fight to protect something just because it was old, rather than embrace what could become a future landmark. "So rather than building for the future, they've got a death grip on the past," she says. "They get overwhelmed in their duty to preserve everything old instead of everything worthwhile. There are a lot of things that are old that are not worthwhile."

Other prominent preservationists have split from BAHA over the years, but the association has grown steadily. It now boasts 1,500 members, putting it among the most powerful political forces in town, according to former City Councilman Fred Collignon, a BAHA member himself.

But the preservationists haven't just thwarted development, argues landmarks commissioner and BAHA researcher Leslie Emmington. They've protected Berkeley's character; instead of ugly strip malls, we have turn-of-the-century buildings throughout the city. Emmington concedes that the process is controversial, but says that's because people only remember the fights. Twenty-five years ago, she says, the commission's creation of a historic district in West Berkeley saved Fourth Street from being the site of an industrial park. Now the street is one of the city's top retail attractions. "Always in the end," she says, "landmarking has accentuated the positive morale of the city." Often, BAHA's most active members moonlight as appointees to the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission. One of them is Becky O'Malley, the landmark panel's queen bee -- though not its chair. O'Malley, who along with her husband, Michael, bought the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper last December, has been on the commission for the past seven years. At an October 1999 city council meeting where she argued to landmark what critics called a "tin shed" in West Berkeley, the former software maven riffed off the words of a developer who'd called her "my favorite career obstructionist." "I was so successful that I sold the business and am now retired," O'Malley said, "which allows me to be a career obstructionist."

O'Malley excels in this new career, so much that the antidevelopment zeal of her and her fellow commissioners has had an improbable side effect: making people feel sorry for a developer. Say "developer" and "Berkeley" in one sentence these days, and chances are you're talking about Patrick Kennedy. No relation to those Kennedys, of course, but he does have the same sort of lizard-thick skin that has kept him in Berkeley, fighting to build a variety of mixed-use commercial and housing projects since 1990. Kennedy, who has eight local projects built and three under construction, has faced off against O'Malley and the commission on several occasions. "A landmark in the city of Berkeley is anything the landmarks commission says it is," he grumbles. "It could be something like, 'Mario Savio ate lunch here and therefore it's a historic resource.' When it's that broad, there are basically no standards."

Reached on Monday, O'Malley said she didn't have time to respond to questions.

Most recently, Kennedy and the hysterical preservationists battled it out over the old two-story house behind the Darling Flower Shop on University, which the developer wanted to replace with a 35-unit apartment complex. The commission stalled Kennedy's application using an old trick: It nominated the 110-year-old house as a potential landmark. In Berkeley, this very act brings the building-permit process to a screeching halt. Nothing can be done until the commission decides, after extensive research, whether to landmark the property. And this can delay the normally sluggish process for months.

Kennedy hired a well-regarded Bay Area architecture-history consultant, who opined that the current building had been remodeled so extensively over the years that it was hardly an example of its era any longer. The landmarks commissioners saw it differently, saying the house was historically significant because it was a "proud survivor" of the "rural pioneer days of Berkeley."

He then appealed the designation to the city council, meaning even more delay. The council punted the case back to the landmarks commission and asked it to reconsider. Another delay. The commission then unearthed more information showing the historical importance of the home's original owner, John Doyle, whom it described as a "leading member" of the Workingman's Party, which led the charge to incorporate Berkeley as a city. As Kennedy later revealed to the council, the Workingman's Party also had a less noble purpose -- forcing Chinese laborers out of California. The council ultimately overruled the landmarks panel. It took fourteen months, but finally Kennedy had his permission.

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