Berkeley's Hysterical Landmarks 

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

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Then the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association sued to stop the project. Kennedy finally got his apartments, but he says the experience set him back $50,000 in legal fees, not to mention the delays.

To their credit, even the hyperpreservationists on the landmarks commission didn't make the Doyle House a full-fledged landmark. They instead gave it a lesser honor, a "structure of merit."

What, exactly, is a structure of merit? Technically, Berkeley's landmarks ordinance considers it a "contributing structure," not remarkable in and of itself, but somehow contributing to what might be characterized as the historic vibe of a neighborhood -- a dilapidated grocery store, a common bungalow, a corrugated tin shed.

Oddly, although the classification doesn't carry the impressive imprimatur of "landmark," the two have almost the same regulatory weight. According to the law, the commission may review any proposal to alter either one. The only real difference, says Assistant City Attorney Zach Cowan, is that the commission can suspend demolition of a landmark for one year, but a structure of merit for only six months.

When Berkeley sought state certification of its landmarks commission a couple years back, officials from the California Office of Historic Preservation puzzled over why the city needed this secondary historic classification if the regulatory effect was no different from a landmark. State officials even suggested that Berkeley reconsider the "usefulness" of the designation.

The state guys weren't getting it: The structure of merit classification is a convenient tool for monkey-wrenching development in cases where reasonable citizens would likely question a landmark designation. What particularly irks developers is that the commission often hastens to name something a landmark or structure of merit after someone submits a building proposal, or even when neighbors hear rumors of something in the works. In such cases, the whole thing becomes a sort of preemptive strike.

Paul Dyer, a project manager for developer Ruegg & Ellsworth, suspects that's what happened in 1999 with the turn-of-the-century Blood House -- a Queen Anne Victorian named for its original owner, Emily Blood -- next to Top Dog on Durant Avenue. Though Ruegg & Ellsworth hadn't formally applied to build anything, a company rep had begun talking to city planners. Next thing, the landmarks commission initiated the process to landmark Blood House and other adjacent houses. The commissioners ultimately named it a structure of merit, arguing that it was one of the few remaining single-family homes from the College Homestead Tract, a stretch of land near campus that was once owned by the university.

But the commission's claim wasn't really true, Dyer says. According to architectural historian Michael Corbett, there are 48 residential buildings remaining from the old Homestead tract, 37 of which haven't been renovated over the years. That wasn't the case with the Blood House, says Corbett, who was hired by Dyer's bosses to research the matter. The house, he says, has been so radically altered and remodeled over the years -- for instance, the original surface was stuccoed over -- that it barely resembles the original.

In architectural parlance, the Blood House lacks "integrity." A landmark, in Corbett's view, should represent the time period in which it was built; it should visually take you back to another time. State and federal landmarking guidelines also stress architectural integrity -- the Blood House, and Doyle House for that matter, would not qualify for the California Register of Historical Resources.

But Berkeley's landmark guidelines ignore integrity, Corbett says. As a result, the landmarks commissioners invent superlatives to describe the mediocre, such as citing "back to nature principles" to landmark a concrete retaining wall.

In November, Corbett went before the city council to accuse Berkeley's preservationists of crying wolf. "These people have used the language of preservation to pursue other objectives," he told the city leaders. "In my opinion, the persistent advocacy of the preservation of unqualified buildings is an abuse of preservation laws that undermines the credibility of historic preservation and may prove a backlash against historic preservation."

Corbett isn't the only one pissed off. As this story goes to press, Mayor Tom Bates is considering reeling in Berkeley's landmarks commission as part of a broader effort to streamline the city's Byzantine building-permit approval process. He has appointed a fourteen-member task force -- including developers, architects, and consultants critical of the commission -- to recommend changes. Already, developer-friendly task-force members have said they hope the mayor will limit its ability to hold up projects.

Ironically, the commission has more or less foreclosed on an opportunity to reform itself. Although Mary Hanna lost her case against the city, Superior Court Judge Ronald Sabraw sympathized with her to an extent: He derided Berkeley for its confusing and slow process, which he said violated the state's Permit Streamlining Act. After the judge's spanking, the city attorney recommended amending city law to satisfy the judge's criticisms. The city council directed the commission to come up with a proposal in sixty days. That was more than three years ago, and the commission hasn't yet acted. So much for deadlines.

As might be expected, the preservation crowd isn't happy about the latest threats to its last-minute power to halt the bulldozer. At a recent task force meeting, LPC chair Carrie Olson expressed sympathy for people fighting proposed developments in their neighborhoods. "They come to the LPC," she said candidly, "to put a foot in the door."

And, if they're lucky, to put a boot in some builder's ass.

Care to see a few of the more dubious picks of Berkeley's powerful preservation commission? Click here for a brief

Walking Tour of Berkeley Hysterical Landmarks.

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