Historic Preservation Measure Headed for Defeat in Berkeley
BERKELEY – A ballot measure intended to preserve the current process for protecting historic buildings in Berkeley appeared headed for defeat in early returns last night. At midnight, with 52 percent of the precincts reported, Measure J was losing 57.52 percent to 42.48 percent. The figures reflected a trend that remained unchanged for most of the night.
Measure J sought to secure the current, preservation-friendly historic landmark ordinance against planned revisions by the city council.
Supporters of Measure J blame its probable defeat in part on an aggressive advertising campaign by opponents.
Opponents of Measure J include mayor Tom Bates, five members of the 8-member city council and a chamber of commerce-backed political action committee, which spent $39,000 to fight the measure, according to records on file with the city.
The no-on-J campaign sent voters three, full-color postcards depicting insignificant-looking, ramshackle buildings that had purportedly been declared historic landmarks. J supporters call these postcards “hit pieces” and say they misrepresented the current landmark process and Measure J.
The initiative’s supporters said the buildings depicted as examples of abuses of the landmark system were in fact not declared landmarks.
Some voters at the Elmwood polling place said the ads worked. Johanna Ilfeld, 31, a small business owner, said the postcards convinced her that Measure J would add too many restrictions to people wanting to build in Berkeley.
“I feel like Berkeley is already pretty cautious in terms of where they let you build and what they let you build,” she said. “I didn’t want to add more restrictions to what I assumed was already a reasonable process.”
One of the co-sponsors of the measure, Laurie Bright, said if it did fail last night, it was because the issues are quite complicated and hard for voters to get their minds around.
Local preservationists initiated Measure J as a last ditch effort to stop the city council’s proposed revision. They said the measure would undercut the public’s ability to preserve historic resources and maintain the fabric of older neighborhoods.
Supporters of Measure J include the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association and many Berkeley neighborhood associations. During the campaign, they argued Measure J would protect citizens’ ability to participate in preservation decisions. Without it, they said, it would become easier for developers to tear down irreplaceable architecture and build structures that erode the quality of neighborhoods.
Opponents said the measure would support a flawed system that creates expensive delays for property owners who want to develop or renovate. They also said it is has been abused by citizens who use the landmark process to stop development they don’t like, whether or not the property has inherent historic value.
Measure J arises from a long tradition of support for historic preservation in Berkeley. Buildings are declared landmarks, or a lesser distinction, “structures of merit” based on their role in the town’s history and their architectural features. Former mayor Shirley Dean said Berkeley holds a special place in the history of American architecture.
“Berkeley has a history of caring about architecture and how it interacts with the environment and creates neighborhoods,” she said. “We’re a very small city with a very big reputation.”
Under Measure J, as with current law, citizens’ right to protect their neighborhood is prioritized. Citizens can file a landmark petition at any point up to the day of demolition. Once filed, the commission has a year to consider the case before having to make a final decision.
But Cisco DeVries, Mayor Bates’ chief of staff called the current process for determining landmark status “unfair and confusing” for developers who may spend a lot of time and money on a project only to find out in the end that the property is a landmark.
The City Council’s proposed changes to the preservation law will be approved if Measure J fails. Under the city council’s proposed new version of the ordinance, property owner’s interests get priority.
The new law would allow property owners to apply for a request for determination to find out if their property qualifies as a landmark, before they even begin to plan a development. This makes it easier for a developer to plan a project without fear of a last minute landmark battle.
The new law would let property owners hire an independent consultant to prepare an analysis of the property’s historic character. Then the landmark commission would have 60 days to make a decision. If the commission fails to decide, citizens have three weeks to do their own research and bring a petition. At that point, if the property is not designated a landmark, the new law grants the property owner a two-year window to develop the property, without threat of further landmark petitions.
Mayoral candidate Zelda Bronstein, who appeared headed for defeat last night, supported Measure J because she said the city council’s new version of the law “sidelines the community.”
She said the new system would not give enough citizens enough time to get involved if they disagreed with the independent consultant’s assessment of a property. She pointed out that landmark petitions require volunteer efforts from citizens, since the landmark commission does not have a research staff.
Bronstein’s campaign manager Austene Hall said Measure J was needed to protect Berkeley from irresponsible development.
“If Measure J fails, south and west Berkeley will be severely impacted by development,” she said. “Developers are salivating--they want to turn West Berkeley into Emeryville.”