California and National Elections

Berkeley Landmarks Measure Divides City Officials and Preservationists

BERKELEY - When Shari Ser found out the house next door to her South Berkeley home was going to be replaced with a three-story apartment building she knew she had to do something. The apartment would tower over her one-story cottage, blocking out her sunshine. The garden-view she now enjoyed would be paved over, and the new building would dominate a central spot in the neighborhood, the corner of Russell and Otis streets.

But when Ser sought out city council members to find out what she could do, the response was frustrating.

She and other neighbors protested the project at zoning adjustment board meetings in April 2005, but the board and the council didn’t think their objections had merit.

“The city council basically told me I don’t have a right to sunshine or greenery,” she said.

So Ser, a 51-year-old physical therapist, did the only thing left for her to do. She and her husband David Ramin went through the painstaking process of initiating a landmark review for the property, hoping to protect the building as a structure of historic value.

They collected over 100 signatures from neighbors for a landmark petition, and spent close to 400 hours researching the history of the house and the neighborhood. During the months while the landmark commission and the city council reviewed their application, the developers had to sit on the project.

Depending on your view, Ser’s story illustrates exactly what’s right—or wrong-- about the current landmarks preservation process, which Ballot Measure J would establish as permanent legislation.

Current preservation law, which has been in place since 1974, allows citizens to come forward, up to the day of demolition to request that a building be reviewed for its historic merits. Over the last six years the city council has wrestled with revisions to the law to make it easier for property owners to have a ruling on whether their property is a landmark before they even begin to plan developments, and to prevent last-minute petitions from delaying construction.

Local preservationists initiated Measure J as a last ditch effort to stop the city council’s proposed revision which they say undercuts 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. They argue Measure J protects citizens’ ability to participate in preservation decisions. Without it, they say, it will be easier for developers to tear down irreplaceable architecture and build structures that erode the quality of neighborhoods.

Opponents of Measure J include the Tom Bates, five members of the 8-member city council and a well-funded political action committee, Better Business for Berkeley which has spent $39,000 so far to fight the measure, according to records on file with the city. They say the measure supports a flawed system that creates expensive delays for property owners who want to develop or renovate. They also say 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.

The debate over Measure J comes down to a question of how government should balance the rights of individual property owners to do what they wish to their property and the rights of the larger community to protect structures that enhance the value of the neighborhood and city.

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.”

However, not everything that’s been preserved is an architectural wonder. Detractors of Measure J say it enshrines a landmark system that sometimes declares insignificant structures to be “landmarks.” The Ser story is a case in point.

Ser’s neighborhood does not fit the pattern of other Berkeley architectural enclaves. There are no buildings designed by famous Bay-area architects of the early 20th century, such as Bernard Maybeck or Julia Morgan. The majority of homes in the area, which is a few blocks from the Ashby BART station, are modest Colonial Revival or Queen Anne cottages built in the early 1900s for working class families.

But Ser argues they are still worth saving because together they create an attractive and coherent neighborhood, that’s moderately priced enough for families.

“Low-income areas also have the right to preserve the fabric of the quality of their lives,” she said. “Just because people aren’t rich doesn’t mean that they can’t have intimate neighborhood.”

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 decision about whether or not you have a landmark should be made independently of the project that’s being proposed,” he said.

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 mandate that property owners can 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 supports 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.

If this new law had been in place when Shari Ser and her husband were trying to stop the development on their street, Ser contends they would never have had a chance to protest the demolition of the cottage.

In the end, the house on Otis Street was not given structure of merit status. But the before the decision was made, the developers got tired of waiting. They offered the house for sale and other neighbors on Otis, Carlos and Lilia Hernandez bought the property and have started renovating it as a home for their son.

Landmarks commissioner Leslie Emmington-Jones has been involved in preservation in Berkeley since the 1970s. Even though the Otis Street house home was not given historic status, Emmington-Jones still considers the story, an example of the good effect of preservation.

Whatever the outcome of the process, she says it’s important to have community input about historic structures that potentially have a lasting value to the city.

“If you’re going to have something that’s an asset to the city, an irreplaceable resource, potentially disappear, you need to be able to come forward as a community,” she said.

Some opponents of Measure J favor preservation but they argue that this kind of law is better passed through the deliberations of the city council, which includes public input, rather than relying on the unwieldy ballot measure process.

Landmark commissioner Fran Packard said she feels pushing through a ballot measure is a bad way to do business.

“It’s the absolutely wrong way to pass a complicated regulatory measure,” she said, adding that an ordinance passed by the city council is easier to amend –if it does prove to be detrimental to preservation--than a ballot measure which can only be amended with another ballot measure.